Masters of Microscopy

Igor Siwanowicz on Capturing Microscopic Animal Anatomy

Welcome to Masters of Microscopy: The People Behind the Lens, where we showcase and celebrate the individuals who are the heart of the Nikon Small World competitions. They are scientists, artists, researchers, educators and everyday curious individuals who uncover the fascinating microscopic world around us.

Dr. Siwanowicz posing with one of his dragonfly subjects 

Ever since he was a little boy leafing through his parents’ biology textbooks, Dr. Igor Siwanowicz knew he wanted to be a scientist. The son of two biologists, Igor grew up surrounded by scientific texts and enthralling images of animals. As a child, he’d often spend time getting his hands dirty while venturing out to find insects he could observe.

Today, he is an accomplished biochemist and neurobiologist who has placed in Nikon’s Small World Competition 13 times. The Nikon Small World competition means a lot to Siwanowicz both personally and professionally. Of the competition, he says, “Many scientists share an appreciation of beauty and are fully aware of the aesthetic aspects of their research. The Nikon Small World Contest was conceived with such people in mind. Images are rewarded for the artistic merit and visual aspects on par with and often above their scientific importance; that definitely grants the contest a broad appeal among non-experts and contributes to redeeming the image of science as a somber, wonder-less, unexciting affair utterly unintelligible for a layperson.”

Siwanowicz enjoys working with animals of all shapes and sizes

Siwanowicz started his career in biochemistry, but his love for animals, nature, and a desire to see the bigger picture drove him to re-focus his scientific discipline to neurobiology. “I decided biochemistry was too reductionist for my personal tastes,” said Siwanowicz, “I wanted a field of study that would allow me to research things more holistically, and working in neurobiology is more in tune with my naturalist character.”

Siwanowicz had always been fascinated by the natural form and designs found in insects, but did not really get into microscopy until this career shift. “I bought my first camera at age 26, but the technology available at the time did not produce the quality of photos I was looking for,” he said.

By the time he made his career shift, digital photography had drastically improved, and microscopy was a key tool in neurobiological research. His love for nature, the improved tools available, and its importance to his work made beginning to practice microscopy seem like a natural progression for Siwanowicz.

Working with Insects

Currently, Siwanowicz’s work is focused on dragonflies and anatomy of dragonflies. Specifically, Siwanowicz is studying the neuro-circuitry that is responsible for prey tracking and prey capture – a perfect blend of his interests in photographing invertebrates and their neurobiology.

Currently, he’s working alongside professor emeritus from Cambridge, Professor Malcolm Burrows, who specialized in the mechanics of jumping insects and insect neuroanatomy.

Siwanowicz with his favorite subject to photograph, the praying mantis 

Siwanowicz enjoys photographing all types invertebrates, but praying mantises are his favorite subject.

“They are so curious; they’ll often turn to look at you when you’re interacting with them. They are also a very good research subject because they have fascinating neuronal networks and they exhibit a lot of algorithmic predictive behavior that we see in larger animals whose brains are much harder to study.”

Siwanowicz says that they key to insect-focused microscopy is remembering that they are animals who may not always exhibit the behaviors you want them to, “You have to approach them with respect and patience. If they don’t present a behavior, you just have to hope that you will have a better day some other day, but the uncertainty of it is part of what makes it so rewarding.”

Finding Connections Through Microscopy

Siwanowicz keeps his home set-up simple. “I use a piano bench as my stage…you could fit it in a suitcase.”

Having all the newest equipment isn’t the end all be all for taking great micrographs, he says. “Focus on the lighting. I always use at least two strobes with diffusers, so they’re remote controlled by the infrared transmitter from the camera. So, you can model the light around the insects for a more dramatic or natural affect.”

His other tip for those interested in photographing the microscopic world? Don’t compare yourself too much to others – instead, choose to shoot what you are interested. “You have to come up with your own idea of the finished work,” he said “Visualize the image you want to achieve and work towards it.”

Siwanowicz and his gear

More than just a hobby and research tool, microscopy has opened many doors for Siwanowicz, “I don’t love writing, but I love taking photographs. Other scientists can see my work and research interests through my photos, and it’s a really great way to find collaborators,” he said.

When he’s not working on his various scientific pursuits, Siwanowicz enjoys being outdoors, macro-photography, and studying ancient Indian and Persian methods of exercising.

You can find more of Siwanowicz’s work at NikonSmallWorld.com or on his Photo.net page.

To stay up to date with the "Masters of Microscopy" series and receive your daily dose of Nikon Small World, follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Be sure to follow Nikon Instruments for the latest updates on equipment and technology.

Follow Nikon’s Small World