It is, in many ways, like falling through a looking glass. “The microscope opens a portal to a different world,” says Poorva Variar, 34, a conservationist, science writer and micrographer.
Attach a camera, even a DSLR, to the microscope and zoom up to 1,000 times to render the view invisible. Like the online-endless-picture-within-a-picture illusions so popular online, entire universes appear to arise from a cross-section of a leaf or a single drop of water.
Scientists have long been doing this during research at universities and scientific institutions around the world as equipment has become more affordable and sophisticated (the cost of a USB digital microscope ₹2,000), micrography is growing as a hobby.
Variyar is using four different types of microscopes to zoom in and photograph dead insects, pollen, bread mold, and sand. Wildlife photographer Sarang Naik, 32, won an honorable mention in a world micrography competition for his video of an annelid worm feeding on Spirogyra algae and excreting strands of waste, in a matter of minutes. Firmware designer and hobbyist photographer Raghuram Annadan, 42, has developed “a little obsession” with crystal micrography, which involves drying chemicals using a solvent and then using polarized light to capture fragments of the colors the crystals emit.
“You don’t always have to spend time in the jungle, the ocean, to learn about wildlife and natural history. Communicating the brilliance of nature through micrography, and getting people as excited as I am, is part of what inspires me,” says Warriar. It’s a whole universe that doesn’t resemble the world we see. Butterfly wings produce scales that look like well-arranged feathers. The snail embryo in the pond is still curled up inside its egg. “I can spend the weekend hunching over my slides. It’s a great way to decompress after a long week of work,” says Warriar.
For those looking to explore this world, she recommends a portable USB microscope. Many can zoom up to 250x. “They are an excellent learning and teaching tool and a great toy for children or adults. But nothing can replace the traditional compound microscope, which is much larger, requires some knowledge to operate, but is unmatched in magnification power.”
Nike uses a compound microscope mounted on his Canon DSLR, attached to an adapter he made himself. “Even the most basic adapter is very expensive (approx ₹7,000), because there is not much demand for it,” says Naik. An ice cream break solved his problem. “I realized that my camera lens fits perfectly on top of a small ice cream cup,” he laughs. “So I just poked a hole in it. , and added two more cups for added stability.”
The contraption is not portable, so Nike collects water samples and brings them home for inspection. While scouting near Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Naik noticed what looked like tiny pieces in a puddle. Then a piece moved. He took some water, took it home and started studying.
One of the videos he recorded that day received an honorable mention in the Small World in Motion video category of the 2022 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition. It shows an annelid worm (one of the “twigs”) eating Spirogyra algae. He knew he had a winner on his hands as soon as he fired, though “it took me a while to figure out what was going on,” he says.
Interestingly, this Nikon competition has been held annually since 1975, with many entries coming from research scientists in North America and Europe. It is only in the last decade that amateur micrographers have begun to make their presence felt on the long list.
Coincidentally, in 2021, Annadana’s image received special attention in the Nikon Small World Photomicrography competition; An image of a Lantana flower bud photographed through a microscope lens yielded an image of the difference tag.
But flowerbuds are not the focus of Annadan. He has chosen the even smaller niche of crystal micrography, which produces perhaps the most unexpected visions from this genre. Vitamin C, for example, when dried with a solvent and illuminated, emits circular bright circles. Amino acids give the shape of the flower.
Annadan 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 on the bottom of the slide,” he says, “and even more important to find which solvent will give the most attractive results. The key is to find the exact ratio between chemical, solvent, heat and light.”
This can take hours of trial and error. Annadana says it took more than 100 attempts, and she spent hours searching for clues in research papers and interviews with winners of small world-like competitions before getting the final image of a vitamin C crystal. “Each of us has our own recipe, our own secret sauce perfected over time.”
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