Documentation and Specimen Collection


Once at a field site it is easy to immediately begin taking photographs without recording notes to accompany them—a problem experienced by professional and amateur scientists alike. But the lack of proper documentation is perhaps the most common mistake made in the field, especially with digital photography, where it is easy to take tens or even hundreds of photographs at a single site. Also, before you begin photographing it is advisable to first explore the entire location and develop a plan for how you will communicate the site to your students back in the classroom. This plan will guide your photography, and the recorded notes will ensure that every image makes sense long after you’ve visited the site. Proper documentation includes the following steps:

  • Note the location and orientation of the photographs you take. Recording this information on a map is very helpful.
  • In each photograph, it is important to have a sense of scale. For smaller structures (like ripple marks or fossils) or close-ups of an outcrop or rock, it is important to show scale by using a common object, such as a penny, rock hammer, an unsharpened pencil, or (ideally) a clearly marked ruler. For larger structures, a really great scale is a person, so feel free to step into the picture! The importance of a scale cannot be overstated, as the proper identification of geologic features in photographs often depends on knowing the feature’s size.
  • In addition to showing scale within photographs, be sure to pay attention to different scales across the set of photographs you take. That is, include photographs across a wide range of scales, from the smallest fossil or mineral crystal to panoramic shots of the landscape. Maps and virtual globe software, such as Google Earth, can extend scales from the local landscape to a global perspective.


Although photographs are key, simple sketches or drawings are also useful for documenting a field site. In fact, subtle changes in rock layers, for example, may not be visible in photographs, so to capture such features, drawing may be required. Drawing also forces you (or your students) to observe closely. It will be helpful to use either a Rite in the Rain notebook or a large, clear plastic bag to hold your notebook in case of rain. When drawing, keep in mind that you should document the same type of information that is documented in photographs (location, orientation, and scale). Drawing also requires close study in a way snapping a photograph does not. Louis Agassiz once said that “...a pencil is one of the best of eyes.” While drawing, you have to think about the relationship of the elements you are representing, their scale, and their arrangement.

Annotating Photographs

The use of smartphones and tablets in the field allows for a hybrid of photographs and drawings. Many apps allow for captioning photos in the field, and some allow you to draw and write text on photos as you take them. Skitch is one such app, and it also allows for the taking of notes on the maps themselves. Photos taken on smartphones and tablets are also (typically) geo-referenced. This means that they can easily and quickly be included in a Google Earth or other GIS program in the precise location where the image was taken. If you are unable to annotate photographs in the field, or you wish to add more detail than is practical on your electronic device while you are at the field site, the “old fashioned” technique is to take a picture, then make a simple notebook sketch containing labels of key features. Later you can annotate a digital or printed version of the photograph using your field notes. If the conditions are poor for note taking either digitally or manually, it may be more practical to record audio notes that you can later match to your picture.

Using Field Guides

Select field guides appropriate to the focus of your work and consider whether or not you wish to bring others. The appropriate field guide might be something as simple as a single sheet with line drawings of the fossils common at your field site, a few pages containing a dichotomous key of common rock types, or a collection of field guides on fossils, birds, mammals, butterflies, rocks, flowering plants, and more. While scientists will come to know by sight the kinds of specimens commonly found at their site, they do not typically set out to memorize them, and uncommon things are sometimes found that send even experts back to their field guides.

Collecting Specimens

Rocks and fossils often provide significant clues for interpreting past environments. Layers of basalt indicate past volcanism, for example, whereas shales bearing trilobite and other fossils indicate deposition in a shallow sea. Collecting specimens from a site provides a wonderful opportunity to take a piece of the field into the classroom, allowing you to engage students in hands- on learning. Collecting specimens also permits further study away from a site where time and field conditions can impose certain limitations. You can and are encouraged to identify rocks, minerals, fossil types, and flora and fauna in the field. So, what do you need to know about collecting specimens?

  • You first need to confirm that collecting specimens at the site you are visiting is legal. Typically, collecting is not allowed in parks, so be sure to check.
  • Just as you made decisions about photography based on how you plan to communicate the site to students, collect specimens that will help tell the story of the site back in the classroom. If rock types change from area to area, either vertically or horizontally, then specimens of each type are ideal.
  • Before collecting a specimen, take a photograph of it in situ, both close up as well as from a distance. Don’t forget to include an object for scale in the photograph!
  • Document the location from which the specimen is collected, preferably on a map of the area. Labeling the specimen with a number that corresponds to a number on your map is an effective technique.
  • Specimens should be broken directly from the outcrop so the exact source is known. Eroded rocks scattered about on the floor of the site may have originated from multiple locations.
  • The weathered surface of rocks often carries a different appearance than a “fresh” break. Ideally, collected specimens possess one weathered surface but are otherwise not weathered. Rocks broken directly from outcrops will ensure fresh surfaces.
  • As specimens are collected, place each in a separate resealable bag, noting on the bag with permanent marker each specimen’s location as indicated on your map. Include a specimen label within the bag, including the information shown in Figure 11.2.

Figure 11.2: This specimen label, printed six to a page, is available for download at