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.
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."
"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.