A picture is worth 1,000 words — if it’s done right

Your best bet is an ‘idiot-proof camera,’ not a smartphone, when it comes to digital diagnosis

Most people use their smartphone cameras to share pictures of their kids, pets, or lunch.

But those aren’t what is filling up Kelly Turkington’s inbox.

“People are going out into the field with a smartphone, taking a picture, and emailing to ask for a diagnosis,” the federal research scientist said at a recent workshop in Olds.

“We’re seeing more and more images floating our way.”

It’s a quick and easy way to get a diagnosis of a pest or disease problem, which can then be widely shared with other producers via Facebook or Twitter.

But there’s a problem — most of the smartphone pics sent to Turkington are “so-so.”

“If you have poor photography coupled with little or no background information, it’s going to make my job very, very difficult for getting you a timely diagnosis of what you may be looking at.”

So if you want Turkington’s advice on crop problems, you might want to first follow his advice on taking pictures of them.

More is better

Turkington usually takes between five to 10 pictures of the same plant tissue and then chooses the images that most clearly show the issue.

“I also take several pictures of both mature symptoms and symptoms that are just starting to develop,” he said, adding different disease stages can provide better context for the issue.


Near and far

“Often I will… be sent pictures, a lovely picture of a leaf, but nothing else in that field and certainly not the root system,” Turkington said.

“It’s very difficult to tell issues when you’re not zooming in and providing some context in terms of what you’re looking at.”

In some cases, he takes samples to his office and scans them.

“It can be very hard to take a nice clear, in-focus picture that’s not blurry out in the field,” he said. “So I use the scanner to do the job for me.”

But for those in-field shots, Turkington recommends “an idiot-proof camera” over a smartphone or an expensive DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera.

“I just set it to auto everything — auto focus, auto exposure, auto-shutter speed — and it’s very easy to take pictures,” he said.

“A more expensive camera doesn’t necessarily mean better pictures.”


Before slipping into detective mode, “double-check the obvious.”

“I’ve seen a lot of misdiagnosis of leaf diseases in a variety of different crops based on plants simply being under drought stress or heat stress.”

Next, stand back and survey the field. Are the symptoms random or uniform?

“If you have uniform, regular, or very distinct patterns… that would suggest something related to equipment being used or product being put on,” he said.

In scientific crop talk, these are known as abiotic factors.

If it’s Mother Nature at work, you’ll see something quite different.

“If they seem to be developing and slowly increasing over time, that would tend to indicate a biotic issue where the pathogen or insect issue is building up in population,” he said.

“If it all of a sudden shows up overnight, that’s often associated with some field activity that’s been done, like pesticide application, fertility application, foliar fertilizers… or particular weather events.”

Other factors

Growth stage is another key indicator of what’s going on in the field.

“If you’re going out and looking at the seedling stage, obviously it’s seedling disease issues. If it’s toward the end of the season, it may be mature crop disease issues.”

That’s why it’s “helpful to get background information,” especially on the field history, topography, and chemical use in the field, said Turkington.

While all of this may sound complicated, taking pictures in order to get a diagnosis is actually pretty simple, he said.

“Start with the big picture and narrow down, provide some useful background information, and usually the person you’ve sent the images to can come up with a fairly accurate diagnosis.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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