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Collecting Good Quality Digital Images

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Plant identification is often not merely a matter of recognition, but a process of diagnosis based on observation of a suite of morphological features (whether the plant is woody or herbaceous; characteristics of the flowers and fruit; the shapes, margins, venation, and textures of the leaves; the way the leaves are arranged; whether there are hairs or spines present; etc.). Plant classification and plant identification are based primarily on aspects of flowers and fruit, so it may not be possible to identify photos of a sterile (non-flowering/non-fruiting) plant. Photographs need to show enough features to make diagnosis possible. A casual photo of a plant taken at a distance might be alright for an ID based on recognition, but it is rarely sufficient for the purposes of diagnosis. To give the best chance in confidently identifying your plant, try the following:

  1. Send multiple photos of any plant to be identified—including photos of the whole plant, as well as close-ups of the leaves, flowers, and fruit. A single photo often is not sufficient for ID. Photos from different perspectives (side views as well as top views) may reveal essential clues leading to an identification. For example, in the aster family the phyllaries (bracts subtending the flower head) can be quite diagnostic, but in photos taken from above, the phyllaries are not visible. Also, including a scale (ruler, coin, etc.) in the close-up photos is very helpful.
  2. Photos should be high resolution (in the size range of 500KB to 5 MB, the higher the better!). Lower resolution images are extremely challenging to work with because when the diagnostician tries to Zoom in to look for specific features, the image just becomes pixelated or blurry. When sending photos taken with a smart phone, select the option to send as large a photo as possible. Digital cameras also have a setting to increase photo resolution.
  3. Photos should be sent as JPEG attachments to an email, not embedded in the body of an email or saved as a PowerPoint slide, PDF, or Word document. When photos are pasted into the body of an email, slide, or document, the photo file size is minimized and Zoom is not enabled to look for the features needed to make a confident ID.
  4. In addition to providing photos, it is essential to provide descriptive information, such as: the county where the plant is growing, the county where the client resides (if different from where the plant is growing), whether the plant is cultivated or not, and the context (residential yard, nursery, potted plant, forest, pasture, orchard, beach dune, etc.). A brief description of the plant (whether it is woody or herbaceous, approximate size, whether leaves or flowers are fragrant, etc.) can be very helpful.
  5. If the plant that the client wants identified is growing amongst many other plants (for example, as a weed in a lawn or in a dense forest understory or a thicket of weeds), then it is better to cut or pull up a sample of the plant and photograph it against a neutral surface such as a sidewalk, a tabletop, or a piece of paper.