Black and White Photography

By Steve Durr


My first attempts at Photomicroscopy were with Black and White materials and were, to say the least, of dubious quality. I decided to enrol on a basic course in photography which included the chance to do your own Black and White printing. Enrolling at one of the local colleges enabled me to gain access to a dark room and also some professional help. Building your own dark room is not that difficult but actually running one at home can become quite expensive. If you persevere and stick at the course you should be able to knock out some half decent prints within the year.


This photograph is of a fresh water microbe and shows the flagella at the two ends of the cell marked with an arrow. The flagellum helps the organism to move around in the liquid medium. Phase contrast enabled me to pick up the fine detail which would other wise be lost. X 1000.

This spirochete was photographed using phase contrast, and was also taken without using flash. Because I do not have flash, taking a photograph of something that never wants to stop can take an awful long time.


The two films that I use are T-Max 100 and Technical pan rated at 64 Iso. When light levels are really low then T– Max 400 can be used.

Many modern cameras are not much use for taking photographs down the microscope because of the built in automatic features. A much better way is to try and buy a second hand Olympus OM-1 or OM-2, both of which are superb for attaching to the microscope. They support many extras including the interchangeable focusing screens, which are a must when high magnifications are being used. The more expensive option is to buy a microscope which has a built in camera and more or less takes care of the exposures for you.

In order to obtain the best quality negatives when using B/W emulsion, a good working knowledge of filters and their use is of paramount importance. Filters can be made of glass or more commonly are sold in the gelatine form. Care must be taken with the latter type because they can be easily scratched. The use of filters enables the photographer to be selective about what part of the photograph is going to be enhanced. This prevents the negative from being very similar shades of grey. The drawback to all this is that filters absorb light and therefore exposure times increase. This increase in exposure time can be a nuisance when photographing live animals that move.


This photograph is of the centrally aligned nucleus of the alga Spirogyra, the nucleus is held in place by the cytoplasmic strands which can be seen radiating outwards toward the cell wall. Reproduction is by fragmentation and also by the formation of spores, which sink to the bottom of the pond to await more favourable conditions.

This species of Euglena seems to be very common in the ponds of Epping forest. The large rectangular shapes that can be seen embedded within the cell are for storing carbohydrate and are called Paramylon bodies. The Red eye spot and the flagella are at the anterior of the cell, these two organelles help the organism to manoeuvre about in the water.


This type of photograph relies on sheer good luck rather than any planning and should be seized upon immediately. This is a hypotrich ciliate called Euplotes and was photographed wandering down the filament of Spirogyra. The ventral cirri that appear to look like legs are in fact modified cilia and they help the organism to move over the substratum.
This shows part of the Desmid called Pleurotaenium. The crystals, which can be seen in the two small vacuoles at each end of the cell were, for many years, thought to be of calcium sulphate, but as more work has been done on the composition of these crystals it has since been learnt that they are in fact made from barium sulphate.

It is always a good idea to use a Yellow –Green filter when taking photographs down the microscope in B/W. When using phase contrast a green filter should also be employed. These filters will help to overcome the inherent defects of the achromatic lens and should produce a sharper image and therefore better contrast.

Black and White processing can be great fun and can teach you much about how images are formed. It also allows you to have the final say into how you wish to present your image by the use of filters and the actual processing of the film. With the advent of image analysis techniques and computers that can be linked up to cameras this type of wet processing may not be around for much longer.

Why not take a closer look at the differences between protozoa and bacteria and pay a visit to Wim Van Egmond's The smallest page on the web.


Comments to the author Steve Durr are welcomed

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