Prize-Winning Videos Capture Mesmerizing, Microscopic World

Everything looks cooler when it’s viewed through the lens of a microscope

This colorful pattern is actually the cells inside a zebrafish embryo. Philipp Keller, Kristin Branson, and Fernando Amat/Nikon World In Motion

Looking for a different perspective? Don't go macro—try going micro and seeing the details in the world around you. The winners of an unusual photography contest can help you get started with the small wonders of nature: It's called Small World In Motion (yes, that spells SWIM), and it's devoted entirely to details you could never spot on your own.

It's the fifth year for the Nikon-sponsored competition, which offers big-time recognition for the smallest of subjects. Photographers use both time-lapse and real-time photomicroscopy to capture movement on a scale not usually visible to the human eye—and what a world they reveal.

This year's winner, William Gilpin of Stanford University, depicts something that sounds prosaic, but looks amazing: starfish larva. When looking at the tiny larvae under a microscope, Gilpin and his colleagues discovered that they create a beautiful pattern of vortices and whirls with their ciliary bands—appendages that help them move and collect food. The movie isn't just hypnotic: It also prompted the discovery that the bands manipulate the water in a way that efficiently pulls food toward the starfish.

Second-place winner Charles Krebs also shows an animal intent on getting food: Lacrymaria olor, a tiny protozoan that’s only about 100 microns long. Krebs, a photographer with a love for photomicrography, caught the small creature on camera as it stretched out its neck to snatch up its prey. The protozoans can stretch seven times their body length—all for the sake of a snack.

Third-place winner Wim van Egmond found beauty in something you might consider gross: mold. He turned his microscope on Aspergillus niger, also known as the fungus that can cause a condition known as "black mold" on apricots, onions and other foods. While the mold can become a dangerous pathogen, it's also kind of beautiful to watch. van Esmond's video is a time-lapse of the spores as they burst into beauty.

Why would a photographer turn their lens toward something so small? Second-place winner Krebs says that Lacrymaria olor are not just his favorite ciliates—they also present a piquant challenge as a photographer. Since the protozoans are "a very rapidly moving subject," he says, it's "difficult to anticipate position and focus."

Krebs, who is a full-time photographer, says that technology has made it easier to peer into the very tiny world of nature. "The advent of digital photography has made it possible to make images with the microscope that were simply not possible using film," he says. Those possibilities allow him to train his lens on lesser-known creatures, "many of which an average person will have some basic familiarity, but have never seen in the great detail afforded by a microscope."

Grab a microscope and you'll discover things funny—like Krebs' hunting protozoans—and just plain mesmerizing. A few of the contest's honorable mentions make that clear, highlighting everything from a wasp waking up... cells bustling inside the embryo of a zebrafish... cheese mites chowing down on some cheddar. It truly is a small, small world out there—but that's no reason not to stop to enjoy its tiny treasures.  

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