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Tiny photographs from the 'limbo between art and science'

Story highlights

  • Magnified image of marine plankton wins Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition
  • The annual contest draws entries from scientists and photographers alike
  • View through the microscope is like "exploring space," says winning photographer
  • Previous entries include a mosquito's heart, a flea's head and a pregnant aphid

A magnified image of marine plankton has won a prestigious international photography contest for tiny works that exist, in the words of the winning photographer, in the "limbo between art and science."

Wim van Egmond, a freelance photographer from the Netherlands, took the top prize in the annual Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition, for his magnified image of marine plankton.

It was the 11th year he had entered the contest, which draws entries from professional photographers as well as scientists, who generally produce the images in the course of their work. The winning entries are judged on their scientific and artistic merits.

PHOTOS: See high-res gallery of Nikon contest winners

"For 20 years, I've been looking through a microscope, and every time I see things I haven't seen before," said van Egmond, who has had 19 images recognized as finalists in the competition over the past decade. "It's such an endless world -- there are so many species and so many different life stages of these organisms. It's all so strange and wonderful that it's become a bit of an addiction."

The view through the microscope was like "exploring a different world, or exploring space, with these strange unknown organisms," he said.

    Recognized as one of the contest's top photomicrographers, Van Egmond runs a website devoted to photomicrography called the Micropolitan Museum. He said he approached his subjects as if he were producing a portrait, trying to "capture their personalities."

    "I don't invent things, I try to make it as naturalistic as possible, but these organisms are such a strange shape that it almost looks like an abstract painting," he said. "You don't have to make much of an effort to make something that is weird."

    He had long been intrigued by the Chaetoceros debilis, a plant-like plankton with a corkscrew form and bristles. "It's very hard to capture because it's so 3-dimensional and so fragile. It was a bit of a challenge to make a good portrait of the organism."

    The winning entry was created using software to combine various images focusing on different areas of the plankton. "The difficulty of microscopy is that when you have a ... magnification of an image, you have hardly any depth of field," he said. By combining images where some areas were in focus and others were blurred, he could create a 3-dimensional effect, he said.

    Previous entries in the contest, now in its 39th year, have included a mosquito's heart, a flea's head, and a pregnant aphid.

    See previous winners of the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition