Photomicrography and Art
article and pictures by Stefano Barone, Italy
The harmony and beauty we find in nature strongly affects our emotionality and the less rational aspects of our psyche, but paradoxically they have numerical foundations: not coincidentally, Galileo Galilei asserted that mathematics is the alphabet whereby God has written the universe. For example, if we pause to observe the architecture of some flowers like marguerites and sunflowers, the composition of pineapple scales or the arrangement of leaves on many plant stems (phyllotaxis), we experience an almost hypnotic sensation; nevertheless, at the source of these forms the Fibonacci sequence hides, formed by adding the latest two numbers to get the next one (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, …). Moreover the bewildering elegance we find in the cross-section of a Nautilus sea shell, in the spiral horns of many mammals and in the charming structure of galaxies, is tightly due to the golden ratio, which is closely linked to the Fibonacci sequence and is a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part... Besides, in mountain geomorphology, clouds, ice crystals and firs, nature produces shapes which are very similar to fractals and mathematical sets that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. These are just some examples in which beauty and mathematics go hand in hand in nature.
Surprisingly, many numerical foundations are found not only in the macrocosm (which ranges – as we have seen - from the gentleness of flowers to the vastness of galaxies) but also in the intriguing microcosm, that we can explore in depth for a few centuries thanks to the microscope. However, everything that is below the resolving power of the human eye arouses the interest of few people, nevertheless our own lives would be inconceivable without the invisible mediators that form our immune system. Inter alia, about a quarter of the oxygen we breathe is provided by the minute and beautiful diatoms (a major group of algae which is among the most common types of phytoplankton), but they play also a fundamental role in the food chain. Great importance also lies with the decomposer bacteria present in the soil and so on: the list of benefits that the microcosm gives us certainly does not end here.
By means of the microscope we can see how much harmony (and then mathematics) is even beyond our normal eyesight: including but not limited to the double helix structure of DNA, many shells of Foraminifera and even some of the already mentioned diatoms (such as Triceratium pentacrinus) are examples of forms specially related to the golden ratio; while fractals dwell in the fragile snowflakes as in some crystalline formations (for example copper oxide flux examined on particular surfaces by atomic-force microscopy).
If would be really unfair if the beauty of the microcosm would be enjoyed by only a small circle of scientists: luckily cameras permit us to show and disclose to the world what microscopes reveal. In particular the term “photomicrograph” means the photograph or digital image taken through the microscope to show a magnified image of an item.
Now let's take a step back: we can safely speak of fine art photography in the same way we speak of painting and sculpture. Photography is considered an art form on a par with the latter two by the majority of critics. Therefore, if fine art photography exists, it is legitimate to affirm that under some circumstances photomicrography can be an artistic expression too. Those who are unfamiliar with the microscope generally associate photographs taken with this instrument to some reminiscences related by old school books, where they usually appeared with the sole purpose to document a science fact without special attention to photographic and aesthetic yield. Even today most researchers are satisfied with these kind of images (artistically insipid, coarse and without balance), but those who expect more from photomicrography have a more complex approach and live with the knowledge that even a photographic click taken through the microscope can communicate sensations, emotions and feelings, starting with a clear aesthetic value, and in some cases it can be a work of art in all respects (if it meets the requirements of uniqueness, originality and authorship). Certainly the numerical foundations of the harmony that permeates the microcosm are of great help in valorizing fine art of photomicrography: if the observer should not be able to understand the subject and its content, those foundations would intervene at an unconscious level. Besides we shouldn't forget that many photomicrographs are carriers of an intrinsic ecological message, in fact the balance of our planet starts right from both terrestrial and aquatic microorganisms: that is, if their populations forcedly undergo some changes, as a chain reaction other living things are affected until the disequilibrium is still perceptible at the macroscopic scale of nature. Hence the importance of anti-pollution policies. In this case diatoms have a specific role, in fact many species are taken into account by laboratories as indicators of ambient salubrity.
Whoever owns a research microscope equipped with several contrast techniques (in transmitted and reflected light) has many advantages from the photographic point of view too, compared to whoever uses an instrument for bright field only. I omit here the electron microscope as – despite its greater resolving power – it leaves less room for the artist's creativity, who doesn't benefit from the range of methodologies that light microscopy offers, hence summarized below.
- Darkfield in transmitted light: it enhances the contrast in unstained samples and permits us to detect the presence of very fine particles that in certain cases exceed the resolving power. The sample is illuminated by a light that isn't collected by the objective and the objects appear very bright on a dark or black background (according to the quality of the instrumentation). Therefore, photomicrographs obtained by this technique are often very scenographic: diatoms, radiolarians, but also small insects and arachnids are among the best suited subjects for darkfield.
- Phase contrast: it is ideal for diaphanous samples such as cell cultures and many protists, for cases where viewing their features in darkfield would not suffice or the use of stains would not be really advantageous. This technique converts phase shifts in light passing through a transparent specimen to brightness changes in the image: in this case objects are surrounded by characteristic halos that are often rather intriguing regarding photomicrography.
- Polarized light: it is most commonly used on birefringent samples, as they have a refractive index that depends on the polarization and propagation direction of light, such as microcrystals, minerals, polymers and some plant samples. Many photomicrographs obtained by evaporating a chemical solution on a microscope slide (for example ascorbic acid dissolved in water) are true artistic masterpieces both for the unbelievable forms and for the color shades. The possible use of lambda plates inserted in the optical path of the microscopes permits the obtaining of further chromatic effects.
- Differential interference contrast (DIC): this technique permits us to view the details of even unstained samples with three-dimensional effects. It takes advantage of phase shifts previously described, but in addition it highlights the small differences related to refractive index. Probably it is the finest and most spectacular way to photograph protists.
- Epifluorescence: it allows us to obtain images of fluorescent substances with typical spectacular colours. In this case photomicrographs are often very showy and futuristic.
- Rheinberg illumination: has almost fallen into disuse, it is a variant of darkfield and uses specific filters that must be inserted in the filter holder of the condenser. They consist of a peripheral disk and a central stop, differently coloured: the first part transfers its colour to the subject, while the second part influences the background. The best suited subjects fare the same as discussed for darkfield.
- Oblique illumination: diaphanous samples cannot be effectively seen without this technique if the microscope is only set for brightfield. The simple way to obtain this is to partly obscure the condenser using an opaque stop, so that the sample is illuminated only in part. Oblique illumination allows us to create relief effects, but I consider it a rather gross way that cannot match differential interference contrast and phase contrast.
- Flash photography: it's the best way to “freeze” fast moving living subjects as Protozoans and their cilia. Luckily the best research microscopes can be equipped with a switching mirror for two illuminators: the classical light source and the flash.
Anyhow a good photographer with a little effort is able to realize artistically interesting photographies even using a modest microscope, in fact it is also true that the best research microscope doesn't give the certainty of the best click, it all depends on who does it. Certainly technology helps, but it isn't a conditio sine qua non: the microscopist needs to input his own sensibility and skills.
Finally I'd like to commemorate the writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who claimed that “the dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world”: I would add that the sense of wonder for the world is an equally important duty, especially if we consider a big chunk of an underestimated world which is precisely that of the microcosm.
All comments to the author Stefano Barone are welcomed.
About the author:
Stefano Barone is a writer, a photographer and an artist (http://www.stefanobarone.net/). He is one of the few arranged diatom mounters of our times: visit his blog https://arrangedmicroscopeslides.wordpress.com/ about the arranged microscope slides he prepares. He also works for international magazines, advertising agencies, museums and natural parks, examining aspects of macroscopic subjects, but when the opportunity presents itself he tries to raise an awareness of the microcosm, by means of his modern top gamma research microscopes: the Zeiss Axio Imager 2 and the Zeiss Axio Scope.A1, richly equipped for both transmitted and reflected light. Nonetheless he is fascinated by vintage microscopes and collects mainly the black enamel models.
Pictures and Descriptions
(Camera - Canon EOS 5D MkIII)
1. House cricket's
tongue (Acheta domesticus)
by Stefano Barone. Rheinberg illumination. Among the top 20 winners
of the 2014 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition.
Objective: Zeiss M27 EC Plan-Neofluar 2,5x/0.085 ∞/- with Zeiss Optovar 1.25x. Microscope: Zeiss Axio Scope.A1
2. Bed bug (Cimex
lectularius) by Stefano Barone.
Rheinberg illumination. Image of Distinction of the 2014 Nikon Small
World Photomicrography Competition.
Objective: Zeiss M27 EC Plan-Neofluar 5x/0.16 ∞/0.17. Microscope: Zeiss Axio Imager 2
3. Wine microcrystals by Stefano Barone. Polarized light
with Lambda compensator. Cover picture of the magazine L'Hobby della
Scienza e della Tecnica number 35.
Exhibited in the Civic Museum of Crema (Italy) during the 2014 event “I mondi di carta”, dedicated to food.
Objective: Zeiss M27 Plan-Apochromat 40x/0.95 Korr ∞/0.13-0.21. Microscope: Zeiss Axio Imager 2
4. Title: “Ikebana”. Orange G microcrystals
by Stefano Barone. Polarized light with crossed polars.
Objective: Zeiss M27 Plan-Apochromat 20x/0.8 ∞/0.17. Microscope: Zeiss Axio Scope.A1
5. Vinegar eel
(Turbatrix aceti) by
Stefano Barone. Differential
interference contrast (DIC).
Objective: Zeiss M27 Plan-Apochromat 40x/0.95 Korr ∞/0.13-0.21. Microscope: Zeiss Axio Imager 2
6. Title: “Parrot fire”. Tartaric acid
microcrystals by Stefano Barone. Polarized light with compensator
Objective: Zeiss M27 Plan- Apochromat 20x/0.8 ∞/0.17. Microscope: Zeiss Axio Imager 2
7. The author with his Zeiss Axio Imager 2.
8. One of Stefano Barone's works of art, entitled “Diatoms = Oxygen = Breathing = Love”, permanently exhibited at the entrance of the Maggiore Hospital of Crema (Italy).
9. An example of the diatom arrangements that Stefano
Barone prepares. Darkfield.
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This article was firstly written in Italian and published in the magazine L'Hobby della Scienza e della Tecnica (Barone, S., 2014. Fotografia al microscopio e Arte, L'Hobby della Scienza e della Tecnica 35: 2-6)
All images are © Stefano Barone and must not be used or further distributed without the permission of the author.
Microscopy UK Front
Published in the April 2015 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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