Imagine having the patience and determination to photograph half a kernel of rice, in perfect focus. Now imagine having to repeat that process 349 more times. As daunting as the task sounds, volunteer photographer Bruce Leander did just that as he spent two days on site recently arranging and photographing hundreds of seeds for the Wildflower Center’s online plant information resource.
The seed images, which are featured in the resource called the Native Plant Information Network (NPIN), provide gardeners and botanists alike access to information about these essential components of native landscapes.
The seeds were collected by Center staff and volunteers as part of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, an international effort to save seeds of representative native plants in Texas and elsewhere. As challenging as the task of gathering these seeds for posterity’s sake was, Leander found photographing them presented its own hurdles.
The plexiglass surface he photographed the seeds on created static electricity that turned the seeds into miniature bumper cars. “I ended up using a toothpick to scoot them back to the desired position and then (I would change gears and) snap the photo,” says Leander, who has called on his patience many times as a volunteer photographer at the Center since July 2008.
An added challenge was capturing all a seed’s details in a single image, despite their varied size, shape and shininess. Leander had to constantly adjust the focus on his digital SLR camera to do this. He also borrowed from tricks learned while shooting scorpions years ago. For the two days, he carefully arranged the seeds on a light box. Three flash units, one aimed from below the box and two small ones from above, created a white background to illuminate the architectural complexities of seeds. The images were then recorded with his Nikon D300 using a 105 mm macro lens and extension tubes. The camera was tethered to a computer so the images could be dropped directly into Adobe software for labeling.
To capture features of several of the seeds, Leander also employed the technique of focus stacking during editing. He first had to take several images of the same seed, placing different areas of it into focus. Later, he compiled a single seed image by layering the focused areas of the previous pictures.
Leander notes that he didn’t mind the detailed process because it allowed him to reveal seed details that are invisible to the naked eye. “The end result made it worth the time and effort involved to create the images,” he says.
Dr. Damon Waitt, director of the Native Plant Information Network, adds that the high-quality seed images Leander provided filled an important gap in what is the largest resource for native plant information in North America. “Because of their small size, people tend to ignore seeds,” he says, “yet they are an important part, if not the most important part, of the plant’s life cycle.”
Leander did not work alone to create the extraordinary seed images. Plant conservationist Minnette Marr from the seed bank project and a small army of volunteers helped clean seeds of dust and debris, categorize them and prep them for photographing. Additionally, Living Collections Manager Joe Marcus oversaw the project and handled its final phase: verifying the scientific identity of seed images, and adding data to the seed image files, including its common name and where a seed was collected. The seed images were uploaded to the web site in mid-March.
Even though there are 25,000 images in the Image Gallery, Waitt says, “It’s exciting to finally have these seed images available as a resource for botanists and other researchers.”
To learn more about the Native Plant Information Network Image Gallery
To view Leander’s seed images.