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See the year’s most remarkable microscope photographs

From tulip buds to Vitamin C, there’s immense beauty in the natural world that usually remains hidden.

Nikon, the international technology company, is known for its specialty optical instruments, like microscopes, but also for its cameras—both of which are created from Nikon’s very own glass. For the last 45 years, the company has bolstered its left brain-meets-right brain image by hosting an annual photography competition: Nikon Small World.

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The nearly half century-old competition is unusual, in that it invites photographers and scientists alike to submit images of subjects visible under a microscope. The winners of this year’s contest were announced yesterday, and the images prove that it’s the details within that paint the bigger picture.

Teresa Zgoda & Teresa Kugler, Fluorescent turtle embryo. [Photo: courtesy Nikon Small World]

The winning image, created by microscopy technician Teresa Zgoda and recent grad Teresa Kugler, depicts a technicolor turtle embryo. The team of two captured the embryo using fluorescence and stereo microscopy, which allowed for them to view the scientific specimen under a microscope and render it vividly for the public to enjoy.

“Microscopy lets us zoom in on the smallest organisms and building blocks that comprise our world—giving us a profound appreciation for the small things in life that far too often go unnoticed,” Kugler said in a statement. “It allows me to do science with a purpose.”

But the most impressive step in the creation of this final image is the one that came last: Zgoda and Kugler used image-stitching software to develop the complete photograph—making it the sum of several tiny parts. This imaging technique allows photographers to stack hundreds of images on top of each other and stitch them together to create one unified visual. Since the turtle embryo was at once microscopic, yet very thick too, the winning artists had to layer their images very carefully, given that they were only able to capture small portions of the turtle at a time.

This year, Nikon Small World received more than 2,000 entries from 100 countries, and the judging panel—made up of experts from across creative and scientific fields, including writers, editors, researchers, and even pediatrics professors—recognized 86 photographs submitted to the global competition. You can check them out in the slideshow above.

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