Monday, February 27, 2017

How to photograph a wildflower for identification

I have spent a lot of time over the past few years on wildflower identification.  I completed "wildflower big years" in both 2014 and 2016.  I also frequently identify wildflowers and other plants for coworkers, friends, and members of the public.

By now, I can identify most of our common local wildflower species by sight.  Many other species I can narrow down to genus before resorting to field guides for a final identification.  I often carry my field guides into the field with me and identify plants on site.  On other occasions I photograph the plant in the field and use the photos to complete my identification later at work or home - maybe I don't have a field guide with me, maybe I have the wrong field guide (such as wildflowers instead of wetland plants) , or I simply lack the time to make a field identification.

When taking taking photos for identification there are several things you can do to make yourself more successful.

First, back up and take a picture of the plant in its environment.  This may seem like a strange first step in identification, but it gives you a couple of pieces of information.  This photo will show the habitat that the plant is growing in and other plants in that habitat.  Knowing the habitat is often important when trying to make an identification.  This is especially true when you are trying to identify a plant within a large family such as Buttercups (Ranunculaceae) or Goldenrods (Soidago) that have lots of similar species.  This picture also important because it helps give a sense of the size of the plant.  In portrait photography an image like this would be referred to as an environmental portrait.

An environmental portrait of Marsh Marigold

Second, take a picture showing the entire plant if possible, or as much of the plant as you can reasonably photograph.  This is like a taking a full body portrait of a person.  It gives you an overall sense of the plant.  It it bushy?  Lanky?  Does it sprawl?  It is upright?

Not the greatest photo of a Yellow Trout Lily, but it shows the entire plant with its distinguishing features

Whitlow Grass is so small it was easiest to pull a sample to get a good image - note tiny flowers and basal leaves

Next, photograph the leaves.  In fact take several photos of the leaves, including at least one that shows the bottom of the leaf.  Note how the leaves are arranged on the plant's stem (alternate, opposite, whorled, clustered at the base of the plant, or a combination).  Are the leaves simple (all one piece) or compound (made up of several smaller pieces).  Try to make sure you have a picture that shows the size of the leaves - I often hold leaves in my hand while photographing them.  Your photo should clearly show the margin of the leaves.  Are the leaves lobed?  Do they have smooth margins or are they toothed.  Make sure your photo shows the arrangement of the veins on the leaf.  Make sure to show how the leaf attaches to the stem of the plant.

This image of Feathery False Solomon's Seal clearly shows leaf arrangement, leaf margins, and vein pattern.

Field Sow-thistle - note prickles on leaf margins and clasping leaf base

Photo of Choke Cherry leaf - clearly shows vein arrangement, leaf margins, and size

Take a picture that shows the plant's stem/stalk.  What color is the stem? What shape is the stem in cross-section - round/square/etc.Is it round?   Is it smooth?  Does it have grooves?  Is it hairy?  Are there thorns or prickers?  If there are thorns/prickers, how long are they and are they straight or curved?  Take pictures of any unique features such as wings and sheaths.

This picture of Purple Loosestrife clearly shows the square stems (and the way the leaves are arranged/attached).

Finally take pictures of the flowers.  Make sure your photos show a frontal view of the flower and a side view.  You want as much detail as you can get.  Take several pictures of several different flowers if possible - there may be variation in number of petals that an individual flower has as well as color.  Get a picture of the base of the flower so you can see the sepals and/or bracts that support and protect the flower petals.  It the plant has prominent pistils and stamen make sure they show up in your picture.  Show how the flowers are arranged on the plant - in a spike, in open clusters, at the leaf axils (place where a leaf crows from the stem), individually at the top of long stems, etc..

This photo of a Chickweed flower clearly shows the size of the plant and important details such as number of petals
A side view of a Spotted Touch-me-not flower

A frontal view of the Spotted Touch-me-not flower. 

Remember, you are not trying to create art here.  The purpose of these photos is to help with identification.  You want to have as much detail as possible in your images. 


  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome. Now if you ever ask for a wildflower ID from me, you'll know what my expectations are.