Digital Photography Has Transformed Extension…

…But we’re still not doing it right.

This is a guest post written by Paul McKenzie, an Ag Extension Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension. He teaches educational programs in forestry, horticulture, pesticide education, and field crops. You can follow him at @pgmckenzie on Twitter.

Since I started with Extension almost 20 years ago, there has been a transformation in the way we take and use photos. Photography used to require a budget for film and processing, storage space for prints and slide carousels, and a time lag between taking and using the photo.

Now, with a $100 point and shoot, or even the camera on a smartphone, we can take high quality images that are instantly usable. And take them we do. We snap scores of photos at 4-H events and farm workshops. We fill up our phones and SD cards. We post, present and print them. Ag agents use them for crop diagnosis and weed and insect ID. But are we realizing their full potential for teaching, storytelling, marketing and demonstrating? Here are my thoughts on how to do just that.

1. Take good photos – If you are an Extension Agent (or any type of educator), you will benefit tremendously by learning some basic shooting skills. I happen to think I’m a half-decent photographer, and I got there by taking LOTS of pictures over a span of about 30 years. A more efficient route might be to watch some Youtube vids on the subject, or go old-school and take a class at the Community College. If all your pictures are taken from between chest and eye level, you’re not there yet. If you’re using zoom when your subject is a few feet away, you’re not there yet (pro-tip: step closer to the subject). If you don’t know how to do “macro” shots, you’re not there yet. If you’ve never used a flash in bright sunlight, you’re not there yet (removes shadows from faces).

2. Get them off your phone/memory card – For the most part, when I return to the office with a new batch of pics, I make a habit of popping the memory card into my computer and transferring them to the hard drive. This accomplishes four things:

  • I can categorize them into folders or with tags so I can easily find them later.
  • It frees up space on the card, camera or phone for more pics.
  • It puts them in a place where they are automatically backed up.*
  • It puts them where I can easily access them for use in/on brochures, flyers, newsletters, presentations, websites, social media, etc.

3. Learn to do some basic editing – The majority of the photos I take look WAY better if I at least crop them. Adjusting brightness, contrast and color saturation can also make a big difference. Most computers have some built-in software to tackle that (e.g. iPhoto on Macs) or you can download free and powerful tools like GIMP and Paint.net.

4. Use them to teach, market, demonstrate and tell stories – If you’ve gotten this far, you don’t want them to just sit on the hard drive. Create slideshows to post on YouTube. Include them in your blog posts. Scrap the bullet points in your presentations and use illustrative photos instead.

Photos have always been a powerful teaching tool for Extension Agents. Make sure you are getting the most out of your efforts.

*You do have automatic backups, right?

Here are some recent pictures Paul’s taken:

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Even with a point and shoot or phone camera, you can shoot good macro images that will help with ID of insects, weeds, or other problems.

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Jim Rice, NCSU Fisheries Specialist, talks about sampling your pond.

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This shot shows how taking the photo from a different angle makes it more interesting. I think I stood on a picnic table bench.

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Interesting perspective.

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