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The Eyes of the Experts

5 Quick Tips for Taking Photos of Invasive Species for iMapInvasives

Beech leaf disease (likely caused by the invasive nematode, Litylenchus crenatae mccannii), submitted by an iMap user for record 1138198.

Cameras are ubiquitous, and photographing the world around us has become more and more accessible. We rely on help from community scientists and professionals alike to keep an eye out for invasive species and report them to iMapInvasives, and attaching a photograph is the most effective way to help taxonomic experts verify your record. As such, the art of taking a good photo is an essential part of iMapInvasives. We’ve outlined a few simple shooting tips and things to keep in mind while you’re outdoors with your phone and ready to report your next invasive species. Every record counts!

Framing and Focusing the Subject: Adjusting my distance from the subject and framing multiple features on the same plane, I captured a clear image of honeysuckle’s leaf and fruit characteristics in the second image.

Shoot Close-ups for Confirming Details

Even if you don’t consider yourself an expert, pretend you are one! There are specific characteristics of the plant or organism that distinguish it from similar types, and this is exactly what the iMap team and taxonomic experts are immediately looking for either in the field or in pictures. While those characteristics vary from species to species, it’s likely that you’ll need to frame your subject close-up to capture small details, such as twig nodes and thorns, or just distant enough to capture multiple features in sufficient detail.

Tip: When using either your camera app or iMapInvasives, tap your screen on the portion of the image that you wish to be the focal point, and the camera will focus and expose for this area. Other points of focus on the same plane or within the lens’s depth of field will also be in focus, while more distant points in the background will appear in soft focus or blurry.

Close-up for Confirming, Long Shot for Context: The first image of a close-up of Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) provides more detail for confirming and should be submitted via the mobile app for the presence record. It’s optional to upload additional images, such as the second image of a long shot, to the same record via the online interface.

How to Convey Scale and Context

Second to ensuring visibility, further context can sometimes be necessary to document and confirm the species. Including an object in the frame, such as a coin, ruler, or your hand, can demonstrate scale for small subjects or parts. Mid-range and longshots can offer more context, such as scale or where the species is growing, and accommodate the size of large species, such as a tree. When it’s not possible to fit all the key characteristics in one frame, take more than one image to capture all the elements.

Tip: You can add only one photo per species when using the iMap mobile app, but three photos in the Survey123 form, and six in the online interface. If you feel limited by the number of photos in the mobile app, you can add more to the online interface later, or having extra reference photos can help in the event you are contacted by our team about your observation.

Get a Closer Look: From a similar distance, as seen in these long shots taken in the same vicinity, the two species appear to be identical and possibly the invasive tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), however, more information needs to be gathered on the ground and in the image.

Look-alikes: Upon closer inspection of those two species and shown in these close-up shots, the tree on the left with the toothed leaves is a sumac and on the right is tree-of-heaven, characteristic of entire leaf margins except for the pair of glandular teeth at the leaflet base.

Not all key characteristics of a plant are always present, such as seasonal features like flowers and fruit, but it’s helpful to include as many as possible. Be mindful of common native look-alikes to stay proactive and avoid misreporting, but don’t worry if you’re wrong—an expert will have your back and update the record as needed or confirm it! (See further resources for comparative identification at the end of this article.)

Bonus tip: We are working on Photo Documentation Guidance for tracked species within iMapInvasives. This offers a quick “snapshot” of the key features of a particular species to include in your photo. You can view this as it becomes available for more species in the Jurisdiction Species List. You can also find a reference photo (some of which come from iMap users, like you!) and external link for further detailed information.

Work with, Not Against, the Shooting Conditions

In some cases, motion blur or inadequate exposure will result in an image that does not provide enough sufficient information for confirming species identity. While you can’t control factors such as wind and cloud coverage, taking an extra moment can make all the difference of getting an image that is in focus and well-lit. For example, wait for a lull in the wind for the subject to become still. When it’s a bright day with high contrast, try timing your shot when a cloud passes over the sun for less contrast and to avoid hot spots.

Composing a Neutral, Contrasting Background: Because the surrounding vegetation made it difficult to discern what I meant to report, I used a sheet of a paper to compose the subject (Oriental bittersweet) with a neutral, contrasting background.

Set Off the Subject from the Background

While you’re composing your image in the foreground of the frame, don’t lose sight of what’s filling up the background. As best as you can, set apart the subject from everything else surrounding it by framing the subject with a solid or neutral background that contrasts with it. Since the plant is stationary and doesn’t listen to posing cues, test out different camera angles and try moving around the subject in case your first position didn’t provide a suitable background. When your subject looks lost in a field of green, use a sheet of paper or your hand to hold behind your subject.

In summary, we encourage iMap users to strive to create a photograph that is:

  1. In focus and clear

  2. Well-lit and evenly exposed

  3. Shows distinctive elements of the organism for identification

  4. Includes a solid or neutral background that contrasts with the subject

  5. Demonstrates scale, if necessary

It’s simple adjustments like these—rather than using an advanced camera or mastering technical skills—that produce an image sufficient for confirming, thus adding to our database and our understanding of invasive species distributions. And your efforts contribute in other ways, too: we love to share your images with our community on social media, and reported images are part of our growing image library for educational and outreach materials. Thank you!

Do you have additional photo tips? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

Quagga mussel (Dreissena bugensis), with zebra mussel (bottom shells) included for comparison, submitted by an iMap user for record 1271908

Additional Resources:

  • Species Training modules (Midwest Invasive Species Information Network [MISIN]): Test and reinforce your newfound knowledge by taking the accompanying ten-question quiz for each species. It’s quick and fun!

  • Mistaken Identity: An invasive species guide that goes through invasives and their native look-alikes

  • Additional guides for species identification by type or region

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