Put Your Photos to Work in iNaturalist

by David Cook, NANPA Conservation Committee Volunteer

Screenshot of NANPA umbrella collection project in iNaturalist, showing 15 species of plants and wildlife that have been observed

Most NANPA members have countless photos of the natural world in their catalogs. Shots of a bird in-flight, a bear fishing, a bison grazing, or a delicate wildflower blooming. As photographers we are quick to see what is wrong with an image: the composition isn’t compelling, or the light isn’t dramatic. You may not consider them “Showcase worthy,” even if they’d get “likes” on Facebook or Instagram, but that doesn’t mean the images don’t have real and significant value. This year, resolve to give these photos a new life in iNaturalist.

If you are unfamiliar with iNaturalist, it’s many things.

  • iNaturalist is a website and smart phone app that allows people to submit their observations of nature from all over the world.
  • iNaturalist is a Citizen Science project with millions of observations of thousands of different species, an increasingly rich database of the planet’s biodiversity.
  • iNaturalist is a community of thousands of users who love sharing nature’s beauty and helping others identify what they have seen.

How can iNaturalist help you as a Nature Photographer?

Have you wondered about the beautiful wildflower you just photographed?  

iNaturalist can help you identify it.

When birding recently in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, I saw what I believed to be a Say’s phoebe. Not a rare bird by any means, but a potential new one on my list. When I submitted it in eBird, I was alerted that the Say’s phoebe was rare for this location at this time of year. I submitted the observation to iNaturalist which quickly and correctly identified the bird not as a Say’s phoebe but as a female vermillion flycatcher. (Did I mention that I am still a novice birder?)

Female vermillion flycatcher © David Cook

Are you interested in photographing a particular species?  

iNaturalist can help you find where others have seen it.

During the past year, I was working on a project picturing “The Lost Words,” words from nature that were recently removed from the Oxford Junior dictionary. One of those words was bluebell. I wanted to find wild bluebells to photograph for the project. I turned to iNaturalist and searched for bluebell observations in my area, Austin, TX, and quickly found several spots where people had observed wild bluebells.

Wild bluebells © David Cook

Are you interested in connecting with other nature-minded individuals?  

iNaturalist is a community of people sharing their love of nature.

I serve on the board of a local conservation organization. I’ve subscribed to iNaturalist observations from our parks so that I get notified each day of the new observations that people find along Bull Creek.

Citizen Science projects like iNaturalist, eBird, and others provide valuable data to scientists, researchers, and policy analysts. Scientists are using the data in iNaturalist to support research. Policy analysts are using the data in planning urban green spaces. Educators are using iNaturalist to teach children about biodiversity.

Check out the iNaturalist Press Room at https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/press for scores of examples of how people are using iNaturalist.

Hopefully I’ve sold you on why you should explore iNaturalist.  Now let’s talk about how.

How to record observations in iNaturalist

There are two ways you can record observations with iNaturalist:

1. Upload a photo to the iNaturalist website. If, like many NANPA photographers, your great photo of a whooping crane is in your DSLR or on your computer, you can upload the photo to the iNaturalist website directly.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCShSn4E-mc
Video by iNaturalist

2. Use the iNaturalist app on your smart phone. While you’re out and about, just take a picture of what you observe with your smart phone and use the app to record the observation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xENz1xRu0wI
Video by iNaturalist

Previously I talked about the value of your observations to the scientific community. iNaturalist classifies observations as “Research Grade” if they meet the following criteria:

  • The observation must be verifiable—that is, the observation contains valid date, location, photo or sound and is not captive or cultivated.
  • The observation is verifiable, has been reviewed, and the iNaturalist community agrees on the ID.

That might seem like work to you, but it’s not. Just upload your observation to iNaturalist with a photo, date, and location, and the iNaturalist community identifiers will do the rest.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y55d5rRLTng
Video by iNaturalist

Join NANPA iNaturalist projects

To help you connect with other NANPA members inside the iNaturalist community, the NANPA Conservation Committee has created special collection projects in iNaturalist. The projects are grouped by geographic regions—which can also help you identify and plan for photo trips that interest you. We invite all NANPA members to join these projects to see the observations in a particular location made by other NANPA members.

Screenshot of NANPA regional collection project in iNaturalist
Example of NANPA regional collection project in iNaturalist

We’ve created the following collection projects:

NANPA-Regional-New-England
NANPA-Regional-Mid-Atlantic
NANPA-Regional-Southeast
NANPA-Regional-Midwest
NANPA-Regional-Plains
NANPA-Regional-Southwest
NANPA-Regional-Mountain-West
NANPA-Regional-Pacific
NANPA-Regional-Canada
NANPA-Regional-Mexico
NANPA-Regional-Umbrella

When you visit the NANPA Umbrella collection project, you’ll see observations from all of the regional collection projects.

Each project contains observations from NANPA members that have joined the project and have submitted observations in that region. For example, I live in Texas but have some nice shots of sandhill cranes taken in Colorado. If I join the NANPA-Regional-Mountain-West project in iNaturalist, observations that I made in Colorado would automatically be included in that project. So we encourage you to join every regional project where you have taken—or will take—photographs.

“Joining” may sound onerous, but it’s easy.

  1. From your iNaturalist dashboard (once you are logged in), click on Projects.
  2. Search for “NANPA.”
  3. Click on a project name to open it, then click the “Join” link in the upper right corner.
  4. Repeat step 3 for each NANPA region where you take photos.


You will become a member of each project that you request to join, and all of your iNaturalist observations from that region will be automatically added to the project. There’s nothing else you need to do.

Get started now!

Getting involved in NANPA’s iNaturalist projects will help you see what other NANPA members are observing throughout North America. Most importantly, it will reveal the treasures on your camera cards to the hundreds of scientists studying the natural world.

Here is the simple to-do list you need to get started:

  1. Spend some time browsing the iNaturalist website to familiarize yourself with the type of observations and activities that occur. Search for particular species in your area to see where other people observed them.
  2. Establish an iNaturalist account of your own.
  3. Download and install the free iNaturalist app on your smart phone.
  4. Take a walk in your neighborhood and try making some observations.
  5. Most importantly, submit some of the recent fantastic photos from your catalog to iNaturalist to share your talents and love of the natural world with the iNaturalist community around the globe.
  6. Finally, join one or all of the NANPA-Regional projects listed above so your observations will be grouped with those of other NANPA members.

I can’t wait to see what you’ve observed!

David Cook is a retired Project Manager from Austin, TX. After 30+ years in information technology, David now enjoys running, birding, and obviously, as a NANPA member, nature photography.  He is a recently certified Texas Master Naturalist and also a proud new grandpa.

Learn more about citizen science and conservation on The Nature Photographer podcast episode “Conservation Begins in Your Backyard” featuring Andrew Snyder.