11 views of the microscopic world in brilliant detail

Our favorites from the 2021 Nikon's Small World awards.
Hairs and pores on a southern oak leaf

1st place. The trichomes and stomata on the underside of a southern oak leaf, captured through a 60x objective lens. Jason Kirk, Baylor School of Medicine/Nikon's Small World Photomicrography Contest

Here at Popular Science, we love miniaturism—so much that we devoted a whole magazine issue to it (see Fall 2018, “Tiny”). Which is why we live for photos that show the wonders of the world not-at-scale.

Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition is the perfect opportunity for that. The awards uniquely feature images taken through light microscopes, from a range of scientific fields, including cancer research, plant evolution, and crystallography. The specimens themselves are often stained, fluoresced, and treated with other methods to tease out their visual features. Which leaves us with an eyeful of sharp contrasts and tiny details that we otherwise would be oblivious to with our zoomed-out human vantages.

The overall winner of this year’s contest (above) was composed of 200 separate photos, taken with a custom microscope made by optical imaging expert Jason Kirk. The technique was used by many of the other finalists, but with varying subjects, light sources, and color edits. The resulting lineup is diverse and stunning, and we’re excited to share some of the most memorable selects.

If you’re in the mood for a little motion, check out Nikon’s Small World video winners, which were also shot through light microscopes.

Rat sensory neuron stained in fluorescent colors
4th place. The sensory neuron of a rat, captured through a 10x objective lens. Photo: Paula Diaz, MinusPain, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
House fly mouth parts
5th place. A house fly proboscis (i.e., a tubular mouth appendage used for sucking up food), captured through a 40x objective lens. Photo: Oliver Dum, Medienbunker Produktion/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
A ball of cyanobacterial strands in a blue gel
17th place. Filamentous cyanobacterial strands in a gel matrix, captured through a 4x objective lens. Photo: Martin Kaae Kristiansen, My Microscopic World/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
Calcite crystal
19th place. A calcite crystal suspended in a spinal gemstone, captured through a 40x objective lens. Photo: Billy Hughes, Lotus Gemology/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
Butterfly wing scales
10th place. The scales on the wing of a Morpho didius butterfly, captured through 20x objective lens. Photo: Sébastien Malo/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
Breast organoid with red and blue sections
12th place. A breast organoid with myoepithelial cells (blue) and secretory cells (red), captured through a 40x objective lens. Photo: Jakub Sumbal, Masaryk University/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
Neurons connected by axons
2nd place. A microfluidic device with 300,000 networking neurons bridged by axons, captured through a 40x objective lens. Photo: Esmeralda Paric & Holly Stefen, Dementia Research Centre, Macquarie University/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
Blood vessels in a mouse retina
11th place. The blood vessels in a mouse retina, captured through a 20x objective lens. Photo: Jason Kirk & Carlos P. Flores Suarez, Baylor College of Medicine/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
Table salt crystal
18th place. A grain of table salt, captured through a 10x objective lens. Photo: Saulius Gugis/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition
Tick head stained in rainbow colors
7th place. The head of a tick, captured through a 10x objective lens. Photo: Tong Zhang & Paul Stoodley, Ohio State University/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition