Beneath the Surface

What sparked your love for science and microscopy?

My interest in science developed early in my youth. I grew up in a small village surrounded by vibrant and beautiful nature. As a child, I was interested in observing insects and microorganisms in the streams and forests. Watching the development of butterflies or frogs was great. It was also around this time that my parents gave me my first small microscope, which although simple and made of plastic, increased my interest in the tiny world viewed through it.

It wasn’t until many years later, about 20 years ago, that a long-time photographer friend of mine rekindled my interest and I bought a professional microscope. Since then, micro and macro photography in all their facets have been a passion for me that I hope to experience for many years to come.

Can you tell us about your education and training?

I studied electrical engineering and am an engineer by training. For more than 35 years I have been working in scientific teaching at the University of Applied Sciences in Trier.

As you can see, my training has little to do with my enthusiasm for micro and macro photography. I have acquired all the technical skills for operating the microscope, the photographic equipment, and the devices for macro photography through self-study, specialist forums and participation in events for microscopists. It’s the same for my knowledge of biology.

How did you transition from enjoying microscopy as a hobby to pursuing it as a profession?

Unfortunately, I didn’t choose microscopy as a profession.

If I were young again, I could very well imagine learning this profession and pursuing it with enthusiasm. But in almost all my free time I deal with this exciting topic.

So, it hasn’t become my job, it’s become my passion.

Your work now involves capturing motion. Does this require a very different set of skills?

Yes, I’ve worked on a few film projects, including a feature film about bog microbes. Compared to microorganism photography, filming requires a different approach.

With film, the action and movement of the microorganisms are in the foreground. This requires intensive observation and study of the creatures before the recordings are made.

In photography, on the other hand, moments are frozen. The equipment is the same for photography and filming.

As a freelance microscopist, what are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?

It is a special challenge because each project requires new techniques and approaches. For example, microscopic objects can be water samples from Iceland or growing seeds. Or next, it is growing ice crystals that are photographed with the help of the microscope.

How challenging is it to build a network of clients?

Not difficult, a network grows by itself. My website is very well represented on the internet and I am easily found by customers via social media.

My success in photo competitions, e.g. Nikon Small World, also helps. Since taking 3rd place in this competition many interested parties approached me and my network expanded rapidly.

I am the author of three microscopy books and am actively involved in the editing of a German microscopy magazine. All of these activities publicise my work and grow my network.

What is it about microscopy that holds your fascination?

It has always fascinated me to make the smallest things visible that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Everyone I show a first glimpse into the life of a water drop through the microscope is fascinated by it. The enlarged close-up view of a drop of water with microorganisms is much more exciting than looking into space with a telescope.

If you deal with microscopy, you quickly realise how many mysteries this enchanting microworld still hides. You always see and discover something new and I find that fascinating. In order to share this fascination with others, I try to combine what I see with technology and creativity.

Could you walk us through your process of creating and capturing these stunning microworlds?

What fascinates me the most is the microlife in water. In my microscopy workroom, I always have samples with living organisms on the windowsill.

I also cooperate with a university that regularly sends me algae cultures. Even a pond in the garden constantly provides me with new material. The material for observing living organisms never runs out.

A drop of water is pipetted onto a slide and then examined directly under a transmitted light microscope. Various contrast methods such as Differential Interference Contrast (DIC), phase contrast and dark field are used.

I also have the technical ability to use a special contrast with a special microscope, the Interphako contrast from Zeiss Jena. But to explain this any further here would go too deep into technology and physics.

Why use different imaging techniques, such as macrophotography, ultraviolet, and high speed, in addition to light microscopy?

I try out different techniques to explore the effect on the final picture, although curiosity seems to play a big part.

The finest details, which would otherwise not be visible can be recognised through the use of these techniques.

The penetration into worlds that are invisible and unknown to us also plays an important role for me here.

Do you consider your work art or science?

I try to photograph my subjects as realistically as possible. I attach great importance to photographing what I see through the eyepieces of the microscope. The specimens are photographed using the highest possible resolution.

I therefore see my work as more of a science than an art but I do create my photos with a creative and artistic point of view in mind.

You could say it is a combination of the two.

Why do you think microscopy is so popular with the public?

At the moment we have a lot of issues to do with the environment and nature, for example, climate change.

The changed perspective on microorganisms such as algae and their importance to our environment also plays a major role. And of course, we are very curious to see these things that cannot be seen with the naked eye under the microscope.

Many people’s interest and enthusiasm for scientific topics are aroused by looking at aesthetically photographed images of complicated scientific processes.

I hope that my micro and macro photographs and films will contribute towards this growing popularity.

After 20 years in the field, what has been the most rewarding moment of your microscopy career so far?

One of the highlights over the last few years is the collaboration on a cinema film project entitled Magie der Moore with the internationally renowned nature filmmaker Jan Haft.

The publication as a co-author of three microscopy books is also an important highlight for me. Along with the award of third place at Nikon Small World 2011.

Do you have a favourite image?

No, but I particularly like the micrographs of ornamental algae, such as the alga Micrasterias. It comes up again and again in my work.

Recognisable, repeating tiny structures have a certain charm for me.

The repetitive structures of the algal colony Volvox are also one of my favourite motifs.

Explore more of Frank’s microscopic universe.