Behind the microscope, Issaquah man takes national photo award | Photos

This photo of a rotifer, a freshwater microbe, won first prize in the Olympus Bioscapes competition. The photo was taken by Charles Krebs of Issaquah - Courtesy of Charles Krebs
This photo of a rotifer, a freshwater microbe, won first prize in the Olympus Bioscapes competition. The photo was taken by Charles Krebs of Issaquah
— image credit: Courtesy of Charles Krebs

At first glance, the microbe looks like a strange Micky Mouse popping up from a hole. But fix a mind upon it and the translucent microorganism, building its conical home, must be alien — pure science fiction.

Charles Krebs, a recluse with a microscope, wouldn’t necessarily disagree. The petri dish is a new world to explore, he says. “There’s like a universe, inside a universe, inside a universe.”

Krebs took first prize in the national Olympus Bioscapes contest this year. But unlike the photos produced by scientists, Krebs’ work comes from the curiosity of a photographer.

The microbe, a rotifer, was actually an unusual entry for Krebs, who prefers to photograph creatures more familiar to the average person - such as the eyes of a honey bee or the wings of a a mosquito. Such creatures, usually seen with disgust, become stunning when viewed close up. Put something under the microscope, Krebs says, and people see the bugs anew.

“Who doesn’t like seeing new things?” Krebs says. “Not just things that are new, but things that are totally unexpected.”

For Krebs, the adventure didn’t start with a microscope.

He had focused on nature photography and had his work featured in about every major magazine that takes an interest in the great outdoors - National Geographic, Time and Smithsonian. He also made money providing images to stock photo companies.

Then the Internet and digital photography came along, destroying the freelance industry as images became too plentiful, too cheap.

Never interested in photographing people, he turned deeper into the natural world.

Not an educated scientist, he is baffled by the world that swims by as he looks into the petri dishes. He pulls water from nearby ponds and lakes and, after finding some new specimen, looks for information on the Web.

“It’s humbling in a way,” he said, his voice rich with enthusiasm. “There is so much left that we don’t know.”



While his numerable photomicrography awards from Olympus and Nikon are confirming, they certainly don’t provide a living. However, the skill does have some industrial promise.

Manufacturers, especially in healthcare, have begun creating parts so small that to the naked eye they appear like grainsof sand. They turn to specialized photographers, like Krebs, to produce images for trade shows.

Under the microscope the specs transform into little coils. Krebs admits he hasn’t a clue how such parts are made.

Photographing tiny images isn’t as simple as hooking a digital camera to microscope. Micrography has advanced substantially with computers and electron-based microscopes, but the limits of physics have been pushed to a limit with traditional glass and light microscopes.

Electron microscopes use expensive dyes to highlight different cells. The costs of procuring that advanced technology are high, and typically resigned to scientists.

For Krebs, who has a light-based microscope made in the 1980s, it’s also a matter of using real light. Electron images look more like colorful graphics. There is no connection to real specimens.

Microscopes are so powerful, that a narrow depth of field is near impossible to avoid. When people use them, they unconsciously rest their hands on the focus nob, constantly adjusting the focus and the depth of field. Taking a photo requires much more work.

To get the entire object in focus, Krebs has to take multiple photos at various depths of field and compile them into one image.

He took about 150 photos to make one image of a fly’s eye. Each picture showed a different part of the eye in complete clarity. Computer software then flawlessly compiles and realigns each image into one photo.

While it was technology that made his nature photography unprofitable,  without it he would never be able to capture the images he has these past seven years.

Photomicrography has been his remaking as a photographer, but it’s also been a great exploration into the unknown.

Whether the microscopic world excites the atheist or turns the theist toward faith in a creator, it’s still amazing, he said. “It still raises more questions.”


Charles Krebs at his microscope in his Issaquah home. CONTRIBUTED

One of the many insects Charles Krebs has photographed with a microscope. CONTRIBUTED

A close up look at pollen on the legs of a honey bee. Photo by Charles Krebs.

Two rotifers, BY CHARLES KREBS

Charles Krebs won first prize in the Olympus Bioscapes competition for this photo of a rotifer building its home. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED

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