Observe: take pictures, take notes - Redwoodtwig

Brandon Smith (Redwoodtwig)

Photographic record keeping

I've been taking photographs for many years. Until recently, I graded my work on a combination of technical and aesthetic grounds. As I have learned more about permaculture and ecology, I found I needed to add another kind of grade: content relevance.

It is often said that a photograph is worth a thousand words. While it is true that one could easily write a thousand words to write a description of the scene photographed, it is the rare photograph that is useful without some kind of context, a caption or title that gives the image a location, a time, and a reason why the content is relevant. This is the notes part of "take pictures, take notes."

Video is very handy, especially since most cell phones produce pretty good video when operated well. However, ask yourself, "Do I want sit through a video to hear words I could read in a fraction of the time?" In other words, if you are going to use video to make observations and evaluations of your permaculture work, make sure your video is short and to the point. Or get software that will accurately transcribe the words you speak while making the video into text. Not quite there yet, still science fiction, unfortunately.

I am using the following structure helps me keep my photographic record keeping organized:

Formal observations are those taken from specific observation points.  These will show the seasonal or annual changes in the plant communities observed.

   Informal observations are photos taken while walking about the place, sometimes just to take pictures, sometimes pulling out the cell phone  when spotting something interesting while doing work.  Keyworded and captioned that night, if at all possible.

   Formal collections of photos organized into areas, features and plants.  Most of these are images from the informal or formal observations that are keyworded so they show up in the appropriate gallery.  

Visual observation is only one kind of observation of a plant community.  But at least most of the images serve as a good reminders of what you observed at the time.  It is fairly important to download, edit,  caption and keyword the images as soon as practical while the memories are still fresh.

Editing is the tedious task of picking only the best shots -- the ones that best show what you want to record as your observation at that time.  In other words, just two photos of the blooming pear tree -- one full, one close up of the blooms.  Even if the other 20 are also just as good.  You can keep them, just don't put those extra 18 image files in your official record keeping place.

How I use star ratings

I took 10 images of the forsythia that day. All are technically OK, though the bright yellow did throw things off a bit. Focus is good, no camera shake or subject motion. Good photographic records. But only need one or two of these images, so I go through them in detail, cropping or tweaking exposure a bit here and there as if I wanted to print them. And as I do, I assign a star value, knowing I only want at most one close up and one full view to get 3 or more stars.
On good days, when the light is just right and my eye is working well, I may end up with a hundred photos. Back at the computer, evaluating what I've got may well take more time than taking the pictures did.

Technical, Aesthetic, and Content evaluation

With digital photography or video, it is very easy to be quickly overcome by sheer volume.  When the light is good and the views interesting, an hour's walk can result in hundreds of images.  If you are going to use photography in your record keeping, it is very important to edit or develop the shoot:  I rate my photos 1 through 5.  

1  keep for now, but probably delete later, nothing that isn't in a better image

2. keep original, contains subject matter of interest

3. meets minimum standards for official records, looks ok on the Web.

4. Will look good as a large print. 

5. To be printed, framed and hung

Many of the photographs I use for record keeping have content value that overrules my technical or aesthetic standards.  That is why the images published here as record keeping for the art garden are not for sale.  Contact me if you really want to buy a print or obtain the full resolution image.

Content vs Technical

Observing vs Photographing Nature

Taking photographs for the purpose of permaculture observations uses the same skill set as doing fine art photographs of any subject in natural light.  However,  when all I happen to have on me is my cell phone camera, if the image content is clear enough to identify what I want to talk about for the observation, then I'll use it.

Or, if the result has technical flaws that don't ruin the observation, then I'll use it.  For example, the panoramas make great tools for identifying and learning just what is in the field of view from that observation point, even with various minor technical flaws.

For instance, all of my inventory panoramas contain a technical flaw known as parallax error, illustrated to the left.  When you rotate a camera on a regular tripod head, the sensor moves in relationship to the lens, resulting in slightly different points of view in the overlap of two photos taken in this example, 45 degrees apart. The result is usually only obvious when you go to full resolution and examine the overlap areas carefully.  There are similar minor technical issues with many of the photos I find useful for permaculture observations.

The observation is not the photograph, it is using that photograph to orient yourself within the garden and to remind you of what was there and more or less what condition it was in at the time of photograph. A permaculture observation takes place over time, over years.  Nature does not stand still in the place where you photographed her.

Nature will cooperate with good light if you wait on her; and if you are reasonably consistent about your observation points, your keywords, titles, and captions.

The galleries below contain additional details about how I go about using photographs as the basis for my observations.