For our #SeeTheUnseen campaign in which we are giving away four 60” Quattron Pro TVs, we met up with award-winning photomicrographer, David Maitland, who we commissioned to create images for the competition. We also paid a visit to his home-cum-laboratory in Norfolk to learn more about the process of photomicrography. Below is a video in which Maitland explains how to take Vitamin C and create an image of it at the crystalline level to reveal its hidden, coruscating beauty.

Vitamin C under a polarising light microscope by David Maitland.

Vitamin C under a polarising light microscope by David Maitland.

While we were there we also learnt a little more about Maitland, his background, what he  likes to photograph and what techniques he uses to really get up close.

Tell me about your background?

I started off as a university academic, doing research, teaching, taking photographs to illustrate my lectures and the research with. Ever since I was a kid I’ve taken photographs whenever I could, so it developed from there.

The sea urchin looked like a stained glass window

I decided I’d like to give professional photography a proper run because it takes so long, its very time consuming and I didn’t get the time to do that when I was an academic.

When did you decide to take microscopic images?

Maitland’s Equipment:ArtofPhotomicrography-5For anyone interested in giving photomicrography a go, and willing to spend a bit of money, David Maitland uses a Canon 5D MKII which he attaches to an Olympus BX51 Microscope.

The microscopes started two years ago. I’d always used microscopes – scanning electron microscopes – in my work and because of my interest in macro I felt I wanted to get closer still and so going down the microscopic route seemed a logical progression.

Do you remember the first image you took with a microscope?

Yes, I can remember exactly. I had a slide that had a cross section through a spine from a sea urchin and it looked like a stained glass window from a church.

Do you consider yourself specifically as a photomicrographer?

Personally, I really don’t care what machine I use to take photographs, it’s literally the photograph as the end result that matters.I never think of myself using microscopes as such, it’s just literally a very complicated thing that I bolt onto the front of the camera – it’s a tool I use.

A cross-section of a Sea Urchin's spine.

A cross-section of a Sea Urchin’s spine by Maitland.

It’s a very powerful tool but there are lots of things that it is absolutely awful for. One of the biggest problems with using the microscope is the depth of field, it’s very, very shallow and it is really only in the last few years, where you’ve got these computing techniques available where you can take lots of individual photographs, each one at a slightly different plain of focus and then you stitch them altogether and you get an image where everything is in focus and that creates a photograph much more like what you get with a scanning electron microscope, where everything is in focus.
It’s called focus stacking, that was a huge boon for photo microscopy. You are still limited by what you can photograph but for some things, it is absolutely fantastic to be able to do that.

Are there many other people doing this type of work?

It’s hard to tell, I would suspect that there is probably a lot of amateurs doing it but I think there is just a handful of professionals. The community on the internet is quite strong, there’s a lot of people in America, Germany, Italy and Australia.

DIC microscopy is extremely expensive and very technical

Do you specialise in any subject matter?

The closer I can get to something the better. For example, I never take bird photography but I might photograph bits of birds. I’ve got a particular interest with invertebrates, I really like invertebrates so I would guess that the bulk of my photographic collection is on invertebrates and quite a lot on plants. I’m interested in those two things.

Tell me about the different ways of doing photomicrography?

There are so many lighting techniques and I think different people have favourites. Some people do a lot of dark field microscopy whereas others use differential, interference, contrast, DIC for short, which I use, it’s a very powerful technique. However DIC microscopy is extremely expensive and very technical. The manufacturers have to take very pure crystals and they slice the crystals precisely so that the crystal structure is lined up in the right way.

The stem of a cocoa nut palm with xylem vessel 'eyes' by Maitland.

The stem of a cocoa nut palm with xylem vessel ‘eyes’ by Maitland.

They need to slice them perfectly to be optically perfect so you can imagine that is going to be very expensive to do and then that crystal slice has to be matched with another one, so it is not just one. Then you need to combine that with polarising systems which together becomes extremely expensive. Some of the best techniques are just extremely expensive and an extension of that is electron microscopy, it is very powerful, has huge advantages but of course it has a huge price tag.

Plain polarised light microscopy is the simplest form and that’s a wonderful thing to start with. Anybody interested in microscopy, I would say the very first thing to do is to kit out your microscope for polarised light because it opens up so many more opportunities than straight light microscopy.

Can you talk me through polarised light?

You get a normal light microscope but you have to put a linear polarising filter on the light source and then you have a condenser above that and the condenser focuses the light source on your specimen. Above the lens you have another polarising filter which is also a linear polarising filter and you can rotate either one.

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But while you can get a cheap old polarising filter for the bottom, the one above the lens is more difficult. It’s important it’s an optical filter because it’s actually behind the image, so a cheap one is like looking through a bad piece of glass, it has distortions in it and you can wreck the quality of the image. To buy a polarising filter to put in that position is expensive, they run at about £100 because it has to be optically flat whereas with the one on the bottom you can use a piece of polarising plastic because there’s no image formed yet, it’s just light.

Image Credits: David Maitland

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