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Plant Focus

Quercus peninsularis
A Red Oak (Section Lobatae) endemic to inland ranges of northern Baja California, Mexico

Oak Photo Wins Nikon 2021 Small World Competition

A photo of a leaf of Quercus virginiana (southern live oak) has won a renowned photography competition—though few IOS members would be able to identify the species from the image:

Trichomes and stomata on Quercus virginiana leaf
Jason Kirk's extreme close-up of a Quercus virginiana leaf

The image, created by Jason Kirk, won first place in the Small World Photomicrography Competition sponsored by Nikon. It shows trichomes (white appendages) and stomata (purple pores) on a southern live oak leaf. 

This year’s first place winner first dabbled in microscopy in the mid-90s, when digital photography was still in its infancy. Technology has since progressed, as has Jason Kirk's career in microscopy, and the professional imager now works as the core director for Baylor College of Medicine’s Optical Imaging & Vital Microscopy Core in Houston, Texas, USA.

Using various lighting techniques and design tools, Jason’s final image is a masterful example of the dynamic relationship between imaging technology and artistic creativity. Using a custom-made microscope system that combines color-filtered transmitted light with diffused reflected light, Jason captured around 200 individual images of the leaf and stacked them together to create the stunning image.

Prominently featured in his photo in white are trichomes, which are fine outgrowths that protect a plant against extreme weather and insects. In purple, Jason highlights the stomata, small pores that regulate the flow of gases in a plant. Colored in cyan are the vessels that transport water throughout the leaf. All three are essential to plant life.

Getting ready for the closeup

“The lighting side of it was complicated,” said Jason. “Microscope objectives are small and have a very shallow depth of focus. I couldn’t just stick a giant light next to the microscope and have the lighting be directional. It would be like trying to light the head of a pin with a light source that's the size of your head.” Jason edited the color temperature and hue in post-production to better illustrate the various elements pictured.

“I've learned a lot from the scientific community, having spent 20 plus years in this field, but I've also learned a lot from the people in the hobbyist environment,” said Jason, “Small World is a great combination of the two groups, and you don't often get an opportunity to see that.”

Photomicrographers in the limelight

According to their website, the Nikon Small World Competition first began in 1975 as a means to recognize and applaud the efforts of those involved with photography through the light microscope. Since then, Small World has become a leading showcase for photomicrographers from the widest array of scientific disciplines. A photomicrograph is a technical document that can be of great significance to science or industry. But a good photomicrograph is also an image whose structure, color, composition, and content is an object of beauty, open to several levels of comprehension and appreciation. The Nikon Small World Competition is open to anyone with an interest in photography through the microscope. Winners have included both professionals and hobbyists. Nikon welcomes a broad range of subject matter, and any type of light microscopy technique is acceptable, including phase contrast, polarized light, fluorescence, interference contrast, darkfield, confocal, deconvolution, and mixed techniques. Entries submitted to Nikon are then judged by an independent panel of experts who are recognized authorities in the area of photomicrography and photography. These entries are judged on the basis of originality, informational content, technical proficiency, and visual impact.

Another image of an oak leaf won an Image of Distinction award in the in 2018 competition.

Quercus rubra leaf undresde
This image of the underside of a Quercus rubra leaf by Ellen Woods
was one of the Images of Distinction in the 2018 Small World Competition
And photographs of oak galls by Daniel Vega were Images of Distinction in the 2008 and 2009 competitions:
Quercus leaf gall formed by a gall wasp, Daniel Vega, Image of Distinction 2009
Quercus leaf gall formed by a gall wasp, Daniel Vega, Image of Distinction 2009
Quercus sp. leaf gall, Daniel Vega, Image of Distinction 2008
Quercus sp. leaf gall, Daniel Vega, Image of Distinction 2008

Exhibition Tour Schedule

Each year, the top 20 prize-winners are exhibited at numerous museums and science centers throughout the United States and Canada. Many winning images are also featured on the covers of prestigious scientific and industrial journals.

Small World Gallery

The Nikon Small World Gallery gives you a glimpse into a world that most have never seen. It is a window into a universe that can only be seen through the lens of a microscope. Included in the Small World Gallery are images from the most recent competition and winning photomicrographs dating back to 1977.

With thanks to Robert Neighbors and Patrick Vereecke for bringing this story to our attention.