It's a Small, Small World in Photography

Winners look at the world through a microscope.

embryonic gecko hand

 Grigorii Timin, Dr. Michel Milinkovitch / Nikon Small World

From the inner workings of a gecko to human tissues and dinosaur bones, the world looks a whole lot different through a microscope.

The Nikon Small World Photomicrography competition highlights photos taken through a different lens. Now in its 48th year, this year’s photo competition received nearly 1,300 entries from 72 countries.

The first place winner, above, features an embryonic hand of a gecko. It was created by Grigorii Timin, supervised by Dr. Michel Milinkovitch at the University of Geneva. Timin used high-resolution microscopy and image stitching for an artistic result.

For his winning image, Timin merged hundreds of images of the Madagascar giant day gecko (Phelsuma grandis). It was magnified 63 times.

“This embryonic hand is about 3 mm (0.12 in) in length, which is a huge sample for high-resolution microscopy,” said Timin. “The scan consists of 300 tiles, each containing about 250 optical sections, resulting in more than two days of acquisition and approximately 200 GB of data.”

 Judges included biologists, photo editors, and video and photojournalists.

"Annual contests tend to get stale after a while because they risk coming full circle and becoming repetitive. For the untrained eye, a microscopy competition may seem ripe for that kind of failure, but spend a few hours going through the entries over the past decade, let's say, and what you get is a visual genealogy of scientific progress," contest judge Dr. Nikolay Nikolov, a senior video journalist at The New York Times, tells Treehugger.

"You see how our focus becomes more refined, each zebrafish photo becoming crisper, more complex, and revealing; you also see how technology has improved, allowing us to capture moments that were pure pixels a few years ago; but you also see an artform crystallizing as access to the microscopic has improved – you see a vernacular competition for the most effective and beautiful way to represent that invisible universe to an untrained human eye."

He says the Small World competition is a "really valuable vignette for this moment in human civilization."

"How we utilize science and technology to challenge the myth of our dominance and self-importance in this world and to start really detangling how this world we have come to deeply neglect came to be so magical and mystifying in the first place," Nikolov says.

Here’s a look at some of the winners and other noteworthy images.

Second Place

breast tissue microscopic

 Dr. Caleb Dawson / Nikon Small World

The second-place prize went to Dr. Caleb Dawson of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Department of Immunology, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The image focuses on breast tissue with myoepithelial cells wrapped around tiny sacs, called alveoli. Dawson stained the cells with many fluorescent dyes, taking a week to process the image. It was magnified 40 times.

 Third Place

mouse blood vessels

Satu Paavonsalo, Dr. Sinem Karaman / Nikon Small World

Satu Paavonsalo and Sinem Karaman of the University of Helsinki, Finland, earned the third spot for their image of blood vessel networks in the intestine of an adult mouse. The image was magnified 10 times.

 13th Place

magnified dinosaur bone

Randy Fullbright / Nikon Small World

Randy Fullbright of Fullbright Studio in Vernal, Utah, created this image of dinosaur bone, magnified 60 times.

15th Place

human colon structures

Dr. Ziad El-Zaatari / Nikon Small World

Ziad El-Zaatari of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital used 20-times magnification for these cross-sections of human colon structures called crypts.

18th Place

zebrafish intestines

Dr. Julien Resseguier / Nikon Small World

Magnified 60 times, this image is a network of macrophages (white blood cells) of an adult zebrafish intestine. It was made by Julien Resseguier of the University of Oslo Department of Biosciences in Norway.

Honorable Mention

crawling cell

Dr. Dylan T. Burnette / Nikon Small World

This crawling cell was magnified 60 times. It was created by Dylan T. Burnette of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

Honorable Mention

intestinal villi

Dr. Amy C. Engevik / Nikon Small World

Dr. Amy C. Engevik made this image of small, finger-like projections called intestinal villi. She is in the Department of Regenerative Medicine & Cell Biology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. It was magnified 20 times.

Honorable Mention

midge larvae

Karl Gaff / Nikon Small World

Magnified 10 times, this is midge larvae collected from a freshwater pond. The image was made by Karl Gaff of Dublin, Ireland.

Honorable Mention

microscopic bamboo

Gerd Gunther / Nikon Small World

This young stem of garden bamboo (Fargesia sp.) was taken by Gerd Günther of Düsseldorf, Germany. It was magnified 10 times.

Honorable Mention

marine snail tongue

Dr. Igor Siwanowicz / Nikon Small World

Magnified 10 times, this is the rasping tongue (radula) of a marine snail of the Turbinidae family. It was created by Igor Siwanowicz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia.

Honorable Mention

mouse cortex after brain injury

Dr. Andrea Tedeschi / Nikon Small World

Andrea Tedeschi of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center Department of Neuroscience magnified a mouse’s sensory-motor cortex after mild traumatic brain injury.