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.
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.
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.
Sontag, Susan (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books, Hamondsworth.
Other posts on photographing algae
How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund prize (3)(guest post by Chris Carter, twice winner of the competition)
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.