The matrix is everywhere: Welcome to the world of photo micrography
Mounting microscopes on cameras, hobbyists are zooming in, winning awards, for images of the universes within bread mold, sand, worms, wings and leaves.
It is, in many ways, like falling through a looking glass. “The microscope opens up a portal to a different world,” says Purva Variyar, 34, a conservationist, science writer and micrographer.
Attach a camera, even a DSLR, to a microscope and one can zoom in by up to 1,000 times, to render the invisible visible. Like the endless-picture-within-a-picture illusions so popular online, entire universes seem to emerge from a cross-section of a leaf or a drop of water.
While scientists have long been doing this in the course of research at universities and scientific institutions around the world, as the equipment has become more affordable and more sophisticated (a USB digital microscope costs under ₹2,000), micrography is growing as a hobby.
Variyar has been zooming in and photographing dead insects, pollen, bread mold, beach sand, using four different kinds of microscopes. Wildlife photographer Sarang Naik, 32, won honourable mention in a world micrography contest for his video of an annelid worm eating spirogyra algae and emitting strands of waste, all in the space of a few minutes. Raghuram Annadana, 42, a firmware designer and hobby photographer, has developed “a minor obsession” with crystal micrography, which dries out a chemical using a solvent and then uses polarised light to capture the shards of colours that the crystals emit.
“To learn about wildlife and natural history, one need not always spend time in the forest, in the sea. Communicating nature’s genius through micrography, and getting people as excited about it as I am, is part of what drives me,” Variyar says. It’s an entire universe that has nothing in common with the world we see. A butterfly wing yields scales that look like neatly arranged feathers.A pond snail embryo sits curled up, still inside its egg. “I can spend weekends hunched over my slides. It’s a great way to decompress after a long week of work,” Variyar says.
For those looking to explore this world, she recommends a portable USB microscope. Most can zoom in to up to 250x. “They’re a great learning and teaching tool and a great toy for children or adults. But nothing can replace the traditional compound microscope, which is a lot bulkier, requires some knowledge to work, but is unmatched in magnification power.”
Naik uses a compound microscope mounted onto his Canon DSLR, paired with an adapter he fashioned himself. “Even the most basic adapter is quite expensive (about ₹7,000), because there is not much demand for it,” Naik says. A break involving ice-cream solved his problem. “I realised that my camera lens fits perfectly on top of the small ice-cream cup,” he says laughing. “So I just poked a hole in it, and added two more cups for greater stability.”
The contraption isn’t portable, so Naik collects water samples and brings them home to observe. While out scouting near Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Naik saw what looked like tiny twigs in a puddle. Then one of the twigs moved. He scooped up some of the water, took it home and began studying it.
One of the videos he recorded that day received honourable mention in the Small World in Motion video category of the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition, in 2022. It shows an annelid worm (one of the “twigs”) eating the spirogyra algae. He knew he had a winner on his hands as soon as he shot it, even though “it took me some time to figure out what was happening,” he says.
Interestingly, this Nikon contest has been held annually since 1975, with most entries coming from research scientists in North America and Europe. It is only over the past decade that amateur micrographers have begun making their presence felt on longlists.
Incidentally, in 2021, an image by Annadana won special attention at the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition; an image of a lantana flower bud photographed through a microscope lens received an Image of Distinction tag.
But flowerbuds aren’t Annadana’s focus. He’s picked the even tinier niche of crystal micrography, which yields perhaps the most unexpected visions to emerge from this genre. Vitamin C, for instance, when dried out with solvent and lit up, emits circular radiant wheels. Amino acids throw out floral shapes.
Annadana uses a Nikon microscope objective lens, which costs a fraction of a compound microscope and can be attached to a DSLR camera. “It’s important to place the light source below the slide,” he says, “and it’s even more important to figure out what solvent will render the most fascinating results. The key is finding the precise ratio between the chemical, solvent, heat and light.”
This can take hours of trial and error. Annadana says it took over 100 tries, and hours spent looking for clues in research papers and in interviews with winners of Small World-like contests, before he got his final image of the Vitamin C crystals. “Every one of us has our own recipe, our own secret sauce perfected over time.”