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How Silvia Becker Photographs Curious, Microscopic Shells on the Beach

How Silvia Becker Photographs Curious, Microscopic Shells on the Beach

All photos by Silvia Becker. Used with permission. For more stories like this, subscribe to The Phoblographer.

“Just about every new foraminifera I find is unknown to me,” Silvia Becker tells me. As a photomicrographer, she’s studied everything from microcrystals to bacteria, but one subject she returns to again and again are foraminifera shells, or the remains of single-cell protists found in marine environments. While foraminifera (forams for short) can range from around 100 micrometers to 20 centimeters in size, most of the shells she’s photographed hover around one millimeter or smaller. And they’re all unique. 

“There is an incredibly vast number of different types of foraminifera,” the photographer explains. Forams can live anywhere from mere weeks to several years; some species float in water, but the vast majority live in the bottom of the ocean in sand, mud, plants, or rocks. Becker finds her forams in sand samples collected from beaches around the globe. 

She isn’t alone in finding these small and fragile organisms mysterious, as the details surrounding the life cycles and behaviors of many foraminifera species remain unknown to science. “The exact identification of the species is not easy, and for me personally, it’s not very important,” Becker admits. “It’s less about classifying them and more about simply appreciating them. I am most interested in showing these tiny wonders of nature.” We asked her about the ongoing project. 

Scotland

The Essential Gear of Silvia Becker

Becker tells us: 

“I have several microscopes I use for photography. When taking pictures of foraminifera or sand, I use a Leica S APO stereo microscope. Photographers who are familiar with this field will say, ‘But with a stereo microscope, you can not make such fine stack steps.’ They are correct. Stereo microscopes usually don’t have a fine drive, which is needed for stacking, so I used the bottom part of an old microscope to make a stage with a fine drive. My camera is a Sony α 6300.” 

Phoblographer: What drew you to photomicrography? 

Silvia Becker: A few years ago, I came across some images of microcrystals in polarized light. That moment served as my entrance into microphotography, and microcrystals remain my main area of focus today. When I first started, I had to find a good but affordable microscope, and then my camera had to be adapted. 

For someone who’d never had anything to do with microscopy before, it was quite a challenge, so I’m glad my friend helped me with it. Once you start, it’s hard to stop looking for things that might be interesting under a microscope. I started with sand, and through that, I ventured into foraminifera. The view through a microscope opens up completely new worlds, and it’s incredibly exciting what you can discover. 

Dominican Republic

Phoblographer: You’ve created these photos from sand samples found on beaches around the world. Have you always been drawn to the sea?

Silvia Becker: I love the sea and the beach. When we go on vacation, we are most drawn to the coast. Maybe it’s the vastness of the sea or the power of the water; sometimes, the waves are calm and soothing, and other times, they are wild and unpredictable. Unfortunately, I have not personally been to all the beaches where these sand samples originated. Most are souvenirs from friends or colleagues, brought back from various vacations and trips.

Sand, Philippines

Phoblographer: Are certain beaches better for finding foraminifera than others?

Silvia Becker: Yes, there are some beaches where the sand consists almost entirely of foraminifera, including, for example, the beaches in Japan that are known for their rare “star sand.” In my black sand samples from Tenerife or the Azores, on the other hand, I hardly found any foraminifera, so lava doesn’t seem to be the best living environment for foraminifera.

Phoblographer: What has been your favorite beach for finding forams?

Silvia Becker: Of the beaches I’ve visited myself, my favorite so far would be Balnakeil Beach in Scotland. For starters, it is a beautiful beach with white sand in a breathtaking landscape. Secondly, the sand there consists almost entirely of organic material like seashells, snail shells, foraminifera, etc. Photographing the sand found on that beach was especially interesting. 

Malaysia

Phoblographer: How do you know that the unicellular organisms are no longer inside these shells when you find them? 

Silvia Becker: The living part of the foraminifera is a gelatinous mass: the cytoplasm. Through the openings of the shell, filamentous pseudopodia are formed, which are used for feeding, locomotion, etc. I collect my sand samples on the beach or directly at the water’s edge. Living foraminifera require a wet environment and are extremely sensitive. Therefore, I assume that the shells found at the places where I take my samples no longer contain cytoplasm.

Phoblographer: Are you able to identify forams in the field or only once you get home? Is it possible to see them with the naked eye? 

Silvia Becker: There are some species that grow to be relatively large, but on average, the shells are so tiny that they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Of course, you could examine the sand in the field with a strong magnifying glass, but I like to take my sand samples home and be surprised by what I find. 

Zanzibar

Phoblographer: What technical challenges do you face when photographing objects this small?

Silvia Becker: There are always problems to solve, from “How do I form a tiny holder for the foraminifera out of plasticine?” to “What tool can I use to sort out the foraminifera from larger sand samples without destroying them?” But one of the biggest problems is the light. Most of these little things have a smooth, shiny surface, so either everything is too dark, or you have extreme spotlights.

Illuminating an object about one millimeter in size can drive you crazy, and each foraminifera has to be illuminated individually. You must constantly look for and test new light sources and experiment with small diffusers made from different kinds of paper and materials. All the while, you must always be careful not to blow your tiny “model” off the table. 

Turkey

Phoblographer: Each of these images is composed of 20 single photos. Can you walk us through your stacking process in Helicon Focus and later, your workflow in Photoshop? 

Silvia Becker: When everything is ready to shoot, I take my single shots in RAW format. Then the shots go into the RAW converter, and the whole batch is processed a bit. I correct the white balance, for example. From there, they are saved as TIFF files, and off they go into Helicon Focus.

Here’s where it gets exciting. You can’t really tell from the individual shots whether everything you’ve done actually works. In Helicon Focus, there are different settings for adding up the single shots. I don’t have a standard setting, but the more you do it, the better you get at estimating what settings will yield the best results. 

Still, the program sometimes gets it wrong, or maybe you still have too many hotspots in the image, which are only really noticeable after the merging. Then you start again at the beginning because these problems can only be solved by getting the light just right. I don’t even try to save bad pictures in Photoshop. I prefer to use that time to make a better picture. The good thing is that this is a hobby for me. I don’t have to earn money with it, and I can take all the time in the world. 

If everything works out well, I edit the image in Photoshop. In the end, it’s just a matter of adjusting the tonal values, sharpening, etc. Afterward, the foraminifera will be cropped so that I can arrange it with the other forams on a new background for the final image. 

Phoblographer: Some foraminifera have a fossil record dating back more than 500 million years. How old are the shells you’ve found? Is there any way to know?   

Silvia Becker: Foraminifera shells could be several hours old, months old, or much older. Certainly, there are ways to determine their ages more precisely, but that is a topic for the scientists who study them. There is important research in this area, and studies are being done about the influence of climate change on foraminifera. But as I consider myself a simple photographer who wants only to show the beauties of the small world, this is not my area of expertise. 

Sand, Taketomi, Japan

Phoblographer: Do you hold onto these shells after you photograph them?

Silvia Becker: Yes, of course, I keep my samples in small closed glasses, which are labeled and placed in a drawer for safekeeping. You never know when I’ll have a completely new idea and want to photograph the same sample again, and you don’t always get the chance to travel to Zanzibar, for example, to collect more sand. 

To see more work by Silvia Becker, follow her on Behance.