The camera brought immediate benefit to the study of living species, both plants and animals. Photographs captured images of exemplars of vast numbers of species and demonstrated their change and growth over time.

Because early photography required extended shutter speeds, the first zoological photographs portrayed animals in static situations. With time, however, reduced shutter speeds made it possible to shoot animals in a great variety of settings: domestic animals could be seen alongside their human counterparts, becoming full participants in family albums, while unusual and exotic species could be photographed at expositions and zoos.

The first microphotographs revealed the microscopic parts of animal and vegetable organisms: Francesco Malacarne (1779-1855), Francesco Negri (1843-1924), and Giorgio Roster (1843-1927) were prominent experimenters in the new techniques.

The Anton Dohrn Zoological Station stimulated the use of photography in the study of marine flora and fauna, acquiring the most advanced instrumentation to obtain photographic exemplars of countless species.

Although quick to recognize the value of photography, the field of Botany continued to emphasize drawing, employing the two techniques side-by-side for some years. Odoardo Beccari (1843-1920) usually preferred drawing during the collection and description phase of the plant species encountered during his expeditions, but he relied on photography for the illustrations of dessicated material to be reproduced for scholarly publications.

Photographs were also found to provide important historical and scientific testimony of cultural practices and customs: such is the case of the photographs at the Accademia dei Georgofili in Florence, which portray agricultural activities, varieties of manual labor, and studies of crops and their processing.