But I feel like parts of my brain are melting at people’s ID requests so I’m totally going to be that guy.
Recently I joined some UK ant-keeping facebook groups to get updates on mating flights and no one uses the forums anymore. Overall they’re pretty good and interesting, nice bit of community etc. but some of the ID requests…Anyone else who helpfully answers people’s questions about these things will probably know where I’m going with this (@nanonaturalist), it’s the photos.
I remember first getting into photographing bugs years ago and taking photos I thought were decent, but looking at them now? Oh dear, no, out of focus etc. So I know you need to have experience to actually tell a good photo from a bad photo but like, sometimes it feels beyond a joke? I’m not expecting a studio lit image stack but surely people can work out you need to be able to actually see the ant?
“Hi I caught this queen earlier can anyone ID it for me?” – I took this photo as a joke but actually uuuuh this really isn’t that far off. Grainy, unfocused, apparently taken from halfway across the room for some reason. Or other old favourites like a lovingly detailed portrait of someone’s thumb next to a blurry out of focus blob that I wouldn’t even feel confident IDing as “an ant”.
None of which bothers me like the people who don’t have even the faintest clue what they’re talking about who stride in proclaiming it as this genus, species, subspecies and its mother’s maiden name for ants you can’t even ID past subgenus without a microscope (looking at you, Chthonolasius with your identical workers and nearly identical queens). Especially tiresome when you’re trying to explain how you can’t actually ID something to species from these photos and what would be needed and here’s Barry swooping in with “Oh it’s X looks just like mine”. Fuck off Barry you thought you’d found something that’s not even present in this country last week, take your shoddy advice elsewhere.
I get it, if you’ve never keyed out species with a dichotomous key you aren’t going to know what details to include and what quality of picture you need. If you’ve not spent hours staring at small insects down a microscope you won’t realise how much fine detail your photo is lacking* and you probably don’t know why that’s important. It’s not their fault and I don’t want to discourage anyone it’s just…after the fifth unusable photo of the day my brains starts to squeak.
*for the love of any and all gods that are listening, Focus. The. Camera. On. The. Subject. Not your fingers, c’mon, just focus the camera before you press capture.
Oh yes, I do know what you mean. I haven’t had this problem with tumblr peeps, but I have seen this in other various groups and databases. Bugguide [link] in particular can have some … uh… challenging photos to ID.
Most of the photos people submit for ID requests are pretty good! But sometimes…
You can’t zoom in on any of these photos, either. For what it’s worth, I let this person know I thought these could be snails, and suggested uploading to iNaturalist since bugguide doesn’t keep snail photos.
On Photographing Nature
I would like to point out, us “experts” are fallible! You think I was born taking excellent photos of very tiny things that move really fast? HA!!! Please observe my transgressions from the early days of my Bug Photography Career (aka 2016):
I helpfully identified this photo as “insects” and made no comments [link to iNat post]. Originally I had identified this as “leafhopper” but moved it back a notch when I realized it wasn’t. But… I have no idea which thing I was looking at or how I could miss the MATING TUMBLING FLOWER BEETLES?!?!!?
Please observe Transgression #2 [link to iNat post]. At the time, I was extremely proud of myself because THIS PHOTO ACTUALLY TURNED OUT!!! I did (and still do) use the “finger portrait” technique to get tiny bugs into focus. The trick is you have to hold your finger at the same exact distance from your camera as the bug, otherwise the method doesn’t work (also, your finger has to NOT SCARE OFF the bug). An alternate method to get bugs in focus is to “lock” the focus by focusing on something big enough for your camera to find in the same general area, but instead of tapping, you hold down your finger and it prevents the autofocus from ruining everything. If everything is a mess, you can turn away, hold out your finger, lock the focus, turn back to your bug, and physically move your phone closer or farther away until your bug friend is in focus. Can’t tell? ZOOM IN! Yes, your phone can zoom! Try it!
To be fair: I do not consider these to be “bad” photos because the insects in them are still identifiable (to a degree). But these photos were from before I realized you can crop photos on your phone. That was a huge game changer for me! And cropping can really help people identify your photos better. Why?
I do regularly still post photos of this quality (and again, I would not call this a “bad” photo). But it could be better with cropping. Here’s how I would post this photo today:
But if you go to my iNat links to see the original observations, you will see that I have not, in fact, modified any of my older posts. It is very much possible for me to crop the original photos, upload them, and delete the older ones. Why do I leave them up there as is?
1. If you have a couple free hours with nothing to do, look through my observations from earliest to most recent [link] and make note of how the photo quality changes. You can see a significant improvement in my ability to frame, crop, and get different angles to identify things better. If I edit my old photos, I lose the ability to see how much I’ve improved
2. Beyond my own personal reasons for wanting to reminisce on ye olde days of being a baby naturalist, I want to make it clear to new iNat users (and new naturalists) that being a beginner is okay!!! Look at where I started!
3. Regardless of quality, any photo that is identifiable is a good photo. Sure, you’re not going to get rich selling licenses for grainy uncropped cellphone photos of bugs. But if your goal is to learn about bugs, document their occurrence on citizen science websites, and become a better naturalist, any photo that can identify a form of life is valuable and worth sharing.
Above, I shared only uncropped photos that were otherwise okay quality. But trust me, there are far “worse” things in my iNaturalist account. Compare photos of female Blue Dasher dragonflies I took in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Left: Female Blue Dasher in 2016 [link] Right: Female Blue Dasher in 2017 [link] Both of these photos were taken with the exact same phone camera. What’s the difference? A year of experience taking photos with my phone (and also lucking out finding a million dragonflies sleeping in my yard every night!). But BOTH photos are identifiable to species, because you can clearly see the distinctive coloration pattern in them.
How about a couple more examples of “good enough” photos?
Both of these photos are identifiable to species-level. Which means they are good photos. Want to guess when I took these photos? How much experience I had photographing birds when I took these? I’ll give you a clue. Here are the same bird species I photographed five months prior to the above photos with the same camera:
Left: Crested Caracara / Right: Red-tailed Hawk | April 2018
The blurry photos? I took those three days ago (September 2018). They are on iNaturalist. Sometimes the birds get away and the best evidence you have is blurry. But, if they are identifiable photos, they are good photos.
But back to @underthehedge‘s original point: To take a good photo, the subject has to be identifiable. And as mentioned, identifiability for insects and spiders can be very tricky, and sometimes impossible without a dissecting microscope and/or a DNA test. But sometimes, even getting to family or genus is good enough! In that case, the shape of the subject has to be clear. A little blur is usually okay (like my tiny grasshopper above), but for something as tiny as ants, it becomes a lot harder, and sometimes you need to accept an ID of “it’s probably an ant” and try to take a better photo next time.
As you learn more about insects, you also learn which parts are important to identify. For some beetles, you need a close-up shot of the underside of their thorax to identify them. Didn’t get a belly-shot? Well, next time, flip one over! For some dragonflies, you need a clear shot of the spines on the legs. These are things you learn with experience!
The photo above was taken under two competing light sources with different light spectrum outputs, and the grey dirt plus the orange wood (and the limitations of my phone camera’s light balance) made the grey look purple.
“Looking Pretty on a Monday” Sphodromantis gastrica (African mantis) are growing up quick. L7 showcased. The patterns on the raptors are to die for. #sphodromantisgastrica #sphodromantis #africanmantis #commongreenmantis #prayingmantis #mantodea insects #arthropod #animals #wildlife #nature #entomology #alien #exoticpets #unusualpets #photography #MantisMonarch #camo #pattern