A Small World (I Mean REALLY Small)

I won't even pretend to be an expert in photo microscopy. Sure, I loved microscopes in science classes, and I've dabbled in semi-professional photography over the years but mainly rock concerts and stage shows. But we're talking images of plankton at 400X magnification. That takes a whole different level of skill, understanding and squinting. So I was a little surprised when Nikon approached me to help judge their annual Small World competition. But I jumped at the chance.

The contest is a long-standing tradition at Nikon, dating back to 1974. (At one point the CEO of Nikon came in to greet us.) It's grown immensely over the past several years in conjunction with the growth of digital cameras. And so it was up to me and my four fellow judges to determine the top 100 images, then order the top 20, ultimately deciding on the best submission. Here's the rub: We started with 1,709 photographs.

It took a full day of deliberation last week in the Nikon headquarters in Melville, NY, (not unlike jury duty). Each image was displayed to us in a plasma screen and we discussed whether to keep it or toss it. Somewhere between image number 1,267 and 953, I honestly began to wonder if this was really how I agreed to spend my day. (I know I wasn't alone with that sentiment.) There were no fights (nothing involving thrown chairs anyway), though there was lots of spirited debate. At times it was mentally exhausting. So what kept us going? It's actually really cool and impressive stuff. From cancer cells to microchips to flowers to embryos to bugs. A true convergence of art and science at a microscopic level. Not only do these images potentially provide a greater understanding of, say, the eye pattern on a fruit fly, it's also an astonishing collection of colorful and creative imagery. Many times we were simply curious to know what we were looking at.

At the end of the day I was honored to be a judge -- even if I did feel like I was seeing spots for the remainder of the evening. (For the record: As per journalistic standards, we weren't paid nor did we receive any Nikon gear, and any type of microscope or camera was allowed by the participants.)

P.S. The winners will be announced in October at The Explorers Club, which is why I'm being so cryptic about the decisions we made. And eventually many of the winning images will be part of a Nikon calendar.