Get Up Close and Personal with Nature

Photograph by Jonathan Blair, National Geographic

Photograph by Jonathan Blair, National Geographic

I resisted the smart phone movement. I resisted it hard. I felt my phone, with its flip screen and actual buttons, looked “smart” enough and that there was a good chance a smart phone just might be smarter than me. I feared the Blackberries and iPhones of the world.

Then, something horrible happened. My beloved, antique flip phone suffered an untimely accident, and I needed a new device. My precious model had been retired by the company that made it, and I was caught between a rock and a hard place: no phone or smart phone. I chose the darker path. I took the smart phone.

Photograph by Jeanne Modderman, National Geographic

Photograph by Jeanne Modderman, National Geographic

It took a little while, and even longer for my texts to stop appearing in German (I had a very hard time adjusting to typing on a screen instead of buttons), but I am now a smart phone believer. It’s not just about the pictures. But it kind of is.

It’s not new information that smart phones take beautiful images of subjects large and small, but here’s something that is: the photos you take with your smart phone are loaded with scientific potential that can be used to study the world around us. 

Yesterday, a study was released that heralded the use of smart phone photos shared via social media as a scientifically valid way to document the world’s biodiversity.  It provides various examples of how social media macro photography has identified and helped study various insect species, and concludes “photosharing websites provide inexpensive, friendly, efficient, and powerful tools to [citizen science]… scientists can benefit from the help of thousands of volunteer macro-photographers who generously share their high-quality pictures!”

Photograph by Helene Schmitz, National Geographic

Photograph by Helene Schmitz, National Geographic

Harnessing social media photography is exciting because it means that scientists are able to crowd source globally, easily. Scientists can attain vast sources of data simply, by taking advantage of peoples’ preexisting behaviors. It’s like your mother’s old adage of having “eyes in the back of her head,” except now scientists have eyes everywhere. Creepy? Maybe. Awesome? Absolutely. It’s science!

The best part of this idea is that it’s very easy and very fun. Here are three tips to get you started:

  • Label your photos with the date and where the photo was taken. Even better, make sure your location feature is enabled. This embeds location information into your photo.
  • Upload to social media platforms like iNaturalist, iSpot, and Project Noah. Many of these groups already share their data with scientists already—no need to reinvent the wheel. Another benefit of using these citizen science platforms is that your photos are entered into a community that will often help you to identify what the subject of your photo is. Finally, you don’t have to have a smart phone to participate in these platforms. You can upload photos from camera to computer.
  • Participate in the Great Nature Project. Get outside, snap a photo of a living plant or animal, upload it to an existing social media platform (Twitter, Instagram, YourShot, iNaturalist, iSpot, or Project Noah) with the tags #greatnature (and #animal, if it’s an animal), then go to greatnatureproject.org to see your photo alongside photos submitted from all over the world.
Contributing to the Great Nature Project is easy. Here's a photo I snapped of an armadillo outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. Add #greatnature to your photos of plants and animals to see them on our website.

Contributing to the Great Nature Project is easy. Here’s a photo I snapped of an armadillo outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. Add #greatnature to your photos of plants and animals to see them on our website.

Nature is ready for its close up. Get out there, get up close, and happy photographing.

Written by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Education

One response to “Get Up Close and Personal with Nature

  1. Great advice. In the past few years I’ve been focusing on smart phone macro work and wrote a book on it. One of the other points you need add is the importance of having the right gear and knowledge to take a good macro shot with a smartphone as it’s not like a DSLR. A few points you need to consider is: the lens capability (and whether you need an add-on lens), proper lighting, and stability (for such a small device), among others.

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