Snapshots of change: repeat photography competition

Tree dieback Mt Pilot

I know what you didn’t do last summer. You forgot to take a photo.

Remember how dry it was last summer? Drought-stressed trees shed their leaves on dry hill slopes across central Victoria. Many readers submitted their observations of dieback to an earlier blog post.

What happened to those trees? Did they re-grow their canopy during the year, coppice and re-sprout, or did they die, leaving gaps for other plants of the same or different species. More importantly, in years to come, how will we know how each patch changed?

To understand how ecosystems change over time – and to show people those changes – we need more than single observations, we need repeated observations from the same places. A simple way to record changes is to take repeat photographs. It’s easy to do. Actually, it’s easy to do it badly and takes a bit more thought to do it well. But we all take heaps of photos. Which makes me wonder…

Last year we crowd-sourced many observations of tree dieback across south-east Australia. Can we build on that ‘citizen science initiative’ and crowd-source a spectacular series of repeat photographs to show each other – and the world – how our ecosystems are changing? To make it more exciting, we can make a competition of it, with prizes for the best contributors.

To spur us all to photographic greatness, Peter Neaum of Tamworth took the following pair of panoramic photos near Mudgegonga in Victoria. The first shows a raw landscape, a month after the February 2009 wildfire. Burnt trees, bare slopes and eroding soils are obvious.

Panorama of the burnt Mudgegonga Hills one month after the February 2009 wildfire. Click on the photo for a larger view. Photo by Peter Neaum.
Panorama of the burnt Mudgegonga Hills one month after the February 2009 wildfire. Click on the photo for a larger view. Photo by Peter Neaum.

The photo below shows the same site nearly four years later, in December 2012. It’s a wonderful display of recovery and regeneration. Imagine what the landscape will look like after another ten or twenty years.

The same site nearly four years later, in December 2013. Photo by Peter Neaum.
The same site nearly four years later, in December 2013. Photo by Peter Neaum.

How did Peter line up and match the two photos? In his words,

The image matching is a classic example of the use of modern technology. I knew from Google street view approximately where I’d taken the pic, and I’d put the final image on a tablet. I parked the car, and by viewing the original pic on the tablet, was able to closely match the original photo location. Multiple images were then merged to form the large pan across the hill. I’ve now got into the habit of taking a photograph of the location on the mobile phone, which will tag it with the GPS data.

You can see more of Peter’s beautiful photos at his Panoramio site.

So what’s happening in your patch? Did you see dieback or other interesting changes last year? Did you take a photo? If you did, it’s time to dash out and take another, to record those changes. If you didn’t take a photo, when are you going to start? … When it’s too late? As climate change intensifies, the world around us will change more and more. Our children won’t know what we lost (or what we gained) unless we record those changes. The best time to start is now.

If this sounds like fun, please leave a comment below to encourage others to join in. We can collate everyone’s photos on the web later this year or early next year, and hold a competition – to be judged by readers – to decide the winners. I’ll provide some books for prizes. The goal is to encourage all of us to get out and do our own monitoring, so you don’t have to take photos of drought and you don’t have to be a digital pro like Peter. Your photo sequences can be of any ecological change at any scale; from a landscape, to a patch of trees, to a small clump of ground plants. If you’d like more assistance, there are lots of guidelines for taking repeat photographs on the web (e.g. here here, here, here and here).

So hop to it and get snapping.  If you don’t start now, you’ll kick yourself next year.

* * * * *

P.S. John Morgan posted a great blog last year in which he re-photographed shots of the Victorian alps that were taken up to 100 years earlier. The wonderful comparisons highlight the scientific value of repeat photography.

Also, rePhoto is a free app for iPhones and Android phones designed for citizen monitoring. You upload an old photo onto your phone, and the app super-imposes the old photo on the screen to help you line up a new shot. It may be a helpful tool to re-find a viewpoint, even if you use another camera to take the final shots.


Update

Loads of wonderful photos were submitted to the competition. You can view all of the entries in the last post of 2014:  Snap snap! Enjoy this wonderful gallery of repeat nature photos.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Peter Neaum for allowing me to use his fantastic photos.

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22 thoughts

  1. Hi Ian, Sounds like a great idea. Your readers in Victoria may be interested in an environmental photography / photopoint monitoring workshop coming up in April, to help brush up skills (thanks to a posting on the Goulburn Broken CMA’s Chough-chat network): http://www.alisonpouliot.com/projects_photography_workshops.php

    Your idea is not only an interesting way to see how ecosystems change over time, but also what we select to photograph in our landscapes and ecosystems-perhaps as an indication of what we are valuing? I’m thinking back to your previous post on framing aspects of an ecosystem to represent what is ‘on the ground’, according to what we see/perceive as a ‘reality’, and how we can successfully express that to others. Is that something to be aware of when undertaking a monitoring site- of being quite objective in site and view selection? (I’m a total a novice…:-)) I’m really looking forward to seeing the images! Cheers.

    1. Hello Sam, thanks for the link to the repeat photography workshops in Woodend and Baringhup in April. Alison is a fantastic photographer. Her March workshop in Canberra has already sold out, so if anyone is interested in the April workshops, it’d pay to book early. I don’t think that questions around ‘objectivity’ are a big issue here, as the goal is to promote engagement, and we can best do that by encouraging everyone to take photos of the places that are most important to them. It will be fascinating to see what people take photographs of. Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  2. Thanks Ian – another great Blog post. And something I think is incredibly useful. Our memories are so bad (and time flies by so quickly) that I think we risk losing some very obvious evidence of landscape change by simply not documenting it in a simple, repeatable way. Your example of drought impact is a classic example of “look how obvious it is” at the height of summer, but can we see its ecological impacts ripple through the following years? I note the trees in the Dandenongs are again looking stressed out this summer, to add to last year’s mortality. But I can’t quite put a finger on just how different the forest is compared to five years ago. A co-ordinated network of landscape photos taken from across Australia, with questions in mind relating to drivers of change such as flood/drought, fire/grazing, etc would be incredibly valuable. We have the Bureau of Meteorology to record climate change, but nothing so simple as landscape structure change exists. We should try and change that! JOHN

    1. Hi John, thanks for the comment, and thanks for collating the repeat photographs from the alps in your blog, they’re great. I visited a patch of bush recently where I’d taken shots of die back a few years ago, and it was fascinating to see which trees had died, which had recovered, and how well and how badly different trees had fared. You’re right about how hard it is to remember the changes – especially when the changes wax and wane. If I didn’t have my earlier photo I would have had a very different impression of how the patch had changed. I look forward to seeing some great photo-pairs from the Dandenongs next year! Best wishes Ian

  3. I should definitely join in on this. Just have to pick where I want to photograph. (I already do my garden but you’re talking about more “natural” environments I assume)

    1. Hello Tiki, that’s fantastic, I’m sure you’ll find somewhere wonderful to photograph. I was thinking of natural areas, but urban remnants or rural areas will be just as interesting and informative. They’ll all change in unknown ways in years to come. I hope you enjoy it, best wishes Ian

    1. Hi Colleen, thanks very much for the link, I hadn’t heard about them at all. That’s a really interesting initiative from a small industry perspective although many individuals and groups may find it rather expensive. I’d encourage readers to visit the web site for a look. Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  4. Hi Ian, our group (Friends of Tarra Bulga National Park) have been conducting a photo-monitoring project since 2007. We have around a dozen sites in the park that we picked out, generally on park boundaries or re-veg areas. A couple of the sites were burnt in the 2009 fires, so that has made for interesting study, we also added some extra burnt sites to our roster. We take the photos every 6 months. Where possible, to ensure the photo is lined up right, we lay a square block of concrete, that fits a portable stand for the camera on top . It is not foolproof as some of the blocks (especially on roadsides) have gone missing. For other sites we use marker pegs and with the camera sitting on a tripod use a previous site photo (printed out in a plastic folder) to help line things up correctly. I thought, I had written a post on our blog with some examples that I could link to, but now I realise, I have never actually got around to doing that yet, so you have given me a homework project.

    1. Hi TB, that sounds like a great project, it will be fascinating to see how the vegetation changes as time progresses, especially after the fires. Thanks for your tips on how you line your photos up well. The problem of getting to exactly the same point each time is probably the biggest challenge for repeat photography. Please send a link to your blog when you post your photos on your blog page so others can see them too. Best wishes Ian

  5. Great idea Ian, when I was visiting a lab in Catalunya in 2012, one of the staff members had commenced taking nearly daily photographs from a set position of the hills at the outskirts of town. Though the change in Mediterranean landscapes might not be what you are after, hopefully the example might inspire someone amongst your readership. Also I woke this morning with the idea of ‘Best Supporting Landscape’ as a potential category in your competition, for incidental capture of landscape change phenomena in photos of other stuff. Not very serious, but I thought I would mention it for what it is worth. There must be lots out there already, and it is good the way your post is also serving to flush out some examples. Regards, D

    1. Hi David, it’d be great to set up a daily repeat photography site wouldn’t it. Chris Helzer at the great Prairie Ecologist web site (http://prairieecologist.com/) featured some amazing time lapse photographs taken by cameras on his prairies a while ago. You can see lots of them at the Platte River Timelapse site: http://plattebasintimelapse.com/ They are quite amazing to watch. It’d be great to see similar things done in SE Australia. I have no idea how many photos readers will submit, but if we get lots, it would be wonderful to have lots of themes, like best restoration views, best post-fire or post-disturbance shots, most beautiful landscape, etc, etc. Best wishes Ian

  6. Hi Ian. Excellent idea – glad to see someone else championing this cause as it’s a particular passion of mine. Case in point – last week I managed to get myself out to one of my previous research sites that was burned last year. As seen in the attached photos, even within one year the response has been fascinating to watch. http://thomasfairman.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/glenmaggie-state-forest-documenting-recovery-from-fire-since-march-2013/

    I look forward to taking a picture yearly over the next decade…

    1. Hi Tom, thanks very much for writing in and for the link to your great photo-pairs. It’ll be fascinating to see how the sites change as time goes on, especially in the ground layer. Make sure you submit a pair of photos when the competition wraps up at the end of the year! Best wishes, Ian

    1. Hi TB, thanks very much for the links to your fantastic web site and great videos. The YouTube videos are a great way to show the vegetation recovery at your repeat monitoring points. I’d encourage everyone to follow the links and enjoy the show. Keep up your great work. Best wishes Ian

  7. Hi Ian, have been enjoying reading the blogs, especially the historical ones. I’ve got a few photo’s I like to send you of some monitoring plots if that’s possible

    1. Hi Toby, that sounds great. I’ll write another post soon inviting people to send in photos near the end of the year. Will be great to see yours! Thanks for writing in, best wishes Ian

  8. Hi Ian,
    I’m happy to join in on this project. I have a very small company Digital Environment Mapping and Photography. I specialize in stereoscopic vegetation mapping using Arcmap. I have a LOT of photos from my field validation points from the last 3 years since I started my business. I did a mapping job with Parks Victoria mapping Acacia longifolia in the Grampians. Unfortunately the same area burned in January. I will be doing the fire mapping so I will revisit some of these sites and send you some images.
    Cheers,
    Bren

    1. Hi Brenda, thanks for writing in, your work sounds really interesting. I’ll be posting a new story next week (early December) inviting readers to send in photos for the competition before the end of the year, so readers can judge them over the Xmas-New Years break. I’m not sure if you’ll have your photos available by then, but if so, please submit them. If the competition proves popular hopefully we can hold another one next year as well. Best wishes Ian

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