The best microscope photos of the year reveal a strange and hidden universe in astonishing detail

Andrei Savitsky/Nikon Small WorldA cross-section of a tulip bud.

Human eyes may be remarkable tools to view the universe, but they also restrict our perception of reality to a limited, macroscopic slice.

Fortunately, microscopes grant us access to a fantastic, beautiful, and sometimes shocking universe that hides beyond the limits of vision.

To honour the mastery required to capture the microscopic world and appreciate its wonders, the Nikon Small World contest picks the best photographs taken through a microscope – and has done so each year for decades.

“Our goal has always been to show the world how art and science intersect,” Eric Flem, Nikon Instruments’ communications manager, said in a press release. “As new imaging and microscopy techniques develop over the years, our winners showcase these technology advances more and more creatively.”

For the 45th year of the contest, four judges reviewed more than 2,000 pictures submitted from nearly 100 countries. A little more than 100 photos stood out from the pack.

We’ve posted the top 20 below – including images of a fluorescent turtle embryo, a close-up of a housefly’s compound eye, and a psychedelic cross-section of a tulip flower bud (above) – along with 20 of our other favourites from the contest.


A fluorescent photo of a turtle embryo took first place. The photographers stacked and stitched together hundreds of images to fully capture every detail.

Teresa Zgoda and Teresa Kugler/Nikon Small WorldA fluorescent microscope photo of a turtle embryo.

A trippy image of three stentors, a type of single-celled protozoa that lives in fresh water and feeds on algae, snagged second place.

Dr. Igor Siwanowicz/Nikon Small WorldMicroscopic projections of three stentors, a type of single-cell freshwater protozoa.

A photo showing a fluorescent alligator embryo came in third. The picture was taken just 20 days into the creature’s development, as nerves and a skeleton formed.

Daniel Smith Paredes and Dr. Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar/Nikon Small WorldA fluorescent microscope photo of an alligator embryo developing nerves and a skeleton.

Here are the rest of the top 20 selections, followed by 20 of our personal favourites:


4. The bushy antennae of a male mosquito.

Jan Rosenboom/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked image of a male mosquito.

5. A crystal-clear snowflake.

Caleb Foster/Nikon Small WorldA transmitted-light image of a snowflake.

6. The soul-piercing eyes of a small spider covered in white hair.

Javier Rupérez/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked image of a small spider.

7. The pollen-releasing stamen of a Chinese red carnation.

Dr. Guillermo López López/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked image of the stamen of a Chinese red carnation.

8. A frozen water droplet magnified eight times.

Garzon Christian/Nikon Small WorldAn incident-light photo of a frozen water droplet.

9. A tulip bud, sliced open to show the petals and stamen curled inside.

Andrei Savitsky/Nikon Small WorldA cross-section of a tulip bud.

10. Cells from the pulmonary artery of a young cow undergo the telophase stage of mitosis, in which they form two nuclei before dividing into two new cells.

Jason M. Kirk/Nikon Small WorldA confocal microscope photo of BPAE cells in the telophase stage of mitosis.

11. The ovaries of a fruit fly. The protein filament F-actin is stained yellow, nuclei are green, and follicle cells are magenta.

Dr. Yujun Chen and Dr. Jocelyn McDonald/Nikon Small WorldA confocal image of a pair of ovaries from an adult female fruit fly.

12. A squirming mosquito larva.

Anne Algar/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked photo of a mosquito larva.

13. Cuprite, a mineral composed of copper oxide.

Dr. Emilio Carabajal Márquez/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked microscopic photo of cuprite, a mineral composed of copper oxide.

14. A female lynx spider.

Antoine Franck/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked photo of a female lynx spider (Oxyopes dumonti).

15. A pregnant freshwater crustacean called Daphnia magna.

Marek Miś/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked photo of a pregnant Daphnia magna, a small freshwater crustacean.

16. A housefly’s eye, magnified 50 times.

Dr. Razvan Cornel Constantin/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked microscopic image of a housefly’s compound eye pattern.

17. A crystal of ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, reveals fascinating structures under a microscope.

Karl Deckart/Nikon Small WorldA polarised-light photo of vitamin C.

18. A crystal of cristobalite suspended in quartz.

E. Billie Hughes/Nikon Small WorldA microscope photo of a cristobalite crystal suspended in quartz mineral.

19. A California two-spot octopus embryo.

Martyna Lukoseviciute and Dr. Carrie Albertin/Nikon Small WorldA confocal stitched image of a California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) embryo.

20. Blood vessels in a mouse heart after it had a heart attack.

Simon Merz, Lea Bornemann and Sebastian Korste/Nikon Small WorldA fluorescent microscopic image of the blood vessels of a mouse heart after a heart attack.

In addition to those winners, 15 photos got honorable mentions. Here are the best ones, starting with this image of a moth wing.

Ji Yuan/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked microscope photo of an Alcides orontes moth wing.

Mould grows on a plum seed.

Sergii Dymchenko/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked photo of mould on a plum seed.

A blend of vitamin C crystals and sugar.

Andrey Semenenko/Nikon Small WorldA photo of a blend of dried ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and sugar under a microscope.

A fossilized ammonite, a sea creature that went extinct about 66 million years ago.

Dr. Balint Markus/Nikon Small WorldA stitched interference-contrast photo of fossilized ammonites, a mollusk that lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and life, crystallised under a microscope.

Justin Zoll/Nikon Small WorldCrystallised L-glutamine and beta-alanine amino acids.

Dozens more fantastic photos received recognition from the judges as “images of distinction.” This one shows eggs inside a brine shrimp.

Dr. Omid Golzar/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked photo of eggs inside a brine shrimp.

A cereal rye leaf curls around its stem.

Anatoly Mikhaltsov/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked and stitched photo of a cereal rye stem and leaf.

A tiny Daphnia, a crustacean also known as a water flea.

Michael Landgrebe/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked photo of a Daphnia crustacean, commonly known as a water flea.

Karlsbad Sprudelstein, a type of sedimentary rock.

Dr. Bernardo Cesare and Dr. Axel Munnecke/Nikon Small WorldA polarised-light photo of a sedimentary rock called Karlsbad Sprudelstein.

A single-celled organism called Paramecium caudatum that had been fed yeast cells stained with red dye.

Anne Gleich/Nikon Small WorldA microscopic differential-interference contrast photo of Paramecium caudatum, a single-celled organism, that had been fed stained yeast cells.

Molten caffeine.

Thomas Borowitz/Nikon Small WorldA polarised-light photo of molten caffeine.

The deer-like antennae of a Haplomalachius flabellatus insect.

Can Tunçer/Nikon Small WorldA focus-stacked photo of the antennae of a Haplomalachius flabellatus insect.

A mouse’s mammary gland that was grown in a lab.

Dr. Livvi Harris/Nikon Small WorldA 3D confocal photo of a lab-grown mouse mammary gland.

The threads of a striated muscle cell in heart tissue that was developed from a human stem cell.

Abigail C. Neininger and Dr. Dylan T. Burnette/Nikon Small WorldA microscopic photo of sarcomeres in a cardiac muscle cell, or cardiomyocyte, derived from a human-induced pluripotent stem cell.

The magnified surface of a seed.

Johann Swanepoel/Nikon Small WorldA microscope photo of the surface of a seed.

The sporangia structures that produce spores, tucked inside the leaf of a lady fern.

Dr. Somayeh Naghiloo and Dr. Sedighe Nikzat/Nikon Small WorldA microscopic photo of spore-forming structures (sporangia) on the leaf of a lady fern.

A bearing from a mechanical watch.

Dr. Haris Antonopoulos/Nikon Small WorldA differential-interference contrast photo of a bearing from a mechanical watch.

Myoepithelial cells wrapped around milk-producing sacs in a mouse’s mammary gland.

Caleb Dawson/Nikon Small WorldA 3D confocal microscopic image of myoepithelial cells wrapped around milk-producing alveoli in a lactating mouse.

A single-celled algae called Triceratium morlandii.

Larry G. Gouliard/Nikon Small WorldA phase-contrast microscopic photo of the single-celled algae Triceratium morlandii.

An ornate crystal of methylsulfonyl, an organic sulphur compound.

Dr. Detlef Strehmel/Nikon Small WorldA polarised-light photo of methylsulfonyl crystal.

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