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20 Of The Year's Best Microscopic Images

Each year, Nikon hosts the biggest competition in tiny photography. Here are the winners.

  • <p>Chaetoceros debilis (marine diatom), a colonial plankton organism</p>

<p>Mr. Wim van Egmond<br />
1st Place<br />
Micropolitan Museum<br />
Berkel en Rodenrijs, Zuid Holland, The Netherlands<br />
Differential Interference Contrast, Image Stacking<br />
250X</p>
  • <p>Chrysemys picta (painted turtle) retina</p>

<p>Dr. Joseph Corbo<br />
2nd Place<br />
Washington University School of Medicine<br />
St. Louis, Missouri, USA<br />
Differential Interference Contrast<br />
400X</p>
  • <p>Marine worm</p>

<p>Dr. Alvaro Esteves Migotto<br />
3rd Place<br />
Universidade de São Paulo, Centro de Biologia Marinha<br />
São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil<br />
Stereomicroscopy, Darkfield<br />
20X</p>
  • <p>Paramecium sp. showing the nucleus, mouth and water expulsion vacuoles</p>

<p>Mr. Rogelio Moreno Gill<br />
4th Place<br />
Panama City, Panamá<br />
Differential Interference Contrast<br />
40X</p>
  • <p>Hippocampal neuron receiving excitatory contacts</p>

<p>Dr. Kieran Boyle<br />
5th Place<br />
University of Glasgow, Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology<br />
Glasgow, Scotland, U.K.<br />
Fluorescence and Confocal<br />
63X</p>
  • <p>Chamaeleo calyptratus (veiled chameleon), embryo showing cartilage (blue) and bone (red)</p>

<p>Miss Dorit Hockman<br />
6th Place<br />
University of Cambridge<br />
Cambridge, U.K.<br />
Brightfield</p>
  • <p>Adhesive pad on a foreleg of Coccinella septempunctata (ladybird beetle)</p>

<p>Dr. Jan Michels<br />
7th Place<br />
Institute of Zoology, Functional Morphology and Biomechanics, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel<br />
Kiel, Germany<br />
Confocal, Autofluorescence<br />
20X</p>
  • <p>Epi-autofluorescence under UV light, z-stack reconstruction</p>

<p>Ms. Magdalena Turzańska<br />
8th Place<br />
University of Wrocław<br />
Institute of Experimental Biology, Department of Plant Developmental Biology, University of Wrocław<br />
Wrocław, Poland<br />
Barbilophozia sp. (a leafy liverwort, bryophyte plant) and cyanobacteria<br />
50X</p>
  • <p>Insect wrapped in spider web</p>

<p>Mr. Mark A. Sanders<br />
9th Place<br />
University Imaging Centers, University of Minnesota<br />
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA<br />
Confocal, Autofluorescence, Image Stacking<br />
85X</p>
  • <p>Thin section of a dinosaur bone preserved in clear agate</p>

<p>Mr. Ted Kinsman<br />
10th Place<br />
Department of Imaging and Photo Technology, Rochester Institute of Technology<br />
Rochester, New York, USA<br />
Focus Stacking<br />
10X</p>
  • <p>Macrobrachium shrimp (ghost shrimp) eye</p>

<p>Miss Vitoria Tobias Santos<br />
11th Place<br />
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rodrigo Evo Devo Group<br />
Macaé, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil<br />
Stereomicroscopy<br />
140X</p>
  • <p>Silicon dioxide on polydimethylglutarimide-based resist</p>

<p>Dr. Pedro Barrios-Perez<br />
12th Place<br />
CPFC (nanofabrication), National Research Council of Canada/Information and Communication Technologies		<br />
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada<br />
Bright field microscopy<br />
200X</p>
  • <p>Mouse vertebra section</p>

<p>Dr. Michael Paul Nelson and Samantha Smith<br />
13th Place<br />
Department of Pathology/Neuropathology, University of Alabama at Birmingham<br />
Birmingham, Alabama, USA<br />
Focus Stacking<br />
200X</p>
  • <p>Peripheral nerves in E11.5 mouse embryo</p>

<p>Mr. Zhong Hua<br />
14th Place<br />
Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine<br />
Baltimore, Maryland, USA<br />
Confocal<br />
5X</p>
  • <p>Podospora anserina (fungus) filamentous tip cells</p>

<p>Dr. Christian Q. Scheckhuber<br />
15th Place<br />
Goethe University<br />
Frankfurt, Germany<br />
Fluorescence<br />
630X</p>
  • <p>Pityohyphantes phrygianus (sheet weaver spider) with a parasitic wasp larva on the abdomen</p>

<p>Mr. Geir Drange<br />
16th Place<br />
Asker, Norway<br />
Reflected Light, Focus Stacking<br />
5X</p>
  • <p>Pyramidal neurons and their dendrites visualized in the visual cortex of a mouse brain</p>

<p>Dr. Alexandre William Moreau<br />
17th Place<br />
Institute of Neurology, University College London<br />
London, U.K.<br />
2-Photon, Focus Stacking, Fluorescence, Patch clamp<br />
40X</p>
  • <p>Annelid larva</p>

<p>Mr. Christian Sardet<br />
18th Place<br />
Department of Life Sciences, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique<br />
Villefranche-sur-Mer, France<br />
Darkfield<br />
100X</p>
  • <p>Nerve and muscle thin section</p>

<p>Dr. David Ward<br />
19th Place<br />
dgward.com<br />
Oakdale, California, USA<br />
Brightfield, Image Stacking<br />
40X</p>
  • <p>The explosive dynamics of sugar transport in fat cells</p>

<p>Dr. James Burchfield<br />
20th Place<br />
The Garvan Institute<br />
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia <br />
Live Cell Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence</p>
  • 01 /20

    Chaetoceros debilis (marine diatom), a colonial plankton organism

    Mr. Wim van Egmond
    1st Place
    Micropolitan Museum
    Berkel en Rodenrijs, Zuid Holland, The Netherlands
    Differential Interference Contrast, Image Stacking
    250X

  • 02 /20

    Chrysemys picta (painted turtle) retina

    Dr. Joseph Corbo
    2nd Place
    Washington University School of Medicine
    St. Louis, Missouri, USA
    Differential Interference Contrast
    400X

  • 03 /20

    Marine worm

    Dr. Alvaro Esteves Migotto
    3rd Place
    Universidade de São Paulo, Centro de Biologia Marinha
    São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
    Stereomicroscopy, Darkfield
    20X

  • 04 /20

    Paramecium sp. showing the nucleus, mouth and water expulsion vacuoles

    Mr. Rogelio Moreno Gill
    4th Place
    Panama City, Panamá
    Differential Interference Contrast
    40X

  • 05 /20

    Hippocampal neuron receiving excitatory contacts

    Dr. Kieran Boyle
    5th Place
    University of Glasgow, Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology
    Glasgow, Scotland, U.K.
    Fluorescence and Confocal
    63X

  • 06 /20

    Chamaeleo calyptratus (veiled chameleon), embryo showing cartilage (blue) and bone (red)

    Miss Dorit Hockman
    6th Place
    University of Cambridge
    Cambridge, U.K.
    Brightfield

  • 07 /20

    Adhesive pad on a foreleg of Coccinella septempunctata (ladybird beetle)

    Dr. Jan Michels
    7th Place
    Institute of Zoology, Functional Morphology and Biomechanics, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
    Kiel, Germany
    Confocal, Autofluorescence
    20X

  • 08 /20

    Epi-autofluorescence under UV light, z-stack reconstruction

    Ms. Magdalena Turzańska
    8th Place
    University of Wrocław
    Institute of Experimental Biology, Department of Plant Developmental Biology, University of Wrocław
    Wrocław, Poland
    Barbilophozia sp. (a leafy liverwort, bryophyte plant) and cyanobacteria
    50X

  • 09 /20

    Insect wrapped in spider web

    Mr. Mark A. Sanders
    9th Place
    University Imaging Centers, University of Minnesota
    Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
    Confocal, Autofluorescence, Image Stacking
    85X

  • 10 /20

    Thin section of a dinosaur bone preserved in clear agate

    Mr. Ted Kinsman
    10th Place
    Department of Imaging and Photo Technology, Rochester Institute of Technology
    Rochester, New York, USA
    Focus Stacking
    10X

  • 11 /20

    Macrobrachium shrimp (ghost shrimp) eye

    Miss Vitoria Tobias Santos
    11th Place
    Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rodrigo Evo Devo Group
    Macaé, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
    Stereomicroscopy
    140X

  • 12 /20

    Silicon dioxide on polydimethylglutarimide-based resist

    Dr. Pedro Barrios-Perez
    12th Place
    CPFC (nanofabrication), National Research Council of Canada/Information and Communication Technologies
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Bright field microscopy
    200X

  • 13 /20

    Mouse vertebra section

    Dr. Michael Paul Nelson and Samantha Smith
    13th Place
    Department of Pathology/Neuropathology, University of Alabama at Birmingham
    Birmingham, Alabama, USA
    Focus Stacking
    200X

  • 14 /20

    Peripheral nerves in E11.5 mouse embryo

    Mr. Zhong Hua
    14th Place
    Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
    Baltimore, Maryland, USA
    Confocal
    5X

  • 15 /20

    Podospora anserina (fungus) filamentous tip cells

    Dr. Christian Q. Scheckhuber
    15th Place
    Goethe University
    Frankfurt, Germany
    Fluorescence
    630X

  • 16 /20

    Pityohyphantes phrygianus (sheet weaver spider) with a parasitic wasp larva on the abdomen

    Mr. Geir Drange
    16th Place
    Asker, Norway
    Reflected Light, Focus Stacking
    5X

  • 17 /20

    Pyramidal neurons and their dendrites visualized in the visual cortex of a mouse brain

    Dr. Alexandre William Moreau
    17th Place
    Institute of Neurology, University College London
    London, U.K.
    2-Photon, Focus Stacking, Fluorescence, Patch clamp
    40X

  • 18 /20

    Annelid larva

    Mr. Christian Sardet
    18th Place
    Department of Life Sciences, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
    Villefranche-sur-Mer, France
    Darkfield
    100X

  • 19 /20

    Nerve and muscle thin section

    Dr. David Ward
    19th Place
    dgward.com
    Oakdale, California, USA
    Brightfield, Image Stacking
    40X

  • 20 /20

    The explosive dynamics of sugar transport in fat cells

    Dr. James Burchfield
    20th Place
    The Garvan Institute
    Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
    Live Cell Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence

Traditional microscopes work much like our eyes do. They see the world through reflected photons, or bouncing particles of light. And so the resulting images, as unbelievable as they may appear, intrinsically resemble something you're inspecting for a closer look—even if that look is magnified 250x.

It’s the photons that make Nikon’s annual Small World Competition (now in its 39th year) so fun to watch. The 20 winning images are the result of ingenious hacks in precision optics, juggling multiple mirrors, lenses, prisms, and visible wavelengths to bring the tinier world to light through powerful microscope-camera hybrids and clever post-processing.

Image: Chaetoceros debilis by Wim van Egmond

The winning shot is by Wim van Egmond—a 20-time finalist in this competition—who captured a Chaetoceros debilis colonial plankton organism at 250 times its normal size. It wasn’t as simple as holding his iPhone up to a drop of water and applying the Hefe filter, of course. The photo required the use of what’s called differential interference contrast microscopy (a complex chain of light, prisms, lenses, and filters) along with image stacking of 90 different exposures, meaning the in-focus sections of nearly 100 different multiple differential interference contrast microscopy shots were combined to create this single sharp image.

"I approach micrographs as if they are portraits," Egmond has said. "The same way you look at a person and try to capture their personality, I observe an organism and try to capture it as honestly and realistically as possible."

Image: Marine Worm by Dr. Alvaro Esteves Migotto

"At the same time," he added, "this image is about form, rhythm, and composition. The positioning of the helix, the directions of the bristles, the subdued colors and contrast all bring together a balance that is both dynamic and tranquil."

Egmond’s peers offered incredibly varied work. Other finalists include the X-ray-like nerves inside a mouse embryo, the Silly-String-esque horror of an insect trapped in a spider’s web, and the explosively radiant process of sugar being transported within a fat cell (and you thought sugar just tasted good). The stunning collection—which you can explore in full in our gallery above—is a humbling reminder that just because something may be much smaller than ourselves, that doesn’t make it any less beautiful, haunting, or significant.

Read more here.