Confessions of a Data-Starved Scientist/Photographer

Here’s a sign that I’ve been spending too much time in meetings, and not enough time working on science projects.  Apparently, I’m getting a little desperate for some data to analyze…

The other night, I found myself idly wondering how many photos I take in a year.  “What the heck,” I thought, and went back through my files and counted the number of photos I took in 2012.

.     Total # of photos taken in 2012 = 11,151

This image of prairie four o'clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) was one of about 310 photos I took on June 7, 2012.

This image of prairie four o’clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) was one of about 310 photos I took on June 7, 2012.

Then, because I’m a huge dork, I looked at the “data” in a few different ways..

.     70 photo batches from 2012

.     # of photos per batch ranged from 2 to 469.

.     Average # photos/batch = 159

Of course, not all of those photos were good enough to keep.  I often take 3-4 shots of a particular composition to make sure I get the light, depth of field, sharpness, etc. just right.  I also often try several different compositions of each subject because I’m not sure which I like best at the time.  As a result, I end up doing a lot of sorting through photos to pick out the ones I actually like enough to keep and use for publications or other projects.

.     # of “keeper” photos in 2012 = 1,071

Here's another photo from the same day as the image above.  June 7 was a good day.  I ended up with 62 keeper photos - about a 5:1 ratio of photos shot to keepers.  (Can you believe I went through the trouble to figure that out??)

Here’s another photo from the same day as the image above. This one is a dogbane beetle on a dogbane plant.  June 7 was a pretty good day – not only did I shoot over 300 images,  I ended up with 62 keepers – about a 5:1 ratio. (Can you believe I went through the trouble to figure that out??)

The ratio of all photos to keeper photos in 2012 was about 10:1.  Interestingly, I think that’s about the same ratio as when I first started getting serious about photography in the early 1990’s.  I was shooting slide film then, and always figured I was doing pretty well if I could get 3-4 publishable images out of a roll of 36 slides.

Since I was on a roll, and weirdly enjoying the process, I decided to look at how many “keepers” I’d taken in a couple other years – to see if the number was similar between years.

.   # of Keeper Photos from:

.        2011 – 957

.        2010 – 913

.        2009 – 1,113

I did NOT go back and count ALL the photos I’d taken in the years 2009-2011. (That would just be crazy.)  I also didn’t take the time to graph the results – – though I admit to considering it…

What does all of this mean?  Not a dang thing, really, but it gave my data-loving brain something to occupy it for about an hour.  Maybe tonight I’ll count how many times I chew my food at supper or something…

Boy, I hope the field season comes soon.

If you want to see a sample of some of my favorite “keeper” photos from 2012, you can click here to see my December 19 post, which included my best photos from the year.

This entry was posted in Prairie Photography and tagged , , , , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

17 thoughts on “Confessions of a Data-Starved Scientist/Photographer

  1. I know how you feel. I’ve been taking pictures of lichen and searching for spiders in dark corners of my basement, just for something to photograph.

    I really liked the comparison to actual film. I always feel like I waste a lot more shots with digital, and I probably do, but 3-4 “good” ones on a roll of film is about what I remember from then as well. Reassuring. Though digital sure makes it a lot cheaper!

  2. Whew! I’m getting worried about you, Chris. Best get out of the house before cabin fever sets in.

    Seriously, I enjoy your photos and commentary immensely. My home for the past 33 years has been here in Florida, but much of my heart and spirit remains seated firmly in the soil and towns of Knox Co., Nebraska, my birthplace. A truly remarkable place to spend one’s childhood and youth.

    3 years ago we went back and purchased a small acreage with an older home on the outskirts of my old hometown, Creighton, NE so we could spend a few summer months each year renewing friends and memories. It has proven to be a wise decision; reconnecting has been a catharsis and provided much time to ponder life midst the quietude of northeast Nebraska.

    Thank you for bringing bits & pieces of our beloved Cornhusker state to our computers thru your photographs. Seeing them and reading your notes brings back many fond memories of my youth!

    Thanks again!

    Dale Jundt

  3. Of course with digital you can also find out how many images were made with each lens, what aperture and shutter speeds you used, how many different focal lengths you used, etc. Seems it’s part of the photographer’s gene to know more about their image. Or, you can get out and make images! Good season for black and white.

  4. I’m guessing that most of the 976 followers of this blog fit into the geek or dork category, that’s why we follow the blog. So, we can commiserate. Go forth, analyze away!

  5. Not just photograph the plants and insects, but mention how they benefit the larger organisms on the prairie, i.e., mammals and birds. Go from “Little House On The Prairie,” to functioning ecosystem on the prairie. Besides, many of the plants and insects on the prairie are endangered species.

  6. Interesting! I’m looking to improve my percentage of keepers. Which digital camera/s do you or others recommend for photographing plants and – especially – moving subjects like butterflies and bees? Thanks!

    • Hi Millie, most of the digital SLR cameras will work for your purpose. The lens is probably more important. You’ll want to look at macro lenses. I have a Nikon D300s and a 105mm Nikon macro lens, but there are lots of other options. You might look at some of the books and advice of John Shaw – he does some very nice instructional writing. Some of his books are getting pretty old, but the basic techniques are the same (even if you use digital now, instead of film). You might also look at blogs of people like Clay Bolt, Piotr Naskrecki, and others to see what equipment they use. Many times, they list the camera equipment they use for each shot right in the caption info.

  7. Chris, I have been meaning to mention that I think you should consider taking video. I think you could interest many more people if you had video of insects, instead of only pictures. This would connect people to your subjects in a manner that cannot occur through pictures alone.


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