It’s a big world here on Earth, but some of the most beautiful things on this planet can only be found when you look up close -- really up close.
Photomicrography, the art of taking photos of very small things, is the subject of imaging company Nikon’s Small World competition. The 2013 field was as strong as ever, but only one photographer could bring home the big prize for a little photo. This year, the honor goes to Wim van Egmond, a longtime photographer from the village of Berkel en Rodenrijs in the Netherlands. At art school in Germany, Van Egmond studied painting, typically gravitating toward abstract subjects. Oddly enough, his photography career has tapped into that same aesthetic wellspring.
“I always had to do a lot of effort to make abstract pictures,” van Egmond said in a phone interview. “At this moment I take very realistic photos, but the subjects are so strange, they’re almost like abstract paintings.”
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Van Egmond’s winning photo is a portrait of a tiny helical sea diatom called Chaetoceros debilis, a kind of plankton. Van Egmond scooped up the creature with a plankton net near his house, and photographed it using a Nikon DSLR and a Zeiss microscope from the 1970s. Before he snapped the shot, van Egmond had to carefully calibrate the microscope (as an older model, about every single knob and screw is adjustable, which is both a blessing and a curse, he says) and place the water with the plankton on a tiny slide. To be able to see tiny organisms on such a slide, you have to put what’s called a cover slip -- a tiny, thin piece of glass -- on top to flatten out the water. But van Egmond didn’t want to crush the little creature, so he dotted the slide with a bit of Vaseline, creating just enough space between the slide and the cover slip for the water column to be flattened while allowing the diatom to survive.
The Dutch photographer was pleased and a little surprised to have won the contest. Compared to some of the brighter offerings in the contest, his diatom portrait is a little more subdued -- but that's how he likes it. Now, with the win under his belt, he's continuing to follow his passion: photographing tiny weird wonders. At the moment, he's working on a series of fungi and slime mold pictures. Does he ever want to work with something a bit higher on the evolutionary ladder? Nope!
"People already get too much attention [from] photographers," van Egmond says. "There are too many pictures of people. I like to photograph something else."
Check out some of the other finalists and entries below!
Italian photographer Massimo Brizzi captured this shot of dew on a spider web.
Washington University School of Medicine ophthalmologist Joseph Corbo got this great close-up of the retina -- the light-sensitive part of the eye -- of a painted turtle. Corbo's photo took 2nd place in this year's contest.
Zhang Chao, a researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, caught this glimpse of the crystallized formations made by leaking battery fluid.
German photographer Frank Fox caught a glimpse of a cluster of protozoans that resembles a crystal tree!
Another strange tree seems to arise from nerve and muscle tissue, captured by physician David Ward from Oakdale, Calif.
Jan Michels, of the Institute of Zoology at Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel in Germany, zoomed in on the front leg of a ladybird beetle and earned 7th place in the competition.
Mark Sanders at the University of Minnesota captured this insect, which was already captured itself -- in the web of a spider. Sanders' shot took 9th place in this year's contest.
James Burchfield, of the Garvan Institute in Australia, captured "the explosive dynamics of sugar transport in fat cells," and 20th place in the Small World contest.
French photographer Frederic Labaune caught this intimate snapshot of crocus pollen resting on the female parts of a flower.
Labaune also caught the judges' eyes with this photo of the food-coloring tartrazine.
"This competition brings together some of the top talent from around the world, from all walks of life and scientific disciplines, with more and more incredible entries submitted each year,” Nikon Instruments spokesman Eric Flem said in a statement. “After 39 years we are proud to watch the competition continue to grow, allowing us to honor this pool of talented researchers, artists, and photomicrographers, and showcase the importance and beauty of the work they do in the realm of scientific imaging.”