“There is more life in one cubic foot than anyone could look at in a month,” says photographer David Liittschwager. And he should know—he’s become famous for carting a green cube around the globe, one cubic foot in area, placing it anywhere from a coral reef in French Polynesia to New York City’s Central Park, then documenting all of the life he finds inside. He photographed cubes in five different locations for National Geographic magazine in 2010, with stunning results.
Liittschwager jokes that his “dirty little secret” is that he’s never actually finished photographing all the life in the cubes. “I’m happy that the world is so rich that I failed at my job. We did the best we could, but it’s sort of built into the formula. We go to places that are known to be high diversity and see where we can place this cube so that it contains the most life. But all you have to do is look a little closer, and you just have to keep going. So you never finish, and that’s kind of fantastic.”
The project didn’t stop with his magazine story. He’s since collaborated with the Smithsonian and other educational institutions to work with students at levels ranging from fifth grade to college, showing them how to use the biocube and to collect data in a “scientifically rigorous manner, so that it can be shared.”
Watch students explore our world using the biocube.
The “sharing” part is where photography comes in. Since students aren’t keeping the specimens they find, their only record remains in the photographs they take, so the quality and clarity of those images is vital. Liittschwager says that they’re making an effort to photographically document the creatures in the students’ biocubes “to a level that the species ID can be confirmed by experts, which turns those photographs into virtual voucher specimens, so that somebody else can go back to the original claim and confirm that this is what that thing actually was.”
And since not everyone has his fancy setup …
Liittschwager gives us a ten-step how-to on photographing specimens to meet research standards with simpler equipment: a mobile phone or a point-and-shoot camera. These are abbreviated, but you can see the full instructions here.
1. Choose the appropriate container for your specimen. For example, the bottom part of a clear plastic cup or the inside of a white jar lid.
2. Find a plain, white background to photograph the specimen against.
3. Pick a location with lots of natural light. If there isn’t enough available light, use a flashlight or a “white card” to add light to the subject.
4. Try to get the specimen as big in the frame as you can, but avoid using digital zoom. If the creature is too small, try getting a close-up lens attachment, which you can easily purchase online.
5. Make sure the creature is in focus. Most phones will allow you to lock the focus with your finger on the screen so it doesn’t shift as you follow the specimen.
6. Think about depth of field. Macro photos often suffer from shallow depth of field, meaning that only a small part of the image is in focus. If this is the case, make sure to take photos with the focus in various places.
7. Be mindful of reflections. You may need to reposition your camera or any added light so that the reflection is in an inconspicuous place.
8. Take descriptive pictures. Scientists look at certain physical characteristics for species identification that vary from creature to creature, so don’t be afraid to try several angles.
9. Before moving on, make sure your photo is in focus and that you can see detail everywhere on its body.
10. Most importantly, have fun and keep going.
You might be wondering, “What do these photos matter? What kind of take away can a scientist get from seeing my photo of a snail in my backyard?”
I asked Liittschwager.
“They show how much life there is in the world, and that is a useful thing because a few years from now it’s going to be different,” he says. “The species composition will be different, the rate of change. The world is not going to die, the world is going to change. It’s a way to know about the character of that change. It’s a mechanism to record the abundance, or lack thereof, of life around you. It’s a way of paying attention.”
If you want to participate in this biodiversity citizen science project, you can upload your own photos of species you find to iNaturalist. Liittschwager explains, “Add the best name you can, and the rest of the iNaturalist community can see your work and help refine the species ID. When a species ID is confirmed twice on iNaturalist, it becomes a research grade observation and is uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which is the central repository for biodiversity data. It’s mined by everybody. Scholarly, it’s the agreed upon central repository for such data.”
You can also upload your specimen photos to Your Shot, National Geographic’s photo community, with the hashtag #greatnature.
From May 15 to 16, hundreds of citizen scientists will descend on Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park for BioBlitz to inventory as many species as possible. Liittschwager and the National Geographic Your Shot team will be on the ground. Stay tuned to the BioBlitz website for updates.
See images of biodiversity at its best, submitted by our Your Shot community and curated by Liittschwager.