What is Photomicrography?

Alan Rankin

Photomicrography is the practice of photographing microscopic objects or creatures, usually for scientific purposes. Photomicrography is widely used in forensic labs and medical research, as well as other fields that require study of microscopic details. In the 19th and 20th centuries, photomicrographs, also called micrographs, were produced by connecting or aligning a film camera with a microscope, a complicated process. Digital technology has allowed the two devices to be electronically synched so live images can be viewed in real time.

Three paramecia photographed under a microscope.
Three paramecia photographed under a microscope.

Photomicrography was pioneered in the 1800s, only a few decades after the introduction of photography itself. Scientists quickly realized that photomicrography would facilitate the study of cell structure, disease bacteria, and other microscopic matter. When forensic science came into use in crime investigation in the early 20th century, photomicrography became an important tool for examining trace evidence, tiny details that can connect a suspect to a crime scene.

Photomicrography is an important tool for examining trace evidence that can connect a suspect to a crime scene.
Photomicrography is an important tool for examining trace evidence that can connect a suspect to a crime scene.

Camera zoom lenses and microscopes work on the same basic principle: using magnifying lenses, and sometimes mirrors, to enlarge a point while retaining clear focus. Early photomicrography involved complex arrangements of cameras and microscopes. In some cases, the camera’s lens was actually removed, making the microscope effectively serve as its lens. Digital technology has eliminated the need for such painstaking device alignments; the microscopic image is processed as digital data. This data can be saved on a computer, stored as a still image or video, and enlarged on a screen, all while the object is still under the microscope.

Photomicrography may be best known in modern times for its use in processing trace evidence from crime scenes. Trace evidence results from the microscopic particles produced when two substances make contact. For example, a man walking across a carpet will collect carpet fibers on his shoes, as well as leaving tiny particles of dirt or other matter from the shoe soles on the carpet itself. Examining a crime scene, investigators can use photomicrography to find these trace elements and link them to a suspect. Unless trace evidence is particularly strong, other evidence must be acquired to convict a suspect in court.

Photomicrography is often portrayed on television crime shows such as NCIS and Bones, although not always realistically. Photomicrography has also been used to create art. The photographer and scientist Roman Vishniac often displayed his micrographs alongside his artistic work, inspiring later photographers to seek images of microscopic beauty. One of Vishniac’s most revolutionary images used photomicrography to portray the world as it might be seen by an insect with multifaceted eyes.

Early photomicrography utilized microscopes.
Early photomicrography utilized microscopes.

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