Sometimes bigger isn’t better. That’s the philosophy behind Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition, which highlights the utter beauty and sheer complexity of teeny-tiny scenes that photographers can only capture through a microscope.

This marks the 48th year of the highly specialized contest. The camera and microscope company received nearly 1,300 submissions from 72 countries. A panel of judges then narrowed these down to 20 winners, plus 15 honorable mentions and 57 images of distinction.

Photomicrography is the umbrella term used to describe the art (and science) of taking pictures of objects under a microscope. To capture these brilliant images in such crisp detail, the Small World participants used an array of techniques ranging from fluorescent staining, which makes tissues glow under certain light, to image stacking, which increases the depth of field. These methods help make the colors more vibrant, the lines sharper and the shapes clearer, with the goal of creating an image that is both scientifically revealing and artistically creative.

“A photomicrograph is a technical document that can be of great significance to science or industry,” per Nikon. “But a good photomicrograph is also an image whose structure, color, composition and content is an object of beauty, open to several levels of comprehension and appreciation.”

Embryonic hand of a Madagascar giant day gecko
Embryonic hand of a Madagascar giant day gecko Courtesy of Grigorii Timin and Michel Milinkovitch / Nikon Small World

The judges awarded first prize to Grigorii Timin, an evolutionary scientist at the University of Geneva who captured a colorful snapshot of an embryonic Madagascar giant day gecko’s hand. He used a confocal microscope to peer at the 0.12-inch (3 mm) embryonic hand, which he prepared with whole-mount fluorescent staining and tissue clearing, which turned the tissues transparent.

Then, he stitched together hundreds of different photos—representing about 200 gigabytes of data—to create the final product, which shows the reptile’s ligaments, bones, tendons, nerves, skin and blood cells in striking detail.

“This particular image is beautiful and informative, as an overview and also when you magnify it in a certain region, shedding light on how the structures are organized on a cellular level,” says Timin, who was supervised by Michel Milinkovitch, in a statement.

Long-bodied cellar/daddy long-legs spider
Long-bodied cellar/daddy long-legs spider Courtesy of Andrew Posselt / Nikon Small World

Reptiles, insects and other creatures were common subjects for the photographers. The fourth-place winner, Andrew Posselt, who is a bariatric and transplant surgeon at University of California San Francisco, captured a haunting geometric shot of a daddy long-legs spider.

Tenth-place winner Murat Öztürk, who is based in Ankara, Turkey, skillfully photographed a menacing-looking tiger beetle munching on a fly.

A fly under the chin of a tiger beetle
A fly under the chin of a tiger beetle Courtesy of Murat Öztürk / Nikon Small World
green and purple squiggly lines in a fan shape
Tail fin of a zebrafish larva Courtesy of Daniel Wehner and Julia Kolb / Nikon Small World

Daniel Wehner and Julia Kolb, who are researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, created a gorgeous neon-green and purple image showing the tail fin of a zebrafish larva, while University of Oslo bioscientist Julien Resseguier zoomed in on the white blood cells of an adult zebrafish’s intestine. Respectively, these images earned 17th and 18th place.

With his honorable mention photo, Laurent Formery—a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley—showed the dazzling symmetry of a two-month-old juvenile sea star.

Two-month-old juvenile sea star
Two-month-old juvenile sea star Courtesy of Laurent Formery / Nikon Small World
pink and yellow webbed ovals
Close-up of breast tissue Courtesy of Caleb Dawson / Nikon Small World

Humans and their inner workings were also a popular choice among this year’s photographers. Caleb Dawson, an imaging scientist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, took home second place for his snapshot of breast tissue, which shows milk-producing alveoli wrapped in myoepithelial cells.

Ziad El-Zaatari, a pathologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, created a beautiful pink and purple kaleidoscopic image depicting cross-sections of normal human colon epithelial crypt cells and received 15th place.

Cross sections of normal human colon epithelial crypts
Cross sections of normal human colon epithelial crypts Courtesy of Ziad El-Zaatari / Nikon Small World
Unburned particles of carbon released when the hydrocarbon chain of candle wax breaks down
Unburned particles of carbon released when the hydrocarbon chain of candle wax breaks down Courtesy of Ole Bielfeldt / Nikon Small World

With his sixth-place snapshot, Ole Bielfeldt transformed a mundane, everyday household object into an eerie, alien-like figure. Bielfeldt, a photographer in Cologne, Germany, captured the release of unburned carbon particles rising from a candle.

“When the flame goes out, the glowing wick has enough heat left to break up the wax molecules for a while, but not enough to burn the carbon,” Bielfeldt tells Science News’ Erin Garcia de Jesús. “So you get a trail of smoke until it cools.”

Now that Nikon has announced the winners, the photos will hit the road for an exhibit tour throughout the United States. As of now, stops include the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science in Wilmington, the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta and the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.

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