Lucky shot

Marmalade Hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus, on Perennial Sowthistle, Sonchus arvensis; taken with a Panasonic GH2 and Leica macro lens.

Today’s photo was actually taken in 2017, and I’d almost forgotten it until yesterday when I was trying to search my photos for pictures of Sow thistles. This morning, courtesy of the Google Photos app , a bunch of photos I took a year ago to the day popped up on my laptop and I was immediately reminded that it’s the first anniversary of my resolution to get my pictures properly catalogued. In spite of what they say, Google Photos can be used as an elementary searchable database. I could always search on date and location, and using a phone camera (Pixel 6a) gives very accurate GPS data that’s not too hard to convert to the British national grid. My discovery last year was that by clicking the ‘info’ button on a picture there’s a section called ‘add a caption’ which, if you type in the common name for any plant or whatever; followed by the Latin name and separated by a comma acts as a comma delimited database. Bingo! Do a generic search on, say, Speedwell – and the programme will use its AI capacity to find anything that looks like a Speedwell including, for instance, Forget-me-not, but if you’ve captioned the picture with a full common or Latin name – let’s say Veronica – then only those plants you’ve captioned with the name will show up. It’s a massive timesaver. Eventually! You could apply the same technique to almost any interest you have – birds, antiques, ceramics , butterflies stamps or dog breeds.

The trouble is, I started photographing plants for all sorts of reasons long before I got into field recording, so I had about 10,000 photos of all sorts of places and objects with no real organisation at all. Tagging the plant photos accurately often means going back to scratch with the ID, which takes absolutely ages. It’s a good thing I’m a bit of a propellor head!

The other thing I’d say is that the photo at the top was taken with a pretty expensive set of kit that didn’t include location in what’s known as the EXIF data. The additional control I had over exposures, depth of focus and shutter speed really slowed down the process of taking a shot. These days mobile phone cameras have automated the process so brilliantly that I almost never take the old kit out. The added bonus is that I can also access all sorts of other databases if there’s a decent signal and the whole of the new Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland 2020 Flora is there at my fingertips to tell me whether the plant I think I’ve identified has ever been seen in the place where I’m kneeling in wet grass looking as if I’ve been struck by the urge to pray! I can take a picture, identify the plant to the best of my ability and send a copy with a grid reference for verification to the local County Recorder in a few minutes. The days of lumbering about with a heavy bag of massively expensive kit, seem as remote as Betamax video recordings.

Anyway, I’ve decided that the dozen or so photographs I took a year ago today are so nerdishly technical I’m not even going to put them up. There may be other readers who get inflamed at the comparative knee joints of Cow Parsley and Rough Chervil but I wouldn’t want to encourage it; and that leads to the last point I want to make.

When I started doing plant photography I had no idea which bits of the plant I would need to record in order to identify it. Sometimes the tiniest details make all the difference and so, over the years I might take a couple of shots trying to capture the beauty of the plant in its surroundings; but then get down and dirty with the macro shots. That way my success rate has risen from 10% to about 12% – well maybe a bit more!

Below I’ve put up a lovely stand of Smith’s Pepperwort that I identified and recorded this time last year, going through exactly the process I’ve described. My record now sits in a little black spot on the map with my name attached to it somewhere in the BSBI database.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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