Nature photography, including floral or botanical photography, increases appreciation for the beauty of nature and inspiring action to preserve, conserve, and protect natural resources. But photographs of native plants can perform other functions in addition and evaluation of photos needs to consider these other uses.
For example, one of those functions is plant identification, whether through photographs in printed field guides, internet sites, social media groups or many other examples. The Native Plant Society itself uses photographs on its websites, its magazine and in Facebook groups to identify native plants.
For plant identification purposes, photographs need to contain enough information to provide the relevant data needed by the professional or amateur botanist to make a positive identification. In order to appeal to mass audiences and make learning new information enjoyable, photographs should conform to the cultural norms for beauty, both in terms of the subject matter as well as the composition of the photograph itself. In order to achieve both goals efficiently, one would want to use photographs that provide both dense visual information and a pleasurable viewing experience. Typically, many media producers have chosen to follow a style that includes a photograph of the entire plant or tree, and a photograph of either the flowers or foliage, depending on which is a better aid in identification. Given the paucity of photos available to a non-profit organization for royalty free use, it can be a daunting task to find images. For example, this writer had to draw on personal resources in order to find a whole plant picture for Bauhinia lunarioides, as none were available in the gallery for Anacacho orchid tree.
How can photographs be evaluated for their potential to meet the needs of scientific research and education?
The judges for the Society’s own photography contest in 2015 attempted to take a first step towards providing an answer to the question by creating a first version of a rating form for use in objective evaluation of native plant photos. Presented here are the scales, which can be used as is, or might be used in research to further clarify the factors involved in useful botanical photography. Although no statistical analysis was done of the results, these scales do have face validity, and might have high enough reliability to make them useful as tools for practice and research.
Background research led to evaluation scales for technical value and aesthetic value. Technical values related to photographic concepts such as sharpness and focus, lighting, depth of field and appropriate exposure.
|Concept ||Criterion (evaluated 1 to 10 or N/A)
|Sharpness & Focus||Focus is controlled by photographer, from total frame to partial intentional focus.
|Lighting||Lighting is managed to maximum effect, whether artificial or natural.
|Depth of Field||Control of depth of field to isolate important parts of picture.
| Exposure||Amount of light is controlled so that photo is neither over nor under exposed.
The aesthetics value ratings drew upon fairly well-known concepts and criteria from the field of art and design. Complementary concepts were combined in order to keep the length of the instrument manageable.
|Concept||Criterion (evaluated 1 to 10 or N/A)|
|Unity||The individual parts come together to represent a single object.|
|Balance||Uses symmetry or asymmetry effectively.|
|Contrast/Variety||Uses different textures, lightness/darkness, etc. effectively.|
|Movement/Rhythm||Places objects to create sense of motion within visual field.|
|Pattern/Repetition||Uses simple elements to create complex result.|
Scientific research and educational functions of floral and botanical photography proved to be more of a challenge to define and to evaluate. In the end, four concepts were defined.
Species example or photographs of plants that include sufficient information to identify the genus and species of the plant. In many cases, this would be a photograph of the whole plant; in other cases, a photograph including the flower and leaves might be enough to identify the species. In the photo below, features of the Pearl Milkweed vine which help to identify it are clearly visible within the frame: “pearl’ and reticulated features of the flower are apparent, as are the heart shaped leaves and the tendrils that help it to climb.
Key differentiation. Calylophus subspecies and variations have highly similar flowers that differ only by size. Lacking such information in a photo would preclude a positive identification. In the photo below, it is difficult to make a species or subspecies identification due to lack of information. A positive example would be a photograph of Conoclinium greggii Gregg’s mistflower that includes the distinctive palmate leaf shape that differentiates it from Conoclinium coelestinum – Blue mistflower.
Glossary definition/examples. Terms used by botanists to describe plants might be difficult to understand by the average person, but are a necessity for the person studying botany. Visual representations of concepts need to be clear and unambiguous so that there is no confusion about the concept and the specific instance. In such cases the identity of the species involved might even be a drawback to the sufficiency of the photograph to convey the intended glossary term. The picture below might be used to illustrate the glossary term actinomorphic or radially symmetrical. As a familiar wildflowers the picture of a Gaillaridia pulchella Indian blanket or Firewheel might be an excellent choice to illustrate the concept. On the other hand it could improve recall because of familiarity – “Plains fleabane is actinomorphic or radially symmetrical – like an Indian Blanket.”
Context or Habitat. In some cases, photos are used to provide context regarding the type of soil, sunshine, and water conditions in which they are found, as well as other plants that would naturally occur in their native habitat along with wildlife that would interact with the plants, such as pollinators, nectar feeders, caterpillars, and other insects. In the photo below, the Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus drummondii) is shown in its natural habitat of shaded woodland, and as an attractor of pollinators.
|Concept||Criterion (evaluated 1 to 10 or N/A)|
|Specimen/example||Photo is exemplary of a specific species ,Genus or Family. Provides enough information to make positive ID|
|Key differentiation||Example of typical key item used to differentiate between species. Often will be specific to a key used in an individual publication.|
|Glossary definition||Excellent example of botanical glossary item.|
|Context||Excellent example of the typical conditions in which it thrives, or showing interaction with wildlife species.|
In conclusion, ubiquitous internet access, mobile computing, and social media have made it possible to interact from the field with botanists and others in the natural sciences. While there will always be a place and appreciation for photographs that incorporate technical and artistic excellence, a need now exists for the ability to evaluate and categorize photographs based on their scientific and educational uses. This article reports and presents the evaluation scales developed for the 2015 Native Plant Society of Texas photo contest for consideration as tools to be used, developed and refined for scientific and educational purposes towards the preservation, conservation and utilization of Texas native plants.
All photographs are by the author and are intended as examples of the types of photographs within each category. However, they are neither comprehensive examples nor optimal examples within each category.