Can You Take Pictures of Atoms?

Some photographers are happy taking pictures of commonly available, earthly subjects.

Others are constantly pushing the boundaries, trying to get a shot of a galaxy far, far away—or even capture an atom, split or not.

IBM has even made a film strictly using moving atoms to tell the story.

That’s all great, but can you take pictures of atoms at all? The short answer is…kind of. Although, technically, not really. Here’s why. (Fair warning: huge nerd-alert ahead!)

What Is an Atom?

Is it possible to take pictures of atoms?

First, a brief foreword.

Our current working theory of what “stuff is made of” is commonly referred to as the materialist paradigm. Although, both quantum physicists and metaphysicians agree that it has significant shortcomings. 

For now, let’s assume that everything is made of infinitesimally small particles that we call atoms. 

That would make them the smallest units of a chemical element. The tiniest possible building blocks, if you will.

The word atom comes from Greek atomos, meaning indivisible. We’ve since discovered that it is far from the case—more on this later.

Now we’ve established what an atom is, but what is the technical definition of photography?

“The art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor)”

Meriam-Webster

In other words, we need to capture light bouncing off our subject’s surface. This is where we run into a “small” problem.

At the atomic scale, lightwaves don’t work in predictable ways.  This means that atoms are literally too small to observe or photograph, per se.

They simply don’t reflect light. This leads us straight into our main question…

How Can You Take Pictures of Atoms?

How To Take Pictures of Atoms

Glad you asked. We, humans, are a curious bunch and tend to come up with all sorts of creative solutions to our problems. Taking photos of atoms is no different. 

While it’s impossible to photograph atomic particles in the traditional sense, several methods allow us to capture a visual representation of them.

Let’s have a quick look at the methods available.

What Is Electron Ptychography?

Ptychography is a computational method of microscopic imaging

As of writing, ptychography is the most promising technique for microimaging at the atomic scale. 

The technique has, in theory, been around since the late ’80s. However, it has not been properly put into practice until recently. 

Splitting Atoms, Not Hairs

Human curiosity seems to have no boundaries—not even economical. At the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, they’ve been smashing together particles for many years. 

The LHC costs in the billions and requires stupendous amounts of energy to run.

Those experiments have not only produced mind-boggling images, but they’ve led to discoveries like the Higgs boson, aka the God particle. In layman’s terms, that’s the one that gives stuff mass. 

Obviously, we have established that atoms are not indivisible, even though it is rather challenging to take them apart. 

Can You Take Pictures of Atoms With a DSLR?

Taking pictures of atoms using DSLR

Shockingly, the answer is a resounding yes.

Oxford student at the time, David Nadlinger, proved it in 2018. In fact, he used a plain ol’ 50mm lens, albeit combined with extension rings, flashes, and colored gels. 

Nadlinger managed to photograph laser light bouncing off of a strontium atom. It was suspended in a so-called ion trap and would reflect enough light for a long exposure to capture it.

However, unless you have at least US$200,000 to splash on an ion trap, you might have to get access to a lab that has one.

How to Photograph Something Up Close Without a Fancy Lab?

Can You Photograph Atoms?

Although the atomic scale is somewhat difficult to access, there are other options. While not quite at the nuclear level, macro photography opens up a whole new universe to explore. 

You can produce highly detailed macro shots using inexpensive extension tubes, a tripod, and a Speedlite.

Anything from insects to coins and organic materials reveals extraordinary, usually overlooked details under heavy magnification. 

Some camera lenses lend themselves well to macro as a secondary feature. Still, there are dedicated macro lenses purpose-built to get extremely close to the subject. 

Other Articles In This Series

You might be wondering where else you can take photographs. This series of articles might be of interest:

Final Thoughts

It is technically impossible to photograph an atom due to its inability to reflect light. 

But then, how can you take pictures of atoms? You can do it via a microscopic imaging technique called electron ptychography or an ion trap plus a DSLR camera. 

Both methods require costly lab equipment, but you can still get quite close with macrophotography.