Daniella Schatz’ image of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi is one of a relatively small number of electron micrographs to have made it to the shortlist of the Hilda Canter-Lund prize and, though not an outright winner, it offers some useful lessons to anyone considering submitting an image in next year’s competition.
The first point to note is that Daniella has not submitted a single image, but a montage of two separate images. The competition rules state that “basic image enhancement (i.e. cropping, adjustment of contrast, colour balance etc) is permitted, along with focus stacking and stitching. However, excessive image manipulation is not acceptable.” “Excessive image manipulation” is not easy to define; however, Daniella’s montage worked for the judges because the two elements together tell a story about the life of this alga. The left- and right-hand images are the “before” and “after” cases of a major factor controlling the ecology of Emiliania huxleyi. Daniella wanted to tell the story of the decline and fall of E. huxleyi blooms in the oceans; in the process she also evoked a long tradition of memento mori – artworks that remind viewers of their own mortality, and of the fragility of all life on earth. Another montage, this time by Alizée Mauffey, made it to the short list in 2017; again, the images were not selected and placed for aesthetic reasons, but to illustrate the range of functional traits within intertidal macroalgae.
Daniella piles on a little more “image manipulation” by using false colour to highlight the tiny EhV201 virus cells that are scattered across the right hand cell and which are responsible for its sorry state. A couple of SEMs that have been enhanced by false colour are submitted each year but the artificiality of the medium rarely results in a major improvement to the image. The stark monochrome of SEMs places them in a long and noble tradition of black and white photography that should not need this type of enhancement. She, however, challenges this by using false colour very sparingly and to draw attention to an important element of her story.
And so to the “story”: we now ask all entries to the competition to be accompanied by a legend of about 100 words explaining a little more about the picture. Most experienced phycologists will recognise the left hand image as a coccolithophore but many viewers will see these as abstract geometric shapes. The legend is important to help the viewer decode these shapes and place them into a broader context; in this case, by emphasising their role in global carbon cycling. Having said that, most of the shortlisting takes place without reference to the legend with initial screening based primarily on the quality of the images. I do remember, however, that Daniella’s image was one where we did need the legend in order to understand what she was trying to say.
A detail from Daniella Schatz’ Scanning Electron Micrograph (SEM) of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi showing the large dsDNA Emiliania huxleyi virus (EhV201, coloured orange). EhV is a large dsDNA virus that is responsible for the demise of vast oceanic blooms of E. huxleyi. During viral infection the cells undergo programmed cell death and shed their coccoliths, important components of the carbon cycle. The individual viruses are each about 100 nanometres (1/10000th of a millimetre) in diameter.
We also encourage photographers, particularly those submitting microscopic images, to include a measure of scale in the legend, particularly for microscopic images. This is important, as lay audiences will have little idea about the size of the objects that are being portrayed. When images are used as illustrations, then a scale bar is appropriate (see “The stresses of summertime …” for a recent example); however, a scale bar is likely to be an unwelcome intrusion in an otherwise balanced composition so a sentence in the legend is usually more appropriate. Remember that the term “micrometre” might not be easily understood by many viewers, and it is a good idea to explain dimensions in millimetres as well.
When the votes were counted in 2015, Daniella’s image lost out to Günter Forsterra’s stunning view of the Beagle Channel off the coast of Chile. However, it stands as a fine example of conceptual approach to the Hilda Canter-Lund competition – with several different elements combining to convey an idea that is more than the sum of its parts. The photographer of the microscopic world rarely has the luxury of the “decisive moment” and, instead, the quality of the final image often lies as much in post-production as it does in image capture.