The foundation of science is observation. Sometimes we need help making observations as the things we are interested in are small, far away, in motion, or complicated. Not every observation can be made in the field or at real-time.
Fortunately, we live in a time where there are numerous tools to assist with observation. One of my favorites is a camera. A good photograph can make the minute gigantic, the distant close, freeze time, and illuminate details otherwise unnoticeable. Sometimes it takes some thinking creatively to capture and image, but the results can be worthwhile.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the incredible Hubble Space Telescope images of objects deep in space and far in our past (HST image gallery). These images are extremely high resolution, taken using a wide variety of sophisticated techniques including multiple color bands, non-visible light, and dift-scanning, a way of tricking digital cameras into taking continuous images larger than their CCD receiving array.
In a soil ecology lab I was having trouble seeing some of the detail, and had to write a report on the nematode species I’d seen on the slide. A photo was just the thing I needed, so I used the camera on my iPhone held over the compound microscope eyepiece to capture the image to the right (click image for a larger photo).
The same technique works well with a hand lens to capture shallow depth of field images of other small things, and with binoculars or a telescope to capture images at a distance.
I have a confession to make. Despite being a naturalist and being reasonably knowledgeable about the natural world, when it comes to birds I am hopeless. Those speedy little feathered dinosaurs flit hither and yon faster than I can see their detail. They hide in shrubs or high atop trees and fly away when I come close. Usually they are small and the identifying features are tiny, the diagnostic mark is often something like the color of an eye-ring or a barely seen flash of color on the nape of the neck.
The songs will tell you which bird is which, but not what they look like, and, in any event, I can never remember tunes.
I have turned to photography to recognize and identify birds. I cannot get photos of many of them, miss shots of others, but I am slowly learning my birds.
Dark Eyed Junco
To learn about the world we need to observe it, but it does not stop there. We need to think about what we observe and question our observations. Photographs offer a way of fixing our observations in time, allow us to revisit them, and invite reevaluation of them.