Helpful Tips and Resources for Beginner (Plant) iNatters AND Common Beginner Mistakes

IMPORTANT NOTE: As I update this, this page may not always be up to date, so I suggest viewing the original journal post.

I adapted this from a journal post I made to the forum because I think it would be useful to share this tutorial with more people. Though the formatting is a bit weird on here :grin: not sure there’s much I can do about that…
Originally created in September of 2021, I’m still editing it and working to make it better.

In particular, I have found a lot of good-quality guides from various websites and sources with tips on how to iNat better. It’s quite a shame that they’re not seen very often, for all the effort put into them.


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First impressions matter.

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iNaturalist isn't just a website to post your observations, but a community of people. It can be daunting at first, especially if you don't know the hidden manners and norms. Lots of people will post observations that will never get identified due to minor mistakes, and many get a bad impression and leave. ‎iNaturalist isn't just a website to post your observations, but a community of people. It can be daunting at first, especially if you don't know the hidden manners and norms. Lots of people will post observations that will never get identified due to minor mistakes, and many get a bad impression and leave. ‎

![](upload://z36cqP1JXvtWOAum4byT6h8PSrx.jpeg) ![](upload://3LwYPDORQNXk6YCfIM3avLRlHiu.jpeg) ![](upload://ml3p9rXWTQNJODETPXoJ4zElrIs.jpeg)

These images show some common hiccups with rookie users (I'll go over these in detail below): bad photo exposure, unfocused/blurry pictures (though this one can be persistent—my camera focus is evidence), taking photos of cultivated plants, unaware that they should be marked captive/cultivated and that iNaturalist is focused on wild organisms (this can frustrate people when their observations get marked as casual), taking photos of the whole tree/plant , but no closeup of leaves/flowers, By the way, these are all my photos from old observations. I was once one of you!

However, get past the newbie troubles, and you will find a knowledgeable and welcoming community, and a powerful tool that could change your life! This is here to help you get a good introduction.


Getting Good Photos for Documentation

Good photos are tantamount to good observations. It's not that hard to create good photos even from a phone camera... if you know what to do!

Making observations count: https://bushblitz.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/BackyardSpeciesDiscovery_Factsheet-2_Make-your-observations-count.pdf
Getting Great Plant Photos in iNaturalist: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/abisko-plants-and-phenology/journal/17621-getting-great-plant-photos-for-identification-in-inaturalist

These two resources are probably the most useful in my opinion. Some other resources (I’ll probably add more):

Official iNat guide: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/getting+started
How to Make Research-Quality Observations in iNaturalist: https://www.segrasslands.org/recording-species-in-inat-website
Random Tips: https://www.inaturalist.org/posts/5360-tips-for-making-inaturalist-observations


Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them

I've noticed a lot of common errors by users that eventually dissuade them from using iNaturalist. For the sake of all of us, I'll address them below. Fix these hiccups, and I guarantee you will get more ID's and enjoy iNaturalist better!

1: Taking pictures of cultivated plants—without knowing the norms for that

This is probably the most common. People will take picture of ornamental flowers in garden beds, planted trees, potted succulents. That's completely fine! Sometimes I'll find an interesting cultivated plant and want to know what that is.

With these plants, however, you should mark them captive/cultivated, so that they'll be casual observations. iNaturalist is focused on wild organisms, and a plant in a garden placed there by a human is not Research Grade material. If you're confused on what counts as captive/cultivated, iNaturalist has definitions and examples here:

In terms of identifying that unknown plant in your garden, you can always use the iNat AI to help. You just won't be able to verify those observations with other people, since most identifiers don't identify Casual observations.

2: Photos for the same plant spread out in multiple observations.

Unknowing users who take multiple pictures of plants (which is good!) often post each photo in its own observations. I don't understand why. Maybe they aren't familiar with the system, or don't realize they can put multiple photos in an observation. Whatever the case, I'll just say that in most cases, if it's a photo of the same organism, put it in the same observations. Sometimes I'll even put photos of groups of organisms together, (multiple violet ruellias that are near each other, for example) as long as they appear to be the same species .

3: Blurry/Unfocused/Overexposed photos

While technically there's nothing wrong with these, it is definitely a lot more difficult to ID things if it's hard to make out details. In terms of blurry/unfocused photos, there are some ways to deal with this. If the plant is moving due to wind, let that die down before taking a shot, of if the wind is relatively weak hold it with one hand to keep it steady. For plant parts that are just fine and thin, which will cause the camera lens to focus to the background instead of the foreground, you could put your hand behind the plant so it focuses closer up (or use a piece of paper, or a notebook). If you know how to manually adjust your camera focus, that will also help.

Sometimes a plant will be “contrasted” (maybe sunlight hits some leaves but not others, or half of a flower), and that’ll cause the camera to adjust the exposure to either the bright area and make everything else really dark, or to the dark area and make the bright area really bright. I make sure to keep my lighting relatively even (all bright under sunlight, or all dim). If I have a problem with exposure I’ll usually huddle over a plant with my shadow so that the light is all even.
As for taking pictures at night… I got nothing. Someone help me out here!

4: Photos of the entire plant (the whole tree or bush), but without any close-ups of leaves or flowers

Overall images showing the entire tree/plant can be helpful for showing the habit of a plant (whether it is low growing or standing, a vine or shrub or tree), but they usually don't show enough to reach a definitive ID. Similarly, a photo of just the flower is great for normal photography, but if you want a species ID you'll probably need more.

When taking pictures of plants, Here's my rule of thumb: flowers from the top and side, leaves (maybe 3-8 in a photo). This is usually enough for an identifier to get a plant to genus, at the least. If you want to be really thorough, you can do the bottom side of the leaf and the bark as well. In addition, I'll photograph anything unique or unusual features about the plant. Does it have thorns or other prickly things on it? Is there fruit or seedpods? These can be helpful for identification.

NOTE: Some plants require more specific features to be identified. You can usually figure that out by asking around the community or checking identification guides—here’s a hub for some of those.

If an user corrects you, or marks a observation casual, don’t take that personally! Most of them are just trying to help you learn these hidden “rules”. Usually when I correct users or point mistakes out I make sure to keep my tone friendly so you don’t misinterpret my feelings. Others might not, and tone can be hard to convey in just words. Keep that in mind!


Other Tips

  • A good way to learn how to make good observations are to look at other people’s observations. After all, there are plenty of veteran users who have stellar observations!
  • Make observations wherever you can—walking to a class during school, around the parking lot of a supermarket, etc. The more observations you make, the more experience you’ll get.
  • Sometimes it isn’t obvious if a plant is a vine or a shrub, which can confuse identifiers, so add in the
  • If there are multiple plants/organisms in the photo, it helps to write in the description which one you want identified.
  • For info about geoprivacy obscuring observations (If you want to obscure observations near your house, for example), location and time metadata, getting photos to the website uploader, and other technical things, see this journal post: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/rrhs-ecological-survey/journal/60932

I also suggest that you do not start identifying plants until you are well versed with them—say maybe 100-200 observations.


I implore anyone who read this to share this with anyone who might find these tips handy!

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This is great @arnanthescout thanks for putting it together.

Some things that you might like to add based on my own mileage. These are off the top of my head and I’m sure I can think of heaps more :)

a) Even if a plant is flowering or fruiting take photographs of leaves, foliage and bark (this is adding to “Photos of the entire plant (the whole tree or bush)”). Specifically, for many plants I am looking for leaf type (simple, compound – 1-foliate, pinnate, bipinnate etc etc)… this usually requires axillary buds to be visible in the photo; and leaf arrangement/phyllotaxy (alternate, opposite, sub-opposite, 2-ranked etc etc). Photos of both upper and lower leaf surfaces. Photos of stems. Prickles there?.. take a photo or add as comment :) Often even without fertile material these features alone can help narrow things down to genus or at least family

b) If it’s not obvious from the photos whether the plant is a vine, shrub, tree, etc then add a comment/note. It doesn’t have to be a complex comment… something like “Vine.” would do. I’ve often stared at an observation in bewilderment thinking it’s a shrub or a tree when it’s in fact a vine and knowing that it was a vine would have led to an almost immediate ID

c) If you don’t know what the plant is when uploading then upload it as Plantae (or your best finer-grained guess) rather than “Unknown” so people who use filters see it. If something is “Unknown” then people who filter for Plantae never even see the observation

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Step 2. Once you have uploaded a bunch of obs for ID … please to begin to pay it forward by adding IDs as you learn new life forms. That circles back to encourage better obs for better IDs on your own. Maybe newbies think the IDs are automated from a bot - but it is challenging and daunting work.

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I’ll add: making sure observations have a date and (correct!) location assigned! I see a lot of otherwise great observations that get stuck in the casual pile because of those things, or because they came back from a trip and accidentally uploaded their photos with their house as the location, and someone had to mark them as inaccurate.

Also, if there’s more than one organism in the picture it helps to write a comment in the description indicating which one it’s for.

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Thanks for the suggestions!

Ah, that’s another one I forgot!
Taking pictures of just the flower when you would need the leaves to better verify the ID. It happens all the time. Definitely adding that with the “entire plant” topic!

Usually I’ll take one photo of one leaf (although a beginner might mistake a leaflet for a leaf so that could be a problem) and then a broader photo showing multiple leaves on a branch (This one I usually make the first image). That’ll usually show enough to show leaf arrangement, simple vs compound, stems, branches, etc. and also the overall leaf variation (especially for oaks).

Axillary buds for pinnate/bipinnate compound leaves… didn’t think of that. Maybe I’m not very familiar with photographing compound leaf trees. I’m not sure exactly how to communicate that to a beginner without sounding like a botanist… but I’ll keep that in mind.

And thorns… of course, any unique features that stick out! Thorns, seedpods, weird-looking fruit. Those are important.
I remember early-on mistaking an osage orange for a dogwood. The identifiers quickly corrected me by pointing out the thorns in the background :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: Will add that in.

Of course, that can quickly devolve into plants that need obscure botanical things like the stipules, pubescence on the leaves/stems, the length of the calyx and flowering pedicel. Those are things that would quickly overwhelm the beginner naturalist. So I leave the burden of telling that up to the specialists.

Now that’s interesting… I don’t think I’ve had that problem surface yet, although some of the other identifiers could probably back you up on that.
Now that I think about it… photos of the entire plant do come in handy sometimes, if just to show the habit (prostrate vs standing, herb vs shrub vs vine, spreading, etc.). I’ll edit that point.

Sometimes I’ll see users add extra information in the description. Sometimes it doesn’t help very much. Sometimes it turns out very useful. But adding in something like “vine” or “shrub” could help. I can think of a few vines that could be mistaken for a tree in my area, although there’s usually another way to tell them apart (EX: young boxelder vs poison ivy, though they have different leaf arrangements).

I think this was somewhat discussed in the bushblitz link, but I can definitely make it clear that a broad ID like “Plants” will be more useful than an “Unknown.”

I’ll probably work on editing the original post first rather than the forum post to make things easier. I’ll also add a notice to the top that the version on this page might not be up to date.

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I guess I’m thinking differently. I would suspect that such fulsomely detailed rules would tend to derail new users. Do* many do’s and dont’s with too much detail is not likely to win over casual users or beginners - it’s too high a bar to make this an attractive and welcoming experience for nascent nature lovers.

I think there is certainly a need for a gentle and (welcoming) onboarding experience, which doesn’t currently exist.

*Edit Do many Should have said Too many

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And lower surface of the leaf, I always forget to do it with smaller plants!

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I have been considering that… not everyone who joins iNaturalist wants to become a botanist :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

In my opinion, I don’t see this from a do’s and don’ts perspective, but more of hidden social norms on iNaturalist that people don’t know of initially.

iNaturalist is a culture of people, and we have our own sort-of table manners. For example, with photos for the same plant spread over multiple observations: it’s not necessarily wrong, but it tends to get frowned upon by the community. Most newer users are unaware of these social norms.
Then when their observations gets marked casual or someone corrects them they feel attacked (tone can be hard to convey with words) or get disillusioned with the site.

I’d say it’s sort-of like chess—you have to learn the basic rules/norms to enjoy playing the game, but the complex rules set a high bar for any beginner…

The main problem is balancing the perspectives of an identifier who are… I don’t know what word to put here… dismayed? by poor observations that could have relatively easy fixes, and that of a casual user who is just trying to better enjoy nature.
Not saying that every photo has to be absolutely stellar; My photos aren’t that good, but they still show more than enough to satisfy identifiers… at least I hope so.

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It’s wrong as guidelines say not to do that.

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It is?

Let me check https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/community+guidelines

"Things That Are OK… Occasionally contentious behaviors that are actually encouraged or, at worst, forgivable…

Duplicate observations. They’re not ideal, but they’re usually due to oversight or bugs. Politely ask people to remove them but if they don’t, it’s not a big deal unless it becomes a habit."

It doesn’t seem to say it’s wrong, but it also doesn’t say that it’s “ideal” either.

We can’t do anything with them physically other than marking, they’re to stay unless user deletes them, thus guidelines say that you need to ask for removal, which shouldn’t be ever happening in non-wrong cases.

That’s kind of niche. It can be useful in certain cases, such as night-flowering plants, or plants where the leaves fold either up or down at night as part of a circadian cycle. But I see a certain number of nighttime photos of plants that really would have been better left for daytime.

This observation of nocturnal June Beetles was taken simply by using flash. You can tell it is nighttime simply by seeing that the background is black. But you can also see that the flash illuminated enough of the host plant that some people would be able to identify it from just the illuminated portion as Terminalia catappa (Sea-Almond).

So, for the plants I described, where there is a reason to photograph them at night, simply using flash can be sufficient, if you direct the flash appropriately at the flower or leafy branch in question.

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I agree. I guess I read the OP as a being things that people might consider if they want to make their plant observations easier to ID, not as a list of what must be done. A single photo is better than none, and might be enough depending on the plant. That said, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve looked at my photos and realised that I’ve not photographed a key character because at the time of taking the photo either “knew” what the plant was at the time, or just forgot and when trying to use a key I’ve had to do CSI style zoom, rotate, enhance, 1000x magnify, interpolate pixels, re-enhance etc in an attempt to see what I didn’t specifically photograph[1] :)

[1] Edit: I usually upload these observations anyway because they’re not always unidentifiable – someone with enough local knowledge might recognise the species using “informal characters” that are too subjective (perhaps) to formally codify into a key. There are some books for trees in my area that are based on what foresters (apparently) use to recognise plants which, at least with the books I have, are very different to how botanists might formally ID species and different to botanical keys. There’s a “forestry guide” for trees of Papua New Guinea as well and probably heaps of other places, and I enjoy them a lot

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A lot of my daytime rainforest plant photos look like that though :D

I would like iNat to offer automated onboarding.
A very kind gentle, maybe a game version. (Newbie be kind)

Then a second at … you have uploaded 100 obs … learn a bit more. (Resident should know the basic rules at least)

500 obs … time to ID for others and make sure you upload with a tentative ID wherever possible. (Addict, no acceptable excuse for forgetting the leaves. Again)

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I think your phased onboarding concept is brilliant!

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In my case, I very rarely take photos when it gets dark. So it would be imprudent for me to give advice on something that I myself don’t have experience on.

But I can suggest using flash—I’m sure that will be more useful. Just wouldn’t be able to know how to fix any problems like overexposure or things like that.

…not that I know of any problems that come with using flash on plants.

That’s an interesting concept!

Here’s an idea:

I’ve seen some places where while the page is loading it shows useful tips (or sometimes fun facts) so we could do something like that.
Not everyone’s going to check through the rules or the community guidelines, but if the iNat page (or observations, while observations are loading it has a loading gif and a good amount of blank space) is taking a while to load they could see some advice and go “Oh, I didn’t know/think about that! I should try that!”

Or we could have like a quick tips ribbon somewhere at the top that gives advice (and maybe fun facts) every now and then. Somewhat similar, but more time to take it in.

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The link " Getting Great Plant Photos in iNaturalist" is an especially handy one to share with people. I used to try to give more guidance with tips for photos or notes for plant identification, but now there are a lot more users. So, if I see an observation that is a cultivated plant or a bad photo, I move on without comment.

I think these are good tips for those who want to learn more. Some people will probably not care enough to bother, because they’re not too motivated to learn.

Eventually, I think those who are serious about learning to better identify some type of life will seek out what they need to look at more closely, and ask questions. Others might remain more casual users. It depends why they’re using the platform.

With plants, eventually one will be looking at a key and treatments, and trying to make notes or take photos of the key characters needed when in the field. iNaturalist is getting good at guessing the Family or Genus or even species, so that’s very helpful if you’re not up on your flowering plant families. Although a good flora has a key to Families.

If you like iNaturalist, I encourage you to follow all taxa in your region or county or parish or province It can be quite interesting to see the gamut of what people in your area post, and then you might help identify something as well.

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That’s true… that link has a really simple explanation. Not too much, but still a good amount of detail. That by itself is quite a good resource to share to users!

You know, that’s interesting: that’s exactly what happened to me!

I started out as a bit more of a for-fun user (although I still do use iNaturalist for fun), although my deeper intent was to start learning how to identify my local trees because I just decided I was tired of calling trees “trees” :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

Then I just sort-of took in tips from other users, looked up differences between species on Wikipedia and whatnot… and now I end up looking through Flora of North America trying to distinguish certain species… for fun.

You have to be a certain type of person to really get attached to iNaturalist. But I do think you have to fit into the community first before you can really get into it. And I think that people’s motivations for using iNaturalist can change after they start using the app—and we affect that :wink:

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