Print and Digital Field Guides - Pros and Cons

Is it really out of style to have physical field guides? My collection’s still growing, just like the feeling of holding an actual book, y’know. Really, it’s iNat that helped rekindle my love for reading and researching.

I have my eye set on vintage books. The oldest one I’ve managed to get my hands on is from 1937. It still mentions Carolina Parakeet and Ivory-billed Woodpecker as being on the verge of extinction!


Not out of style. I still have my first year botany textbook. Written in 1929, and mine is the 2nd revd ed from 1966.

But. Anything that is already printed. Is out of date.
Virtual / online can be automagically updated. As opposed to waiting for the Maybe Next Edition. Book and website together make a good whole. First prize goes to the much appreciated working taxonomist, or field guide author, who is active on iNat!


Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that physical field guides (books) are useless and that I never use them anymore. But they were once my primary (sometimes only) source of information when trying to ID something or learn about an organism and now they are often secondary when I can get that same (or better) information from iNat or another source on the web. If you were out in the field in the age before digital cameras and internet, then a field guide was really important to have. I still like browsing through them, including at home sitting in my armchair.


I think you learn more by identifying things yourself. The book shows you the other similar species and what the critical differences are. iNaturalist gives you the (or an) answer but I find if I haven’t put in the effort, it doesn’t stick in my mind.


I think this is a recent phenomenon, triggered by the huge advances in DNA sequencing technology over the last 10-15 years. It’s shaking up medicine, too.


“Can be” doesn’t mean “is.” I have seen plenty of out-of-date, online information.

I have never found this to be the case for the kinds of taxa for which printed field guides are published. The Peterson System of paintings of related birds in the same pose, each with its field marks pointed out by arrows, far surpasses a collection of hobbyist photos of varying quality taken ad hoc. Even sources like allaboutbirds still take longer to navigate to the comparisons of visually similar species, which will still be in separate pictures, likely in different poses, and have no arrows pointing out the field marks.

And that’s for easy taxa like birds. I have never found an online source for trees that can come close to being as useful as a good field guide.

Well, hopefully it will approach an asymptote in time. Then organisms will be identifiable again.


Sure, for things like trees and birds there’s a good chance a printed field guide is available.

But for lots of taxa such resources don’t exist, or they are old and out-of-print and unavailable.

And meanwhile we have two trends happening: First, digitization and open access has resulted in many formerly print-only resources becoming available in electronic form, for anyone, anywhere. Second, other people have been dedicating their energy to creating natively online resources that are often every bit as detailled and professional as a paper field guide. And they are doing so for taxa that were previously too obscure or too specialized to justify the cost and effort involved in preparing a field guide intended for the lay public.

I don’t think the original point was to claim that traditional field guides are useless or no longer relevant. But rather that the internet has made all kinds of resources available that simply weren’t possible before.

A couple of examples: I own Steven Falk’s Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. I also use – and refer other iNat users to – his excellent Flickr collections, which contain far more photos and far more detail than could ever have been included in the paper guide. The two resources complement each other; they are not mutually exclusive.

And most of the scientific keys I use for bees are ones that I have in electronic form – and which would have cost upwards of €50 each as a print resource. (Now, I am not uncritical of the economic aspects of open access and the ways it has shifted cost burdens to authors, but it has absolutely transformed how scientific literature is accessed, particularly for laypeople who may not have the resources of a university library.)

I’ve also benefited greatly from online resources for e.g. springtails and barklice, or even more familiar taxa like odonates or spiders, which I will observe when they present themselves but don’t interest me so much that I want to spend money on purchasing a print guide that I would seldom use. So the internet allows me to inform myself about a much wider spectrum of taxa than I would otherwise be likely to do.


I have a row of field guides for our wildflowers. But each one is constrained to what fits in a book. Bling it on. Vivid colours. Common.
On iNat we get the species that don’t fit in print.
Had to call in two botanists for this one

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Well, looks like I started a new topic lol

To answer the question, I find myself using both. When I just begin learning a topic, more often-than-not, the free information is the information found online. I make sure to bookmark what I find so I can come back to it later. A benefit of this is that I can link these guides here on iNaturalist.

As I get more into the topic, it’s inevitable that I’ll search for more in-depth resources. From my birding experience, this takes the form of physical books (which you have to pay for). A lot of them have no digital copies online so the only way to access that information is actually have a physical print. It’s also nice just being able to hold the book in my hand. There’s just something about it.

If anyone’s interested, I’d recommend Waterfowl of North America, Europe & Asia. Plenty of information and detailed plates.


One drawback to printed field guides is that they have to limit the number and variety of images to illustrate taxa due to printing costs. No such limit online. I’ve often found better representations of species by scrolling through websites than what my field guide has. But that’s not a criticism of books, just a real world constraint.


I keep a copy of the Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees (eastern region) in my truck at all times. Of course, that heavy anchor of an electronic device that’s almost always with me gets used more, but I still enjoy physical books. Just as a short excursion into the forest is an escape from the modern world, holding a book and flipping through the pages can be therapeutic as well.

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That drawback is exacerbated by today’s love affair with photographs. In my Peterson wildflower guide the page for “Domed or Flat-topped Clusters” in the Pink, Red Asteraceae section has 10 species – 5 of (what was then) Eupatorium, 3 of Vernonia, Pluchea purpurascens, and the pink form of Achillea millefoilium. Nine of these ten are illustrated in a single plate thanks to line drawings, and with those helpful Peterson System arrows pointing to the field marks that distinguish between them. Now if you tried to put photographs of all ten of those on a single page, with sufficient information to identify and distinguish between them, the page would be too big for an easily carried field guide.

Bottom line: high-resolution photographs may be pretty, but they are not necessarily better for the intended purpose of a field guide.


I don’t think it is accurate to present it as some newfangled obsession with photography. It may also be worth pondering whether line drawings have historically been used because they are preferable to photographs – or because for a very large portion of the time that field guides have existed, line drawings were the only feasible way to include high-quality images in mass-printed material.

Line drawings are idealized abstractions. They are intended to highlight key traits and they are very effective for this purpose.

Photographs are a bit “messier”, but provide a better sense of the whole organism. They also capture traits that might have been overlooked or are not mentioned by the author of the field guide.

I find the line drawings included in keys to be invaluable, but I can’t imagine trying to identify bees based only on such drawings as a reference. So often, the traits that are relevant for ID can’t really be adequately portrayed in a drawing (e.g. size and density of the punctuation of the pronotum). It is also not always particularly easy to translate the features shown an illustration into what one is seeing in the field or in a photograph taken in the field.

Again, why present this as a dichotomy? Line drawings are useful for some purposes. Photos are useful for others. Why not celebrate the fact that we now have a greater diversity of resources at our disposal (online, print), for all sorts of different needs?


Absolutely agree. One of my greatest regrets is that I’m a complete disaster where drawings are concerned. I would love to be able to keep a sort of field notebook with important details to accompany my photos.

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Drawings of just the pronotums side-by-side.

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I’m just saying that using photographs inevitably requires a trade-off in terms of the number of species covered. That was what I was trying to illustrate with my picture of the wildflower book. You simply can’t put as many species on a page with photographs as you can with line drawings.

I’m frustrated that the Peterson series still hasn’t put out a wildflower guide for the Southeast. It is the one missing region. And of all the other Southeastern wildflower guides I have tried (from libraries), they all have two things in common: they use photographs instad of drawings, and they cover way fewer species than a Peterson guide. It is hard not to think of this in terms of cause-and-effect.

At that point, it’s just a matter of how the pictures are used. It’s possible to have multiple species on the same page and point out differences in them, ofc at that point it would probably look convoluted. Maybe a blend of the two. I prefer the drawings for the reasons you mentioned but if there were individual pictures of each species after the drawings, that would be a good blend :man_shrugging:t3:

Why would you pay someone to make line drawings for a field guide when you can just take photos from online without acknowledgement for free? (cough, cough, Audubon, cough):


Oh, that could be a whole sidebar conversation. I just finished The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic. The text appears to be accurate; however, I noticed two incorrect illustrations in one chapter. The one captioned as Portuguese man-of-war was a picture of jellyfish, probably sea nettles; and the one captioned as a pipefish was clearly a trumpetfish. Both were credited as coming from Wikimedia Commons, so I assume that the photographers who posted them there mislabeled them and the editor who chose them did not check the accuracy.

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If I could I would definately be all in on printed field guides… I love them, basically paved my walls with them when still living back in Germany and have a whole bunch on all sorts of organisms. I loved taking them out and flip through them, getting a sense of what is out there. I feel I can not take it in in the same way on a screen compared to printed pages, knowing if the lists on this page are conclusive and scientifically correct enough. Online resources can be overwhelming at times, especially when dealing with a group of organisms one is not that familiar with and I feel it is not as easy to directly compare and flip back and forth between pages. A nice field guide with a good selection of the most interesting species can be a good start to get an idea of what to look out for actually.
It pains me knowing all my books silently waiting in an attic somewhere back in Germany far away from me… but having done several moves now with just some suitcases and some more to come, printed versions are basically off the table for me now.

However, printed guides they can also portray a false sense of security. You find a description that fits your observation best? So it must be this one! …?
One of the best spider field guides for Europe I had (Der Kosmos Spinnenführer by Heiko Bellmann) actually featured 400 european species in amazing photographs, drawings and helpfull short descriptions, wohoooo! … Easy enough to get a sense for spiders. But not good enough with almost 5500 spider species in Europe or over 1000 in Germany alone. It works much better for birds or dragonflies or grasshoppers and other well known and not tooooo species rich taxa (still talking Europe and specifically Germany)

In the end, online resources can portrait the diversity of a region much better if it comes to taxa that include so many species. I can get a full picture of which similar species there are to be aware of, find the descriptions and differences and pictures… not just one or two, no matter if they are drawn or photographed. If you have variable species, such as these or this one picking one or two representatives for a book is easily misleading. But including the variants would just go faaar beyond the limitations of a book and I am extremely thankful for those online ressourced depicting those.

In the end, I learned most about identifying what I saw not even through online field guides, but actually on pages like this. I started out joining an online identification forum for arthropods and I vividly remember the moment I thought I had finally figured out Arenus diadematus… and then the frustration I experienced when I realized I was still mis-IDing the species and apparently did not quite figure it out… and then the time when I indeed got it. It was a steep learning curve giving me a sense of what I know and what I do not know and how and where I can figure those things out.