The Year’s 20 Best Microscopic Photographs

Nikon’s annual microscopy competition honors the most remarkable microscopic photos of the year, from bat embryos to bone cancer.

Every year, Nikon honors the best microscopic photography in the world with a competition called Small World. And as microscopy techniques improve, every year the winners seem to get crazier. Last year’s winner was an image of the Green Lacewing’s inner architecture–eyes, muscles, nervous system, and all. Before that, a photograph showing the structure of a mosquito’s heart won out. Even the first Small World winner was cool–a 1977 image of quartz crystals inside of a piece of cobalt-rich glass.


This week, Nikon released the 2012 Small World winners, and yep, they’re pretty great. Honorees include images of a fruit fly’s pupil as its develops, an ant carrying larvae in its mouth, and incredible high-res images of bat embryos. The winner, an image from two scientists at Louisiana’s St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, shows the blood/brain barrier being formed in a live zebrafish embryo.

Most of the winning images were created with a technique called confocal microscopy, which–and this is a pretty clumsy metaphor–is a bit like using a microscope as a 3-D printer. It takes multiple scans of a single specimen to construct a high-res model of its entire body–unlike normal microscopy, which snaps an image of the subject under a uniform light. Polarized light is pretty common, too–whereby scientists use specific types of light waves to illuminate details on a subject that might appear uniform to the naked eye. The real juggernaut seems to be live-cell imaging, which let the winners capture the blood/brain barrier as it was forming, without hurting the animal.

What’s so fun about Small World is that it lets us understand the scientific import of images that, to our untrained eye, look like abstract patterns or op-art wallpaper. Actually, 18th place (a 100x image of coral sand) could totally double as wallpaper. Head over to Nikon’s site for more.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.