Photography in the field

Last Sunday was World Nature Photography Day, and in recognition of the day, I took my camera with me to the field for the first time this summer. I really enjoy taking pictures of plants and animals; here’s one of my favourites from last summer:


Nevertheless, I’m quite conflicted about taking photographs when I’m doing research in the field, and these conflicts were running through my head last Sunday.

The essence of fieldwork is that there’s never enough time. There is always more data that could be collected, and every decision to do anything that is not data collection involves a trade-off. Unquestionably, the trade-off should sometimes be decided in favour of not collecting that one more data point, and maybe taking a day off instead.

But taking a photograph involves a second trade-off, even after you’ve decided to forego a potential data point and spend a minute watching a damselfly or appreciating the way in which the sunlight hits the grass–do you watch, or do you take a photograph? As I’ve said before, I almost always try to look for long enough to remember what I’ve seen–not just the details of the sight itself, but also the feeling that accompanied the sighting, the reason why I thought the sight was compelling enough to stop for. This takes time, and when I’m done looking, often the chance to take a photo has passed.

Now that I have assistants in the field with me, I feel these trade-offs more acutely. My field assistants stop to take photographs of almost everything we see, and I’m worried that if I don’t emphatically set the example of prioritizing data collection, our collective productivity will slip to unacceptably low levels. Even when I took my camera out on Sunday, all I managed was this picture of one of our tagged lizards.IMG_4218

However, I don’t want to discourage my assistants from stopping to look at and think about organisms that aren’t lizards; after all, stopping to ask “why” about the creatures I see in the field is the basis of how I do biology. And it seems odd to suggest that they spend time looking but not waste time taking photographs–their position on the trade-off between experiencing and photographing may well be different than mine. Finally, I need to remember that both their photos and mine will invariably be useful in talks, blog posts, and newspaper articles.

In sum, I’m still looking for the balance between planning research and collecting data, instructing and monitoring my assistants, fully experiencing the natural world around me, and photographing the organisms I see. Any suggestions on where or how to find it?


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