Photographing the Microscopic World

Blog: 1.17.12

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 06:00 AM

Graphite-bearing granulite from Kerala, India, at 2.5x magnification using a polarized light microscope. (Bernardo Cesare, Department of Geosciences, University of Padua, Italy. Courtesy of Nikon Small World competition.)

Like any other talented photographer, Bernardo Cesare combines skilled use of lenses and light with his own judgment and timing to capture striking images. His photographs investigate the history of the earth and expose the mysteries of its formation. His work fits into a tiny niche in the world of photography: micrographic art. He uses an optical microscope to extend the reach of his camera. After all, what is a microscope but a more powerful set of lenses?

Cesare is a petrologist: a geologist who studies rocks. The tools of his trade are a light microscope and slivers of rocks shaved down to a thickness of just 0.03mm. When he passes polarized light (which vibrates differently than regular white light) through the sample, variations show up as different colors, revealing structure and composition. While he has built his scientific career by analyzing these images, it is not just the information that he values, but their beauty as well.

He's not alone in his appreciation of the aesthetic potential of the microscopic world. Microscopes have been at the core of scientific discovery for hundreds of years and as soon as it became possible to aim a camera through the microscopes, the first photomicrographs were made. Techniques available to micrographers have expanded and digital photography has made the production of photomicrographs far less expensive.

The result is a thriving community of professionals and enthusiasts seeking beauty through the lenses of their microscopes. Competitions sponsored by Nikon and Olympus promote their work as an artistic, as well as educational, endeavor.

The Nikon Small World competition began in 1974, and the Olympus BioScapes competition followed more recently, in 2003, rewarding photomicrographers with thousands of dollars worth of equipment. In addition to the aesthetics of the images, technical expertise and scientific value are taken into account when the entries are judged.

Both BioScapes and Small World host full galleries from the competitions over the years. In addition, Small World posts a daily quiz of micrographic images (is that zebrafish olfactory bulbs, rat embryo eye buds, or finch testicles?).

Over the years, winning images have been produced not just by scientists, but by hobbyists as well — including four of the images featured in the slideshow below.

Entries to this year's Nikon competition must be submitted by April 30, 2012, and to the Olympus BioScapes competition by September 30, 2012.

Slideshow: Micrographic Art

Courtesy of Spike Walker and the Olympus BioScapes Competition

Image of suckers on the tarsus of the front leg of a male Dytiscus beetle made using the Rheinberg illumination technique by Spike Walker of Penkridge, Staffordshire, UK.
(Honorable mention in the 2010 Olympus BioScapes competition.)

Courtesy of Loes Modderman and the Nikon Small World competition

Image of crystallized saccharine at 25x magnification made using the polarized light technique by Loes Modderman of Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
(Honorable mention in the 2003 Nikon Small World competition.)

Courtesy of Thomas Deerinck and the Olympus BioScapes competition

Image of a rat tongue made using the confocal technique by Thomas Deerinck of the University of California, San Diego.
(Seventh place in the 2007 Olympus BioScapes competition.)

Courtesy of Donna Stolz and the Nikon Small World Competition

Image of a blade of grass at 200x magnification made using the confocal stack reconstruction technique by Donna Stolz of the University of Pittsburgh.
(Second place in the 2001 Nikon Small World competition.)

Courtesy of Gunnar Newquist and the Olympus BioScapes competition

Image of fruitfly (Drosophila melanogaster) ovaries and uterus made using the fluorescence technique by Gunnar Newquist of the University of Nevada, Reno.
(Seventh place in the 2011 Olympus BioScapes competition.)

Courtesy of Laurie Knight and the Olympus BioScapes competition

Image of the wing scales of a Sunset moth (Uranea ripheus) made using the episcopic illumination technique by Laurie Knight of Tonbridge, Kent, the United Kingdom.
(Honorable mention in the 2010 Olympus BioScapes competition.)

Courtesy of Michael Stringer and Nikon Small World competition

Image of Pleurosigma (marine diatoms) at 200x magnification made using darkfield and polarized light techniques by Michael Stringer of Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, UK.
(First place, 2008 Nikon Small World competition.)


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