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How to Take Good Photos for Your Extension Agent

The closure of Clemson Cooperative Extension Service county offices necessitated by the COVID-19 does not mean its services are not available. Extension agents may not be able to respond to all calls in person, but they are still working to answer the questions and solve the problems of all South Carolinians. As they have since the advent of email and text messages, agents constantly receive photos from the public asking for the identification of a species or the diagnosis of a disease or pest. Their ability to perform these tasks, however, is dependent upon the quality of the photographs received, and the quality is sometimes insufficient.

The following tips on how to take photographs will make it easier for agents to meet requests in a timely manner. These tips are applicable regardless of the species or situation.

  • Make sure photos are in clear focus. Take multiple photos and choose the sharpest to send.
  • Try not to take photos into the sun as it may wash out the photo. If possible, have the sun behind you. This will provide natural light to the subject of the photo.
  • Try to get photos from different angles and distances, especially for trees; get the whole tree or as much as possible. For species identification, include photos of bark, twigs, leaves, flowers, and fruits if possible.
  • If the photo is for diagnosis of a disease or pest issue:
    • Get clear photos of all diseased parts — for example, if the tree is showing discolored leaves, inspect the trunk of the tree and ground for signs of fungi or insects.

These longleaf pine trees are infected with pitch canker. Different photos from different distances provide their own clues.

These longleaf pine trees are infected with pitch canker. Different photos from different distances provide their own clues.

These longleaf pine trees are infected with pitch canker. Different photos from different distances provide their own clues.

These longleaf pine trees are infected with pitch canker. Different photos from different distances provide their own clues.

These longleaf pine trees are infected with pitch canker. Different photos from different distances provide their own clues.
TJ Savereno, ©2020, Clemson Extension

  • For leaves, take photos of the top AND bottom of leaves. Pests like mites or aphids may not be evident on tops of leaves but obvious on the lower surface.

Whether for the purpose of identifying a plant species or a disease infecting the plant, both the top and bottom surfaces may provide clues.

Whether for the purpose of identifying a plant species or a disease infecting the plant, both the top and bottom surfaces may provide clues.

Whether for the purpose of identifying a plant species or a disease infecting the plant, both the top and bottom surfaces may provide clues.

Whether for the purpose of identifying a plant species or a disease infecting the plant, both the top and bottom surfaces may provide clues.
TJ Savereno, ©2020, Clemson Extension

  • For identification of snakes, lizards, amphibians, and other small animals, try to get photos of both the dorsal (upper) and ventral (lower) surfaces of the body. IF YOU DO NOT KNOW IF THE SPECIES (ESPECIALLY SNAKES) ARE SAFE TO HANDLE, DO NOT PICK THEM UP TO GET A BETTER PHOTO! DO NOT HANDLE SICK ANIMALS THAT MAY BE CARRYING A DISEASE.

Dorsal and ventral coloration and patterns aid the identification of snake species such as the ring-necked snake (left two photos) and Eastern garter snake (right two photos).

Dorsal and ventral coloration and patterns aid the identification of snake species such as the ring-necked snake (left two photos) and Eastern garter snake (right two photos).

Dorsal and ventral coloration and patterns aid the identification of snake species such as the ring-necked snake (left two photos) and Eastern garter snake (right two photos).

Dorsal and ventral coloration and patterns aid the identification of snake species such as the ring-necked snake (left two photos) and Eastern garter snake (right two photos).

Dorsal and ventral coloration and patterns aid the identification of snake species such as the ring-necked snake (left two photos) and Eastern garter snake (right two photos).
TJ Savereno, ©2020, Clemson Extension

  • If requesting identification of a flowering weed or grass, try to get pictures of the whole plant and individual plant parts, including the roots, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Getting the roots will obviously require digging or pulling up the weed.
  • Closeups in focus are extremely useful. Again, keep your distance if the species might be dangerous. It is generally better to get as close to the object being photographed rather than to zoom in from a distance. The higher the degree of the zoom, the lower the resolution (clarity) of the resulting photo. The exception to this rule may occur when taking extreme closeups of small objects. The automatic focus feature of cell phone cameras may have problems focusing on the subject if the camera is held too closely. In these cases, you may get better results backing out about 6 inches and then using the zoom feature.
  • Include an object next to insects, small animals, and plant parts to provide some estimate of size. A ruler or tape measure is ideal, but an object like a coin, pen, key, or another common item can also be used.

Although a ruler may be ideal, common objects can provide a good sense of scale and specimen size. TJ Savereno, ©2020, Clemson Extension

  • Did the problem appear after a severe weather event (e.g., after 3 inches of rain, following an extended drought, a tree was struck by lightning three weeks ago)?
  • Where in the landscape was the specimen found, or where did the problem occur (e.g., the lowest spot in the yard, along a stream bank, on a north-facing slope)?
  • How long has the problem been occurring/when did it first appear (e.g., the canopy of the tree has been thinning for several years, weeds started appearing in the pond just this spring)?
  • Has there been any human activity just prior to the problem (e.g., I started noticing a problem after I applied herbicide to some poison oak nearby, the city widened the sidewalk adjacent to the tree last year)?With your photos, include a written description with information that may further help agents.

In conclusion, even if a Cooperative Extension Agent is unable to perform a site visit during this period of National Emergency, we are still working to solve your problems and answer your questions. We are still on the job to serve you!

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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