Winners of Nikon's small-world photo contest reveal tiny invisible wonders

The first place image is a violet and cyan-stained oak leaf, magnified 60 times.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
2 min read

The first place winner of Nikon Small World's 2021 Photomicrography competition. Trichome (white appendages) and stomata (purple pores) on a southern live oak leaf.

Jason Kirk, Baylor College of Medicine/Nikon Small World

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life." Artists, he meant, help us see beauty in the world around us by pointing out beautiful things. Perhaps we love the way water lilies look because of Monet's wonderful impressionist paintings of them.

By challenging artist-scientists to find beauty in the tiniest of life's creations -- think, snowflakes, insects and neurons -- Nikon's Small World Photomicrography competition might take Wilde's sentiment to the another level. 

After you check out 2021's winners in the gallery below, don't be too surprised if the housefly currently buzzing around your living room starts to strike you as rather dazzling.

From almost 1,900 entries across 88 countries, the competition, now in its 47th year, selected a stunning top 20. The first place photo captures translucent white appendages blooming over violet pores of a cyan oak leaf. To get the shot, winner Jason Kirk magnified the leaf by 60 times. Sixty times! Imagine pinching into and fully zooming your iPhone photos 60 separate times, but having the image remain ultra-focused. 

"The lighting side of it was complicated," Kirk said in a statement. "Microscope objectives are small and have a very shallow depth of focus. I couldn't just stick a giant light next to the microscope and have the lighting be directional. It would be like trying to light the head of a pin with a light source that's the size of your head. Nearly impossible."

Nikon's Small World Photography winners see art in remarkable, tiny worlds

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Other winning images include one that shows neon green wispy strings around a mouse's sensory neuron that make the cell resemble a glow-in-the-dark jellyfish. One displays a second mouse's 3D brain vasculature reminiscent of a winter wonderland, and the forest of vessels fits perfectly with another artist's winning image -- a single, crystal clear snowflake that showcases nature's ability to create perfect symmetry.

These pictures could easily hang next to the abstract art pieces found in The Whitney and spark discussion of color theory and surrealism. Even if you aren't a science lover, it's hard not to stare at these unique pieces of art. They help us peek into worlds that, typically, are all but invisible.