Now, I have a confession to make.
Despite the singular focus of my prior blog posts, my work is not entirely composed of swimming around in the tropics. In fact, most months of the year, you can find me right here, bathing instead in the light of my computer screen.
I’ve been meaning to write more posts while stateside, but the subject matter is a bit more difficult to ‘spice up’. So I’ve put it off. Today, however, I think I’ve got an interesting topic that will begin a new theme of post regarding the most interesting and time-consuming part of my job: computer work.
Since we returned from Reunion a couple of weeks ago, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time preparing the photos and data from our trips so that they are organized, useful, and publicly accessible. So far, the team has collected over 3,000 photos of more than 550 coral samples. Keeping these organized can become very difficult as we progress, so I’ve been working with a variety of tools to make it easier. When we’re in the field, we take tons of photos of each individual coral, from closeups that show small morphological details, to wide-angle photos that we can use later to determine the surroundings of the coral. We also take photos of the reef, photos of each other, and photos of that awesome creature that I’ve never seen before and it’s so close and so colorful and sooo cool and look at it feeding, it’s waving its antennae around and catching things and it’s so awesome!!
At the end of the day, I have hundreds of photos. Some are pretty, some need post-processing work to become pretty, some are definitely not pretty but can be used as data, and some might be useable as data with some post-processing of their own. Each photo might have one or multiple samples in it, or could be a great example of a particular disease, or maybe just it just has one of us making a funny face. To be useful, I need a way to find these photos again, somewhere in the midst of the 47,000 other photos on my hard drive (seriously).
The primary tool I use to manage the mess is Adobe Lightroom. Lightroom enables me to process my photos in bulk and add keywords to the photos so I can easily search for them later. When I import all the photos from a particular dive, for instance, I have Lightroom automatically add the GPS coordinates for the dive and keywords for the site name, project, photographer, etc. Then I go through the photos and add keywords to each one that include sample identification codes and everything interesting in the picture, like fish, diseases, or divers. Now, there are two very neat aspects about Lightroom keywords that I take advantage of. The first is that you can establish keyword synonyms so that every time you tag a photo with one word, its synonyms will automatically also be attached. I can tag a photo with ‘lionfish’, and that’s all well and good. But later, I might be thinking all sciency and want to find all my photos with ‘Pterois radiata‘ in them. If I have previously told Lightroom that the scientific name and common name are synonyms, my search will find exactly what I need.
But what if I want to find all photos of fish that belong to Scorpaeniformes (the group that includes both lionfish and stonefish)? The second handy aspect of Lightroom keywords comes in here: they can be placed in a hierarchy. I’ve placed the keyword ‘Pterois radiata‘ within ‘Pterois‘, within ‘Scorpaeniformes’, so every time I tag a photo with the simple term ‘lionfish’, it’s also tagged with its higher-level taxonomic groupings. For our samples, I even put the sample ID keyword within its corresponding species. In fact, I’ve set up an entire taxonomic tree of organism names within my keywords, so every time I tag a simple sample ID, the photo is made searchable with terms corresponding to all the different levels of the tree of life. It’s awwwesommmmeee.
The next stage of photo management for me is post-processing. I am nowhere close to an expert photographer or image editor, but I’m learning. It’s still amazing to me how much a photo can be improved with a couple quick adjustments of exposure and levels. Most of the time, photos seem to come ‘off the camera’ with a washed-out and low-contrast look. Underwater photos always have their colors messed up. When we take photos of samples, we generally put a standard color card and CoralWatch Coral Health Chart in the frame so that we can make the right adjustments later. Fixing the color and exposure doesn’t just make the photos prettier, it can help us to understand the corals. It’s tough to spot patches of disease or the presence of bleaching when the whole photo is various dark shades of green. The best thing about Lightroom (at least compared to Photoshop and a number of other image editing programs)* is the ability to make adjustments in bulk. Often, a particular series of photos were all taken in very similar conditions. Say, all the photos from a single dive, where we were at 30 ft with a particular amount of visibility and cloud cover. I can play around with just one of the photos, getting the adjustments just right, then simply copy those adjustments and paste them to the rest of the photos from the dive. Voila! Hundreds of photos edited.
Once I’ve got the photos edited and organized, I can do fun things with them, like export them to Flickr for your browsing pleasure, or embed them in the map you explored at the beginning of the post. But explaining that is for another day…
*A note about software. The next-best photo software I’ve used is Google’s free (free!) Picasa. Picasa will also allow you to batch-edit photos, and had facial recognition long before Lightroom. iPhoto also has these features. But as far as I know, the keywording in Picasa and iPhoto doesn’t support hierarchies or synonyms.