The first Hilda Canter-Lund competition winner

Conxi_Rodriguez-Prieto

Before we put the Hilda Canter-Lund competition to rest for another year, I thought I would dig out the very first winning entry to see how much had changed over the ensuing years.  The British Phycological Society ran the first competition in 2008 not as an open competition to which people submitted their images, but as a prize for the micrograph published in their journal, the European Journal of Phycology, that was “judged best with respect to a combination of scientific, technical and aesthetic merit”.  David Mann and I scoured through the 2007 and 2008 issues of the journal and selected the image above as the winner.   It comes from a paper by Conxi Rodríguez-Pieto, D. Wilson Freshwater and Noemí Sánchez on the morphology of the red alga Gloiocladia repens and is shows a fusion cell, one of the early post-fertilisation stages.   The scale bar in the bottom left corner is 50 micrometres (= 1/20th of a millimetre).

Strip away the explanatory labels and you are left with a pleasing abstract monochrome composition dominated by a vaguely tree-like structure.   You do not need to know anything about the reproductive biology of red algae to find some aesthetic pleasure from this image.  However, images in a scientific journal are not supposed to stand in isolation.   They are loaded with significance which the viewer needs to be able to decode and come alive through interplay between the image and text.  The viewer, indeed, needs to bring considerable prior knowledge to the text itself: the European Journal of Phycology serves as a conduit for new knowledge, not as a means of explaining basic principles of red algal reproduction to the uninitiated.   Whereas the fine artist might regard abstraction as a mental exercise unconstrained by reality, this image, however “abstract” it may appear to the uninitiated is, in fact, representational (see “Abstracting from reality …”).

We recognise images as depictions of particular objects by a mental process of matching our sensory perceptions to impressions (“schemata”) stored in our memories.   Similar processes now take place automatically using computer algorithms and, as an indication of how far this image is from the mainstream, the alternative text suggested by my computer (to be used in situations where the image itself cannot be displayed) was: “A picture containing nature, pizza, rain sitting …”

After this first exercise, we rethought the competition.  Offering the prize only to published images in the European Journal of Phycology was limiting because the images were only ever selected for their role in a larger story.  The aesthetic qualities of the image were always secondary to this purpose and we closed off significant pathways of visual exploration in the process.  So the following year, we ran it as an open competition and invited entries from the entire phycological community.   That attracted over fifty entrants and the format has stayed more-or-less unchanged ever since.

Reference

Rodríguez-Pieto, C., Freshwater, D.W. &  Sánchez, N. (2008).Vegetative and reproductive morphology of Gloiocladia repens (C. Agardh) Sánchez et Rodríguez-Prieto comb. nov. (Rhodymeniales, Rhodophyta), with a taxonomic re-assessment of the genera Fauchea and Gloiocladia.  European Journal of Phycology 42: 145-162.

 

Some other highlights from this week:

Wrote this whilst listening to:   Gaslighter, the new album by The Chicks and Jarvis Cocker’s Beyond the Pale

Cultural highlights:  we’ve been watching Life on Mars, the TV series about a detective who travels back in time to the 1970s.  Like Mad Men, it manages to trigger simultaneously a sense of nostalgia and an awareness of the casual sexism and racism that were rife at the time.  We’ve come a long way, though that does not necessarily mean that we have come far enough …

Currently reading:   Utopia Avenue, the new novel by David Mitchell

Culinary highlight:  I have a painful mouth ulcer, so eating is a chore rather than a pleasure just at the moment, I am afraid.

Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist 2020

One of my more pleasurable duties during the year is to organise the Hilda Canter-Lund competition on behalf of the British Phycological Society.  This year we had 57 entries – a record (I think) – from which we had to choose a shortlist.    Amongst the entries was the first we’ve ever had using a Foldscope DIY microscope and smartphone as well as the usual range of images produced using high-end equipment.   That one didn’t make the shortlist this year, unfortunately but … watch this space: there are plans afoot to promote these cheap but effective microscopes to the phycological community.

As usual, we’ve tried to get a balance between the very large and the very small.  In the big corner we have two images by old friends of the competition: Erasmo Macaya and Galice Hoarau.   Erasmo, from the Universidad de Concepción in Chile won the competition in 2010 with a fine image of Macrocystis pyrifera, the largest seaweed on earth.  This year he has revisted the same species, producing an intriguing semi-abstract image playing on the contrasting textures of blade and stipe.  Galice, originally from France but now based at Nord University in Bodø, Norway, made the shortlist in 2009 with a view peering out from an underwater cavern off the coast of Brittany.  This year, he shows us a beautifully composed view of three different species of Fucus growing together in the North Sea.

Macaya_Hoarau_shortlist_2020

Erasmo Macaya’s Awesome Brown and Galice Hoarau’s Fucus, from the 2020 Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist.

The third image that highlights the beauty and diversity amongst the large algae comes from Michiel Vos, a newcomer to the competition.  Michiel is originally from the Netherlands but now works at the Cornwall Campus of the University of Exeter where he is an evolutionary microbiologist with a sideline in dabbling about in rockpools.  His blog, An Bollenesor(“the rockpool hunter” in the Cornish language) is well worth a visit and contains much more of his stunning photography.  The image on our shortlist shows bushy rainbow wrack (Carpodesmia tamariscifolia) framed by thong weed (Himanthalia elongata).

The next image comes from John Huisman, another old friend of the competition. John, from the Western Australian Herbarium, won the competition three times – in 2011 and 2014, won the second prize in 2018 and was also shortlisted in 2019.  His image falls into the grey zone between macro- and microphotography – highlighting small details on a big alga.  In this case John has chosen to explore propagules on an undescribed species of the red algal genus Hypnea producing an image that, like Erasmo Macaya’s, is part representational, part abstract.

Vos_Huisman_shortlist_2019

Michiel Vos’ image from a rockpool in Falmouth and John Huisman’s image of stellate propagules of an undescribed species of Hypnea.  The scale bar on John’s picture is 100 micrometres (= 1/10th of a millimetre). 

The remaining three images are all of microalgae.   First up is Thomas Pröschold of the University of Innsbruck with ”Cosmic volvocine alga: Pleodorina californica”.  Pleodorina (synonym: Eudorina) is a genus of green algae closely related to Volvox (see “The intricate life of a colonial alga …”) and Thomas has used differential interference contrast (DIC) microscopy to produce an ethereal image of two colonies.  Like many of the micrographs that have appeared in the shortlist over the years, this one explores the borderlands between representation and abstraction: it is recognisable as two algal colonies to those who have prior experience but, to many other viewers it may appear as an abstract composition.

Untitled-1

Thomas Pröschold: Cosmic volvocine alga: Pleodorina californica

The borderlands between representation and abstraction are also explored by Davis Laundon of the Marine Biological Asssociation in Plymouth.  His entry, The Phycosphere, shows the diatom Coscinodiscus from the English Channel photographed using fluorescent light.   The chloroplasts (usually yellow-brown in diatoms) are, under this light, red in colour and Davis has also used a stain that binds to DNA in order to highlight the nucleus of the diatom (which cannot be seen with normal lighting) and also the myriad of bacteria that are growing in the thin layer of mucus that surrounds the diatom cell.  The colouring is artificial yet, at the the same time, it gives us better insights into the true nature of the organisms we are studying.

Florida International University’s Kristy Sullivan’s image of the desmid Staurastrum nova-caesarae completes the short list.   This is the first scanning electron micrograph on the shortlist since 2015 (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund Prize (4)”) but this one caught the shortlist judge’s eyes.  The desmid with its spines looks something like a satellite hovering in orbit.  Like Thomas Pröschold’s image, it plays games with our visual senses: are we looking at something very small or something enormous?

The winners will be chosen from this list by a vote amongst members of the BPS Council, and the result of that should be available very soon.  You can see the whole shortlist on the BPS website, and we’ll also announce the winners there too.  We’re also working towards a major exhibition of winners and shortlisted images in the grounds of Nottingham University at the end of this year, so if you live in the English Midlands, this will be worth a special trip.

Laundon_Sullivan_shortlist_2020

Davis Laundon’s The Phycosphere and Kristy Sullivan’s image of the desmid Staurastrum nova-caesarae.

 

Some other highlights from this week:

Wrote this whilst listening to: more old Glastonbury sets.  Particularly enjoyed Arcade Fire’s headline set from 2014.

Cultural highlights:  Nothing particularly high brow this week.   Enjoyed the ridiculous new comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Currently reading:   The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Culinary highlight:  a meal of home-cooked Sichuan food eaten with our son, home for one night between one lease expiring and the next starting.

 

How not to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition

HCL_winners_2009&2010

The 2020 Hilda Canter-Lund competition for the best photograph of an alga is underway again, with a closing date of Friday 5 June.  Over the years I’ve written a few posts to encourage entries, by focussing on what makes a good entry for the competition (listed at the end of this post).  This time, however, I’m coming at the problem from a different angle because, each year, as we make our first review of entries in order to prepare a shortlist, the judges always reluctantly leave one or two images out due to fairly basic flaws that could have been corrected prior to submission.   At least two of our winners have used smartphones for their photos and even these now have basic editing capabilities, so there really is no excuse for a little cropping or tonal adjustment prior to submission, if that is what it takes.

A photograph is a record of a unique event.   It is objective, up to a point, but it reflects a decision, made by the photographer, about when to release the shutter.   The microscopist scans a slide, and picks out particularly well-presented organisms or cells, not overlain by other cells or detritus in the sample, and also for pleasing juxtapositions of cells or filaments.   The same applies to those who photograph larger algae.  Tiff Stephens, the 2016 winner, could have waited a few moments longer, taken a step along the deck to her left or right, or held the camera at a slightly different angle.   Each would have given her a slightly different image of essentially the same phenomenon.  Whether photographing landscapes or using a microscope, there is nothing sacrosanct about the image beyond it being a record of the photographer’s decision to press a button.  Indeed, I suspect that most of our shortlisted entries are not unique records of the phenomena they record, but one of a number of images, and that a second stage of decision-making is needed to select the image that will be used.

Tiff_Stephens_Swell_Life

Tiffany Stephen’s Swell Life: winner of the 2016 Hilda Canter-Lund prize.   The images at the top of the post show the 2009 and 2010 winners of the Hilda Canter-Lund competition, by Mariano Sirioni and Ernesto Macayo respectively. 

Having challenged the idea that the image, itself, is sacrosanct, there is no particular reason why you should not apply a third stage of decision-making and edit the image to enhance the story that you want to tell.   The field of view that is recorded when you press the shutter release is somewhat arbitrary.  You may be able to modify this, in a generic sense, in your camera’s settings but we usually adjust these only rarely and it is easier to adjust the pictorial space post hoc, using crop and rotate commands in a photo editing package.  The microscopist is further limited because most microscope stages do not rotate so the orientation of an organism can only be adjusted after the image itself has been collected.  Similarly, those of us who are photographing larger algae have only the small screens on our cameras with which to check images in the field, possibly in the face of inclement weather.  There is no disgrace in some judicious imaging editing once we can examine the image on a large screen, and the rules allow for this, along with focus stacking and stitching, essential tools in the microscopist’s armoury.

What about adjustment of colour and tone?   Bear in mind that colour, in the macro world with which we are most familar is reflected and objects can only reflect those wavelengths that reach them.  That means that colour and tone, in underwater photography especially, is not really a fundamental property of the organism you are photographing.   Move the same alga from a deep location to a shallow one, and it will look different for no other reason than the amount and quality of light transmitted through the water will change.   The microscopist is less likely to deal with reflected light, as the camera will be recording light that has passed through a specimen but, here too, the light is far from natural.  It will depend on the type of bulb, the intensity of light that you are using and the set-up of the microscope itself.  Once again, the colour and tones recorded are not fundamental properties of the specimen.   Under such circumstances, there seems to be no particular reason not to use the “levels” and “curves” options in editing packages to produce an image that is visually pleasing.  The judges are looking for basic authenticity and honesty in the image, so as not to deceive or misrepresent the natural world to the viewer, but there is a wide tolerance around this criterion because, frankly, natural light is, itself, so changeable.

The pair of photographs below illustrate this point well.  I was walking through local woodlands as I was thinking about this post.  May in the UK is the time when woodland floors turn a spectacular violet-blue due to the flowers of the bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).   I took the upper photograph on my iPhone then walked a few steps into the woodland to remove the dead tree that runs diagonally across the foreground.  I went back to my original position and took another photograph.   No more than 30 seconds elapsed between the two pictures, but the colour balance is completely different.   It may be a product of the metering in the camera itself (I’ve cropped both to show the same scene but the upper image had more bluebells and less woodland than the lower one) and this introduces another source of variation: the oh-so-clever electronics inside even fairly basic cameras that are making decisions on your behalf.

Shincliffe_bluebells_May20

Two images taken within 30 seconds of each other from the same spot in woodland near Shincliffe, Co. Durham, May 2020.  The images at the top of the post show the 2009 and 2010 winners of the Hilda Canter-Lund competition, by Mariano Sirioni and Ernesto Macayo respectively. 

Most scientists assume that photography offers a “truthful” account of the objects that they are recording.   That’s at odds with the approach of critical theorists in the arts and humanities who recognise how many interventions lie between any object and the final image that is presented to third party viewers.   Susan Sontag, for example, challenges the “presumption of veracity” – less of an issue, perhaps, for fine artists but almost everything we think of as “documentary photography” or “photojournalism” is loaded with presumptions by both photographer and viewer, and it is a small step from those disciplines to scientist’s efforts to use photographs as objective evidence in their research.

The Hilda Canter-Lund competition is, however, not about photography as a scientific tool, but as a means of communication.  Appreciating the artificial nature of photography should be a liberation not a constraint: you, as photographer, probably have as accurate a memory of the image you have captured as the jpeg or tiff file that represents the digital record of the moment you released the shutter.   So feel free to open up the file in an editing package and use your discretion to adjust all the factors that were either in-built constraints or impulsive spur-of-the-moment decisions.   And send the final image to us for consideration for the 2020 Hilda Canter-Lund prize.

You can find the rules of the competition at https://brphycsoc.org/hilda-canter-lund-prize/ along with examples of recent shortlists to inspire you.

Reference

Sontag, Susan (1977).  On Photography.  Penguin Books, Hamondsworth.

Other posts on photographing algae

How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund prize

How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund prize (2)

How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund prize (3)(guest post by Chris Carter, twice winner of the competition)

How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund prize (4)

 

Some other highlights from this week:

Wrote this whilst listening to: still working through my resolution to listen to all Bob Dyla’s albums in sequence.   This week I listened to The Basement Tapes, Desire, Hard Rain (much underrated in my opinion) and Street Legal.  Also enjoyed Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette.

Cultural highlights:  The Assistant is an excellent but gruelling film that references the predatory behaviour of Harvey Weinstein but manages to do this almost entirely by inference and implication.

Currently reading:  Tamed by Alice Roberts, about the domestication of plants and animals, is interesting but rather turgid so I’m alternating chapters with Slaves of New York, a 1986 short story collection by Tama Janowitz which I borrowed from my son’s bookshelf.

Culinary highlight:   Baked cod topped with a pesto made from garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) foraged from the garden and allotment.

Hilda Canter-Lund competition winners 2019

Zoe_Loffler_Synphony_of_Seaweed

This year’s Hilda Canter-Lund competition for the best algal-themed photograph has been won by Zoe Loffler for her image “Symphony of Seaweeds” taken on a at low tide near Apollo Bay, Victoria, Australia, while on a family camping trip.  She took the photo using a Google Nexus 5x Smartphone.  Zoe grew up diving in temperate waters near Melbourne, Australia. She completed her undergraduate degree and PhD at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, studying the ecology of canopy-forming seaweeds (particularly Sargassum spp.) on coral reefs. She is now based in Sydney, and enjoys snorkelling and diving in temperate waters where there is such a wonderful diversity and abundance of seaweeds. The image meets Henri Cartier-Bresson’s maxim of the “decisive moment” (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund prize”) and Zoe comments in her caption that the photo shows all who are unfamiliar with seaweeds that “they are not just brown and smelly!”.

Zoe_Loffler_portrait

Zoe Loffler: winner of the 2018 Hilda Canter-Lund prize for algal photography, for her image “Symphony of Seaweed”, shown at the top of the post.

Since 2016 we have also offered a second prize which is awarded to a photograph in a contrasting style to the overall winner.  This year, that prize goes to Damien Sirjacobs of the University of Liege in Belgium  for his image “Blue Haze”. This shows a bloom of benthic blue diatoms of the genus Haslea (H. ostrearia, H. provincialis) covering a community of macroalgae (Padina pavonica, Acetabularia acetabulum, Halopteris scoparia, Dictyota sp.) in the shallow water of Calvi Bay (Corsica, France). For scale, the circular caps on the end of the Acetabularia stalks are 5 – 10 mm in diameter.   The image was taken at a depth of four metres in May 2018 with a LUMIX TZ10 in an underwater housing, under natural light conditions, while scuba-diving along rocky shores of the Revellatta peninsula (Calvi Bay).

Damien_Sirjacobs_Blue_Haze

Damien Sirjacobs’ image: Blue haze”.  

There is a lot to interest readers of this blog in Damiens’s image; first of all, Acetabularia is another challenge to the generally-accepted view that multicellularity is the only option for large organisms.  Although the plant is quite large and, unlike Vaucheria is more elaborate than a simple tube of cytoplasm (see “The pros and cons of cell walls …”) .  The whole organism is, in fact, just one giant cell with a single nucleus.  

The diatom Haslea that grows over Acetabularia and the other macroalgae in Damien’s picture creates a blue haze due to a pigment called “marennine” which is found in vacuoles inside the cells (as you can see in the photograph below).   When marennine-containing species of Haslea are abundant around oyster beds (as is the case in parts of Brittany), then the pigment turns the gills of the oyster green and such oysters are highly sought after by gastronomes.   Whether or not these oysters really taste better is debatable but marennine certainly does have some antimicrobial properties.

Damien_Sirjacobs_portrait

Damien Sirjacobs: co-winner of the 2019 Hilda Canter-Lund prize for algal photography.

Haslea-Calvi-Julie-Seveno-2

Whilst Zoe’s image has direct visual appeal, and most people will recognise it almost straightaway as depicting seaweeds, Damien’s image has a more other-worldly quality.   Unless you are familiar with the habitats and organisms, then it is difficult to interpret what is portrayed (see “Abstracting from reality …”).   One of the challenges of photographing algae is that we are dealing with the real yet little understood aspects of biodiversity, creating a multi-layered problem: first, of capturing an impression of the organism(s) but, also,  of interpreting the image to a lay-audience.   In the case of Blue Haze we have that intriguing combination of beauty, mystery and economic relevance.   That is what makes phycology such a fascinating subject.

Reference

Gastineau, R., Prasetiya, F.S., Falaise, C., Cognie, B., Decottignies, P.,  Morançais, M., Méléder, V., Davidovich, N., Turcotte, F., Tremblay, R., Pasetto, P., Dittmer, J., Bardeau, J.-F., Pouvreau, J.-B. & Mouget, J.-B. (2018). Marennine-like pigments: blue diatom or green oyster cult?   pp. 529-551.  In: Blue Biotechnology: Production and Use of Marine Molecules (edited by Stéphane La Barre and Stephen S. Bates).  Wiley VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA

Hilda Canter-Lund competition 2017 winners

The winner of the 2017 Hilda Canter-Lund photography competition is Chris Carter for his image of the desmid Pleurotaenium coronatum var. robustum.   This is the second time that Chris has won the competition and his fifth time on the shortlist, confirming an already impressive reputation as a photographer of the algal world.   This particular image is of a specimen that was collected whilst on holiday in Newfoundland, Canada, and preserved in formalin.  This led to the loss of chloroplast colour but which, in turn, made the pore field at the end of the cell more obvious.

The technical skill behind this image is not immediately obvious unless you know the genus Pleuotaenium typically consists of cylindrical cells several times longer than wide.  This particular specimen is 45 micrometres (about 1/20th of a millimetre) in diameter but is almost half a millimetre long.  The challenge was increased because the 100x magnification oil-immersion objective which he used has a very shallow depth of field.  Chris had to suspend the cell in dilute jelly in a cavity tank not much deeper than its length.  Having done this, he agitated the cell with a length of fine wire and once it was no longer horizontal he could manipulate it by gently sliding the coverslip relative to the cell.  The photograph which won the competition is one of many attempts and, even so, Chris commented that the cell is probably a degree or so away from vertical even here but, he went on: “I thought the lighting was actually quite attractive with the bronze hue of the preserved wall contrasting with a blue tinge from the light source; even the very slight tilt perhaps suggests a monster (or a something) rising out of the deep.”

Pleurotaenium coronatum var. robustum.  The top left image is an apical view, showing the pores and the radial ring of tubercules (knobbly projections).  The lower image shows the cell in plane view.   All images by Chris Carter.

Chris Carter, Hilda Canter-Lund prize winner, 2013 and 2017.

The second prize this year was also awarded to a former winner.  Tiff Stephens won the competition last year with her photograph of Durvillaea antarctica in the intertidal zone of the sub-Antarctic Snares Islands.  This year, it was her photograph of the red alga Bonnemaisonia clavata that caught the judge’s eye.   This is a very different style of photograph to her winning entry from last year, taken using an Olympus DP20 camera on a dissecting microscope.   The row of spheres along the secondary axis (“stem”) contain female reproductive cells and the prominent branchlet in the centre right is 1.5 mm long.

“Cystocarp Central”: Tiffany Stephen’s winning entry for the 2017 Hilda Canter-Lund photography competition. 

Though the style of the picture is very different to last year’s entry, it shares with that image an encapsulation of the “decisive moment” (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”). Tiff comments that many of her images are “opportunistically taken while sprinting around doing fieldwork”.  In this particular case, she was on a fun dive outside of Victoria, British Columbia (Canada), collecting seaweeds to look at later, with a view to possibly making herbarium pressings.   She saw dense lumps of Bonnemaisonia clavata, a species with which she was not familiar, at depths between 5 and 10 metres on semi-exposed reefs and collected some to have a closer look later.

The two images represent the two extremes of photographing the microscopic world: Chris applied a great deal of technical skill and ingenuity to create an aesthetically-pleasing image from difficult subject matter whilst Tiff saw an elegant composition drift into view as she scanned around recently-collected field material.  Both photographers have an “eye” for a good composition and the patience and technical skill needed to capture a fine image when the occasion final presented itself.   They are also – and this is important – keen field scientists, grabbing samples out of sheer curiosity and then marvelling as new and fantastical worlds open up to them under the microscope.  Both worthy winners and, with John Huisman (winner in 2014, shortlisted five times), now form algal photography’s “superleague”: the people to beat in 2018!

Tiff Stephens surrounded by Macrocystis in Alaska earlier this year.  Follow Tiff on Twitter at @tiffanybot to see more examples of her photography.

Hilda Canter-Lund competition shortlist 2017

The shortlist for the annual Hilda Canter-Lund competition to find the best algal photograph has just been uploaded to the British Phycological Society website and here is a quick guide to the images.  No less than three previous winners have made it to the shortlist again, along with three newcomers, so it looks like being a particularly intriguing year.

2013 winner Chris Carter has made it to the shortlist for the fifth time with an apical view of the desmid Pleurotaenium coronatum var. robustum with an image that combines aesthetics and technical ability in his own inimitable manner (above left).   The desmid genus Pleurotaenium typically has cylindrical cells several times longer than wide, so getting a good image of one end of a cylinder that is about 1/20th of a millimetre in diameter is quite an achievement.   He is joined on the shortlist by 2016 winner Tiff Stephens, who switches style this year to offer a macroscopic view of female reproductive cells of the subtidal red seaweed Bonnemaisonia clavata, collected off the coast of Vancouver Island in Canada (above right).   The prominent branchlet in the centre-right with its own side branches is 1.5 mm long.

John Huisman shares with Chris Carter the honour of being the most shortlisted photographer in the competition, with five nominations including the winning entry in 2014.   His image this year shows the green alga Ulva stenophylloides, at the centre of a diverse assemblage (above left), photographed whilst snorkelling off the coast of Western Australia.   Heather Spalding, by contrast, makes her first appearance on the shortlist, with a view of Chara zylanica beds in a brackish lagoon in Hawaïi (above right).  Note the small snail making its way across the plants in the foreground, reminding us of the important role that macroalgae play in structuring ecosystems.

We go back to Australia – the D’Entrecasteaux Channel in Tasmania actually – for the next entry: Luis Henriquez’s image of a young plant of the brown alga Carpoglossum confluens emerging from a bed of Caulerpa trifaria (above left). As well as providing a striking image, Luis’ image also tells a story of marine eutrophication as the slow growing brown algae such as Carpoglossum are struggling to compete with the fast growing green algae such as Caulerpa.   Finally, Alizée Mauffrey brings a completely different style to the competition, with a collage of images of seaweeds exhibiting different functional traits (above right).   As well as telling a story about how different morphological, phenological and physiological traits combine to equip each species to inhabit a particular niche, Alizée also creates a pleasantly abstract composition.   She is also the first person to submit an image produced using a flatbed scanner rather than a camera (for more examples of this technique, see An Ocean Garden by Josie Iselin).

This shortlist is unusual in that there is only a single true micrograph and a single freshwater alga (both represented by Chris Carter’s image).   A number – using both the light microscope and scanning electron microscope – were submitted but the judges who selected the shortlist felt that most did not quite make the grade.  It was a close call in a couple of instances (and, in at least one case, some minor adjustments to contrast might have persuaded us) but that is the sad truth.  It may simply be that taking a really good image using a high power microscope is a more technically demanding task than photographing macroalgae in situ?   If nothing else, this does show just how good a photographer Hilda Canter-Lund was.

The final step in the competition is for the council of the British Phycological Society to vote for the winning entry.  After that, a second (but equal) prize will be awarded for the best of the shortlisted entries in a contrasting style (i.e. a micrograph is a photo of a macroalga wins and vice versa).   Both winners should be announced within the next couple of weeks so keep an eye on www.brphycsoc.org for the announcements.  And, while you are there, browse through the archives of pictures that we’ve accumulated since the competition started in 2009 and enjoy some of the remarkable and beautiful organisms that they portray.

How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (3)

My two previous posts on the qualities that make a great image of an alga focussed on the ascetics of the image itself, and also identified major technical problems that confront those of us who want to take images of the microscopic world.   At this point, my own ability to write authoritatively on the subject peters out, so I have asked Chris Carter, who won the competition in 2013 and was shortlisted in 2010, 2011 and 2015, to write a guest post in which he shares his own extensive experience.

“Everything in optics is against the microscope photographer”: a guest post by Chris Carter

Chris-Carter

Everything in optics is against the photographer of the microscopic world, and the algal photographer in particular. Without cheating, there is limited scope to choose what is (or is not); in the field of view; the depth of focus is usually tight; the object size rarely matches the available field; no microscope objective can match the usable pixel count of a modern camera lens in conventional photography, and colours are, to say the least, difficult. Transmitted light photography has the additional problem of Beer’s law (remember!): make an object three times thicker and it will let through a ninth of the light, creating problems with the dynamic range.

The bottom line is that “adjustments” and some degree of image manipulation are necessary but these, in turn, place an onus on the photographer not to be dishonest with either the viewer or the organism.  The extent to which image manipulation is acceptable will depend upon whether the image is for a respected scientific journal, a competition, or for a Christmas Card. We cannot be too purist: the camera always lies and a modern digital camera works wonders in the background; what is colour anyway but an illusion derived from the eye and brain? For the holiday snapshot you are allowed to move the glass of beer out of the field of view first but you are not allowed to paste in a missing family member (or vice versa!) later. For the microscope image I suggest it is acceptable to remove objects that are spurious (e.g. floating limescale) and to use software tools to fuse images of the same object tastefully and honestly in the horizontal and vertical planes. In contrast, it is all too easy to add objects to an image to give a nice montage (e.g. of sparsely distributed planktonic forms) or to use false colours in an area that can be defined exactly by some other method. Similarly, other ‘composite’ images ( e.g. two views of the same object) have a place but may be difficult to make visually pleasing.

So, how do we go about this? The first necessity is to use a good image processing software package: there are lots of them and it isn’t easy to choose. I use Adobe Photoshop CS6. The first steps in processing a single image are to get the colours about right (there are separate sliders for each of the primary colours and filters for warming and cooling); for an image in transmitted light there will be overly dark and overly bright areas which the ‘shadow-highlight’ tool may fix easily. In more difficult cases adjustment the parameter ‘gamma’ can help: this tries to scale the dynamic range in the image to what is seen by the eye and to what comes over in a print or on a monitor: it is merely overcoming the limitations of the electronic and optical gadgets in use. Similar actions are performed by the ‘curves’ and ‘levels’ control: each allows the user to choose which colours and in which intensity to best convey information about the object in an aesthetic way whilst not wrecking its essential nature. At each pixel and in each primary colour the data will be stored as a (usually) 8 bit number giving 255 levels in total.  These levels need not be evenly spaced; ‘gamma’ for example can give more emphasis to the dark or the light areas whilst the other settings control which levels are used. Most digital cameras will be doing this in the background (even on a ‘raw’ setting) but my own camera does no pre-processing at all, which has advantages and disadvantages.

So much for colour: but there are still issues associated with depth of focus and field of view that need to be sorted out; these are both relatively easy to overcome technically but can create a considerable amount of work and have the potential to create taxonomic and artistic mayhem. I use two methods for producing images with an extended depth of focus both using separate images taken over the range of focus that is needed. The first is to use a ‘stacking’ software package such as ‘Helicon Focus’ (but there are others) and the second is to make use of ‘layers’ in Photoshop: each of these methods has its pros and cons but both need honesty and good sense as well as an eye on the “why am I doing this?” question.

Stacking with Helicon Focus tends to work better at lower magnifications: with a x100 oil objective curvature changes rapidly with focus and great care is needed; the software is easily confused and I did once introduce an extra row of punctae into a diatom! Good results at low magnification can be obtained with macroalgae such as the stoneworts, but even here taxonomic information can be lost in the process (e.g. the height difference between the primary and secondary cortex rows and the location of the spine cells). As I hinted above, there is always an ongoing and unresolved tension between the artist, the microscopist and the taxonomist!  At intermediate magnifications an image produced using Helicon Focus can look overly flat and artificial, despite being sharp. My own approach is to use a gentle touch to produce pictures that are primarily useful but very occasionally develop into an artistic masterpiece! By contrast, using “layers” in Photoshop requires human intervention to ‘paint in’ the wanted parts of different images.  For example, the desmid Micrasterias will rarely present in a sufficiently flat plane for a good image at high magnification; however, it is easy to judge what is closest to reality and to blend this in. Even here there are pitfalls: the end of the polar lobe in some species is normally out of plane or twisted….so again, what is the image for? A similar comment applies to the colonial green alga Pediastrum in which the peripheral cells have horns that are alternately up and down and the central cells often have surface granules.

micrasterias-crux-melitensi

The desmid Micrasterias crux-melintensis has many named forms and is fairly easily recognised.  It will never sit flat enough for a x100 oil lens but in this case nothing is lost by tasteful flattening with Helicon Focus  and layers. Or is it? How many people have seen the somewhat surprising apical and side views? (No wonder it does not sit flat!). These extra views show the need for gamma adjustment and colour correction since light beams will be modified after passing through such an object. Is this composite image of artistic or of taxonomic value only? The face view is made of 17 sub-images processed as two semi-cells that were stitched using Photoshop layers; some correction to colours and levels was also necessary.

thumbnail_pediastrum-boryan

There are many forms of Pediastrum boryanum but this is a particularly pretty one from Ulva growing on a wet cliff face; the red walls are real (perhaps manganese as suggested by Brian Whitton). This image borders on “cheating”: it was entered (no success) for a national wildlife contest but not for Hilda Canter-Lund competition (I don’t think she would have approved!). Should the horns have been flattened or left as obviously alternating?

After the issue of focus, there is still the problem of field-of view but it is really fairly easy to stitch together a matrix of images in the same plane, at least in simple cases. Photoshop has an option to do this and there are other similar packages; this is also another job that ‘layers’ in Photoshop cope with very well: adjacent overlapping images can be blended manually. It is more difficult of course if these adjacent images are themselves blends at different focus points……it just takes a long time to get right. The image of Tolypella glomerata that was a runner-up in the 2015 Hilda Canter-Lund competition was made of 75 sub-images (17×5 approx) and took two days to process! Each of the 17 in the xy plane was shot as a stereo pair, so there is also a matching anaglyph (3D image) made of 150 sub-images!

chris_carter_tolypella_hcl_

“Out of the pit”: Chris Carter’s image of Tolypella glomerata, shortlisted for the 2013 Hilda Canter-Lund prize.

thumbnail_chara-fragifera-a

This dark-field image showing the antheridia of Chara fragifera is made up of 28 sub-images: 4 horizontally and 7 for the vertical stacking; a protruding green filament has been removed (actually a rare Bulbochaete, but that is another story).

One final point, unresolved in my view and perhaps the most difficult of all is the issue of dynamic range. In transmitted light photography the intensity of difference between bright and dark can be nearly impossible to capture: well beyond the capability of the 8 bits of a normal camera and marginal even for an expensive cooled CCD instrument. Photoshop and other packages claim HDR ability (High Dynamic Range) using several images of different exposure: I have not personally had much success with this but have regularly used Photoshop layers to blend such images manually and regard this as acceptable in all cases (see the Rivularia cross-section below).

All the algae are amazing but even a retired physical scientist has to narrow things down a bit: I am trying to use photography to bring out the three dimensional aspects for identification and appreciation: diatom auxospores, desmids from unusual angles and macroalgae as 3D recreations such as anaglyphs and stereograms….but that is another story.

thumbnail_rivularia-xsect3

The cyanobacterium Rivularia presents many photographic challenges. This is a section of a nodule in transmitted light done for taxonomic purposes: in-focus bits of the calcification have been discretely blended in and the outermost part showing hairs is at a very different exposure to the core; colours are distorted by passing through the nodule and have been corrected. Three or four overlapping sections have been accurately joined to produce the final image.

Chris Carter, Nothampton August 2016.

Abstracting from reality …

Abstract_based_on_Sironi_Au

In a recent post, I mused on the blurred boundaries between “representation” and “abstraction” when applied to the microscopic world (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (2)”.  These reflections sent me back to one of our earliest winners, Mario Sironi’s image of a Southern Right Whale swimming through an algal bloom (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”), to test these thoughts.  My reflections were mostly concerned with the microscopic world; that Mario’s image deals with one of the largest organisms on earth just helps to make the point.  At the heart of representational art lies the ability of an independent viewer to relate a two dimensional image to a “sense impression” (or “schemata”) lodged in their mind.   That means that if the viewer does not have the same schemata as the artist, then an image that was intended by the artist as representational will not be recognised as such.  The artist usually assumes that viewers will possess a catalogue of such schemata that are broadly similar to his or her own.

Most people who depict the natural world – whether by photographs or other media – confine themselves to the macroscopic and the obvious.  This means that there is a strong chance that the viewer will possess the appropriate schemata and both “recognise” the image and make appropriate mental connections that allow viewers to add layers of context in order to interpret a picture.   A picture of a lamb, for example, should be recognisable as a juvenile stage of Ovis aries.  This, in turn, may be used by the artist to suggest an interpretation.  To a 16th or 17th century viewer, a lamb included in a portrait of a child suggests youthful innocence: an interpretation that may be lost on a modern viewer who sees, simply, a child with a lamb, but lacks the mental connections to read more deeply into the image.

When the microscopic world is used as subject matter, the distinctions begin to blur yet further – the images themselves might be “realistic” but still not be recognisable by the lay viewer, and the reduced number of mental connections will limit the ways in which the picture is interpreted yet further.   One person’s “representation” can become someone else’s “abstract” image.   The idea in the painting above is to take an image that is representational – most people would recognise that two whales formed the focal point – and then to “nudge” it over the border into abstraction.   The interplay between the greens and the blues of the water brought to mind some of Mark Rothko’s juxtapositions of colour.   The whales and their attendant foam could, in turn, be reduced to a few lines of black and white paint, providing a focal point for the canvas that sets it apart from Rothko’s signature style.   In retrospect, I could probably push the image a little further towards abstraction than this experiment …

I see antecedents for this work in Piet Mondrian’s explorations of the boundary between realism and abstraction around 1912.  He painted a whole series of images of trees that gradually, over time, were stripped back from recognisable Post-Impressionistic landscapes to a point where form was asserted over content, the palette was reduced and, eventually, the schemata of a “tree” disappeared altogether.

My point is that the boundary between “realism” and “abstraction” is not a fixed point, but depends upon our own sensory experiences.   Those of us who portray the world of microscopic algae need to remember this.  Perhaps the same argument can be posited for the boundary between “representation” and the “other worlds” theme that I mentioned in my earlier posts?   Again, we need to consider our audience: my aim in my paintings and in these posts is to convey some of the wonders of the natural world that most people overlook.   The question we need to ask is whether we are fulfilling this role as ambassadors for the hidden world of algae if most of our audiences are just seeing shapes and patterns?

Reference

Gombrich, E.H. (1960).  Art and Illusion.   A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation.   Phaidon Press, London.

How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (2)

My previous post on this subject (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”) considered the dichotomy between the “decisive moment” – the spontaneous recognition of the potential of a view to become a great image – and the painstaking preparation – and post-production work – that is often necessary to produce a really stunning image of the microscopic world.   In this post, I am going to take a step backwards, then approach the topic of photographing algae from a different angle.

Let’s take as a starting point a desire to simply provide a good representation of an alga in order to convey some essential information that allows someone else to recognise or name that organism.   You might try to simplify the background to throw the subject into sharper definition, and you will aim to get as much of the organism in sharp focus.   You will also try to offer the viewer an indication of scale, particularly important when dealing with the microscopic world.  A good example of such an image which made the shortlist in 2010 is Chris Rieken’s image of the desmid Micrasterias radiata.   You would be very pleased to open a guide to desmids and find an image as clear as this to help you identify your own specimens.

Rieken_Znafor_HCL_images

Left: Chris Rieken: Micrasterias radiata Prox (2010 shortlisted image); right: Petr Znafor: Freshwater phytoplankton dominated by desmids (2016, co-winner).

Compare Chris’ image with Petr Znachor’s image which won a prize in 2016.   Both are of desmids, but they are very different.  Chris has focussed on representation of the organism and has produced a beautifully crisp image whilst Petr has used the fact that some of the desmids in his image are not in sharp focus to create an aesthetically-pleasing pattern.   It is still, recognisably, of desmids, and you may be able to name the genera, yet it is harder to say exactly what species are present.   The two images, in other words, illustrate a tension between representation and abstraction that runs through many of the winning and short-listed entries of the microscopic world (Lira Gaysina’s image of Trichormus variabilis, shown in my earlier post, also demonstrates this tension.

Gunter_Forsterra_octopus_ga

Günter Forsterra: Octopus’ Garden (2015 winner)

Günter Forsterra’s winning image from 2015 illustrates another direction that images of algae can take.  He photographed marine macroalgae – several orders of magnitude larger than the microalgae discussed in the previous paragraph –but, like Petr Znachor and Lira Gaysina, he was not aiming to create a technically-perfect image that would allow a viewer to name the organisms present.  Instead, he takes us into another world, one that is hidden to all but a small number of initiates.   The temptation is to refer to the underwater landscape portrayed by Günter as “surreal”, but this term has a precise meaning in cultural studies (relating to the interface between dreams and reality) should not really be applied haphazardly.  I prefer to the term “other worlds”, recognising that his image conveys an impression of a different, altogether stranger, world than most of us have ever experienced.

Algae_&_art_overview

Conceptual diagram of the tensions inherent in algal photography.  Scientific illustrations, designed primarily to inform, sit at the top of the pyramid; moving away from straight representation towards either of the other corners creates images with greater aesthetic value but, perhaps, at the cost of information.

There are, in other words, at least two tensions that can work on an image of an alga to create an aesthetically-pleasing image; I’ve summarised these in the diagram above.   Chris Rieken’s image would lie close to the apex of the triangle, with “representation” predominant; Petr Znachor’s image would lie closer to the “abstraction” corner, whilst Günter Forsterra’s is in the opposite corner, “other worlds”.   All of the images that are submitted can fit onto this triangle somewhere; the question is how these tensions are balanced to raise a straightforward representation of an alga into an image that combines informative, technical and aesthetic properties and creates a work of art.

Neither “abstraction” nor “other worlds” are unambiguous concepts; both require an interaction with the viewer.   To someone familiar with freshwater algae, Petr Znachor’s image is clearly of desmids, and many will be able to identify the two genera that are present (Cosmarium and Staurastrum).   However, someone who knows little of algae will just see a collection of colours and shapes.  The boundary between representation and abstraction, in other words, is fluid; the viewer is never neutral and, for this reason, the legend becomes very important, providing a bridge between the image and the viewer.  In a similar way, Günter Forsterra’s image could appear, to the uninformed, to be something from a science fiction movie.  Again, the legend acts to locate the image firmly on Planet Earth and, hopefully, to raise awareness of the importance of algae to healthy marine ecosystems.

Bresnan_Chaetoceros_chaos

Eileen Bresnan: Chaetoceros chaos (2010 shortlist).  An example of a very abstract depiction of an alga.

Depiction of “other worlds” is harder for those of us who study the microscopic world, due to the problems associated with shallow depths of field (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”); microscopic images, as a result, tend towards “abstraction”.  However, it is not just the shallow depth of field that is an issue here: we also have to consider the disruption caused to a microscopic ecosystem caused by the sampling process, and then as it is teased apart, squashed onto a microscope slide and viewed at unnaturally high light intensities.   That is why I prefer to use paints to recreate the microscopic world in situ.  The results are, I know, partially the result of my imagination but, then again, everything that we view down a microscope is, to some extent, manipulated and artificial.

This post, and the previous one, have focussed less on how to take a great photograph than on what makes a great image.   I hope that it inspires you to go out and have a go.   We’ll come back to some of the technical issues in microphotography in a future post.

More about the Hilda Canter-Lund competition can be found here

Hilda Canter-Lund competition 2016 second prize winner

Petr_Znachor_compressed

A short while ago I wrote about Tiffany Stephens winning entry for the 2016 Hilda Canter-Lund prize.   Following that, the Council of the British Phycological Society agreed that a second prize, of equal value, would also be awarded, starting this year, which means that I am very pleased to announce that Petr Znachor’s image of summer phytoplankton from the Řìmov Rservoir in the Czech Republic will also be honoured by the society.

The rationale for the decision is that Hilda Canter-Lund was primarily a photographer of the microscopic world, yet five of the seven winners of the competition to date have either been of images of macroalgae or (in the case of the 2009 winner) a seascape in which an algal bloom is prominent.  I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this, but the greater technical challenges facing anyone who wishes to photograph the microscopic world plays a key role.  The first prize is awarded based on a vote by members of the BPS Council; the second prize, by contrast, will be awarded at the judge’s discretion, but for an image in a contrasting style.   This year, as Tiffany Stephens won with an image of the macroalga Durvillaea antarctica, the award goes to Petr Znachor but there is no reason why, in future years, a microalgal image may get the most votes, in which case a macroalgal image will get the other prize.

Petr’s image shows summer phytoplankton in the eutrophic Řìmov Rservoir dominated by the desmids Cosmarium and Staurastrum. It was taken during examination of a sample that was collected as part of a long-term monitoring program and concentrated with 20 µm plankton net.  He used an Olympus BX51 microscope with Nomarski contrast lighting and an Olympus DP70 camera.

znachy

Petr Znachor received his Ph.D. from the University of South Bohemia (Czech Republic) in 2003. He is currently a research associate at the Institute of Hydrobiology where his research focuses on phytoplankton ecology and, in particular, the ecology of reservoirs and analyses of long-term time series of data. Ever since he first looked through a microscope he was astonished by the myriad beautiful shapes and colours of phytoplankton existing in a single drop of water. He hopes that his pictures raise awareness of the importance of these tiny organisms.

As do we.