Image use in field guides and identification keys: review and recommendations

AoB Plants. 2011:2011:plr004. doi: 10.1093/aobpla/plr004. Epub 2011 Jan 21.


Background and aims: Although illustrations have played an important role in identification keys and guides since the 18th century, their use has varied widely. Some keys lack all illustrations, while others are heavily illustrated. Even within illustrated guides, the way in which images are used varies considerably. Here, we review image use in paper and electronic guides, and establish a set of best practices for image use in illustrated keys and guides.

Scope: Our review covers image use in both paper and electronic guides, though we only briefly cover apps for mobile devices. With this one exception, we cover the full range of guides, from those that consist only of species descriptions with no keys, to lavishly illustrated technical keys. Emphasis is placed on how images are used, not on the operation of the guides and key, which has been reviewed by others. We only deal with operation when it impacts image use.

Main points: Few illustrated keys or guides use images in optimal ways. Most include too few images to show taxonomic variation or variation in characters and character states. The use of multiple images allows easier taxon identification and facilitates the understanding of characters. Most images are usually not standardized, making comparison between images difficult. Although some electronic guides allow images to be enlarged, many do not.

Conclusions: The best keys and guides use standardized images, displayed at sizes that are easy to see and arranged in a standardized manner so that similar images can be compared across species. Illustrated keys and glossaries should contain multiple images for each character state so that the user can judge variation in the state. Photographic backgrounds should not distract from the subject and, where possible, should be of a standard colour. When used, drawings should be prepared by professional botanical illustrators, and clearly labelled. Electronic keys and guides should allow images to be enlarged so that their details can be seen.