Maybe you’ve never seen a splendid-necked dung beetle before. But even if you have, odds are, you’ve never seen one like this before. That is, in a dazzling high-resolution composite image made up of 8,000 photographs shot with a microscopic lens. For its latest exhibition, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History tapped British photographer Levon Biss to take glamor shots of its collection of insects, from the blue-green blow fly to the branch-backed treehopper. The resulting images, called Microsculpture, are reminders of why the ancient Egyptians made scarabs into precious jewelry and considered dung beetles sacred.
It’s hard for the naked eye to register the visual splendor of these tiny creatures. “It takes the power of an optical microscope or camera lens to experience insects at their own scale,” Dr. James Hogan of Oxford University Museum of Natural History writes. Here, some of the 22 photographs stretch 10 feet wide on the museum’s walls, revealing every hair, wing, and antenna in crisp detail. If you can’t make it to Oxford, the photos are also featured on a gorgeous Microsculpture website. It allows you to zoom in and study every nook and cranny of bugs’ bodies, which wasn’t something we knew we wanted to do until now.
Capturing these bugs at such high magnification was no small feat. From start to finish, each of the 22 finished photographs took around three weeks to shoot, process, and retouch, and the project as a whole took two years. Biss, known for his sports photography, describes his process: “The pinned insect is placed on an adapted microscope stage that enables me to have complete control over the positioning of the specimen in front of the lens.” Using a 36-megapixel camera that has a 10x microscope objective attached to it, “I photograph the insect in approximately 30 different sections, depending on the size of the specimen. Each section is lit differently with strobe lights to bring out the micro sculptural beauty of that particular section of the body.”
For example, Biss would light and shoot a single antennae, then change the lighting setup entirely to move onto shooting the insect’s eye. And since microscopic lenses have shallow depth of field, they only allow a tiny sliver of focus. “To enable me to capture all the information I need to create a fully focused image, the camera is mounted onto an electronic rail that I program to move forward 10 microns between each shot,” Biss writes. “To give you an idea of how far that is, the average human hair is around 75 microns wide.” He continued this process over the whole body of each insect. Once he has 30 fully focused sections, he stitches them together in Photoshop to create the final image.
The featured insects’ names — the Flying Saucer Trench Beetle, the Orchid Cuckoo Bee, the Orange Net-Winged Beetle, the Marion Flightless Moth — are as colorful as their surfaces.
Microsculpture is on view at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Parks Rd, Oxford OX1 3PW, United Kingdom) until October 30. The photographs are available for purchase as prints from Levon Biss Prints.