• June 19, 2014

In the Studio: An Ant and a Tiny Wind Turbine

Jenna Turner

For the lead story in the July Departments pages of National Geographic magazine, photographer Adam Voorhes was tasked with a perplexing assignment: to make a photograph of a miniature wind turbine 1.8 mm tall, or rather, about half the length of a grain of rice.

“All you can see is this little line and you can see that there are three fan blades connected to it. Everything else is completely microscopic.”

Developed by a team of electrical engineers at The University of Texas, Arlington, this miniature wind turbine, whose detail (such as the holes in the fan blades) in Adam’s photograph is unseeable to the naked eye, can generate electric power from ambient wind. The idea is that one day several hundreds of them could be applied to a sleeve for your smart phone, so when your phone dies, all you have to do is put the sleeve on and wave it through the air for a couple minutes to recharge it.

Being an experienced technical photographer, Adam had an idea of what he needed to do. “We saw a picture beforehand of the turbine on a penny, so I said, ok it’s twice the size of the ‘y’ on ‘liberty’ on a penny, which is really small.” So small, in fact, it is superglued to a microscope slide cover, otherwise you would not be able to physically handle it. He would need to use a technical camera and a technique known as “focus stacking” to get the final result.

A tiny wind turbine, with a quarter to show scale, is mounted on a glass slide for photographing.
A tiny wind turbine, with a quarter to show scale, is mounted on a glass slide for photographing.

Here’s how it works: in order to get an image which is completely sharp, you need to combine multiple images taken at different focus distances which, when combined, provide a resulting image with a greater depth of field. In macro photography, such as in this case with the mini wind turbine, getting a sufficient depth of field is challenging because the depth of field is much shallower.

“The depth that we’re photographing is two tenths of a millimeter. It’s so small that your depth of field is something that we don’t even perceive; you’re looking at an image that’s almost entirely out of focus and there’s just this tiny little field of depth that’s sharp.”

Adam started by taking a photograph where one point is in focus and then systematically took over 80 frames, shifting his focus slightly in each one. He then ran all the images through a computer program that combines all the sharp points to create a final, layered image.

“It’s never perfect and there’s some clean up you have to do, but for the most part you have a wonderful sharp image that could not be created otherwise.”

Part one completed, and on to part two: showing the scale of the wind turbine through comparison.

A composite image of an ant climbing a tiny wind turbine
A photo illustration of an ant climbing a tiny wind turbine

Both Adam and his photo editor Susan Welchman agreed. An ant would be perfect, especially if it could interact with the turbine. Since this real-world interaction wasn’t an option, Adam recreated the miniature turbine in his studio by cutting two tiny pieces of plastic and gluing them together on a piece of wire that hooked onto a surface.

Having worked with ants in the past, Adam pulled up his browser history and ordered a batch of ants online.

“We put maybe half a dozen ants on the surface and we just photographed them as they wandered around. We put a little honey on the plastic to try and bait them to interact with it. We were patient, we sat there and took pictures of them for a half an hour or forty-five minutes.”

Once he captured something workable, Adam put all the pieces together to make that one final, King Kong-esque image.

“I think what really helped the most on the page was the actual size thing, just the little dot down at the bottom.”

Read the full story on the power of tiny turbines in the July 2014 issue of National Geographic. You can follow Vorhes’ work on his photo blog.

Editor’s Note: The coin used to show the scale of the wind turbine is a quarter, not a solarcoin. This post has been updated to fix the error.

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bita
    January 14, 2015

    Is fantastic. Your effort is appreciated. I am interested in macro photography. I have a macro lens 100, but sometimes it is hard to focus. Thank you for the beautiful pictures. We are looking forward to next photo.

    August 14, 2014


  3. jacques
    July 23, 2014

    Nice Work !!
    May be a good application ?…Put on lips of somes politicans men…What energy !!!

  4. Ugesh
    July 22, 2014

    Wow very nice i loved it

    July 16, 2014


  6. Digvijay
    July 4, 2014

    Wow….. Superb Photography

    • Thai tran
      July 5, 2014

      I wonder, if u use ant from realworld and natural day nite, would the color on the ant body changes or stay like the foto.

  7. Thai Tran
    June 30, 2014

    An Super-close-up-shoot, it shows the real power of nano techonologies USA, yer

  8. Molly
    June 26, 2014

    This photo completely beats the new Godzilla movie! Incredible photography. And what a great idea.

  9. waqar
    June 25, 2014


  10. Bob
    June 25, 2014

    More impressive would be the ant turning the turbine.

  11. Sanjula Madurapperuma
    June 25, 2014

    It is a very good photo and I like the detailed exposure.

  12. suresh
    June 25, 2014

    Hi working with An Ant and a Tiny good see we get some idea like this and next image to see what i can do thank you

  13. Jenna Turner
    June 23, 2014

    The photographer did not use an off the shelf lens and camera but instead used a compact technical camera (or view camera) with specialized optics and a 60 megapixel digital back. He did say that with some extension tubes and an SLR someone would be able to get some pretty impressive results. The only difference would be precise control and resolution.

  14. Matt
    June 23, 2014

    I’m curious if an off the shelf lens and camera were used, or did the photographer have access to some specialized equipment?

  15. irshad
    June 22, 2014

    can this blade hold or withstand the force of the wind,,and will it be enough to provide sufficient energy for particular device ?

  16. Yllka Qosja
    June 21, 2014

    Fanastic foto

  17. Susan Welchman
    June 19, 2014

    I worked this image with Adam but it took Jenna turners analysis to make it clear what we did how. I’m sure a lot of people said what in the world but this is what ngm is best at – surprising images made by talented photographers working together with writers who add the why.

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