I live in a tourist town and I see lots of visitors. We used to joke about the guys stepping out of their Winnebagos with their video camera already up to their eye. Now days, thanks to smart phones, pretty much everyone is viewing their vacation in real time through the small screen a video camera.
I wonder sometimes what folks are doing with all those photos they are snapping.
I fully understand the desire to photo-document one’s adventures and I share the attraction to shiny tools that allow me to do so. I have a camera. I take plenty of pictures. And I find myself leafing through catalogs looking at lens and accessories that might improve my photo-documentary results. I will routinely take 100 or 200 picture on a given walkabout. For me, those photos have replaced my sketchbook (though I still make sketches when I can’t get a photo). Those photos have become part of my process for taking field notes. They are a way for me to quickly note something I don’t recognize; something interesting; something I might forget I saw.
I suspect that the need to document is an innate characteristic and one we’ve been practicing for a very long time. I’m pretty sure that the artist who produced this masterpiece was working from field notes and a sketchbook…
…and that’s kind of the point I want to make: field notes are a means to an end; they are rarely the end in themselves. Not every notation I make in the field will lead me somewhere. Not every field note I take will be shared with others. And most of the stories I tell will come from the post-processing, collation and polishing of information I’ve gathered. My field notes are largely indigestible to others. Most of the photos I take will be tossed.
Which brings me to field apps…
If you own a smart phone, you’re probably already running one or two apps and there are natural history related sites on the internet that supply apps that allow you to post what you find in the field directly to their site via an app. eBird has an app. iNaturalist has an app. I’m sure there are many others I don’t know about.
I’ve been spending a good deal of time at iNaturalist. It is great fun and (arguably) has been taking up too much of my time. It is a site where one can post the results of a day in the field. The material I post is evaluated by a community of amateur and professional biologist and much of that data can be immediately scooped up by folks doing data collection projects.
But I don’t participate using an app. I don’t own a smart phone. I don’t plan on acquiring one any time soon. I’m already far too distracted by gadgets. And as I sift through the material posted to iNaturalist, I’ve come to the conclusion that real time posting of field notes on to the internet may not always be useful. There is value in that post processing activity. Not every data point is useful; not every photograph is identifiable. The ability to post everything we see directly to a site on the internet removes an essential filter. If you don’t know what I mean, spend a day going through the stuff being posted from the field.
My best app is a little yellow notebook. My camera is my secondary means of notation. And that gap between my field day and the field report helps me synthesize what I’ve experienced so that it can be communicated more clearly and concisely.
But all these apps ain’t goin’ away. Maybe there’s a part 2 to this discussion…