Microscopes have been around for some 400 years, and today they are even accessible via customized cell phones. The act of peering into a microscope of any power can open a whole world of life and beauty that exists right under (or in) our noses. And to capture that rare view for reproduction can also prove to be an art form in itself.

The ability to snap an image seen through an optical microscope—whether it's via fluorescence, polarized-light, dark-field, confocal, deconvolution or other techniques—has brought researchers and novices alike to the intersection of art and science. Since 1974 Nikon has recognized the year's best photomicrographs—pictures taken on a miniscule scale. Here are the top 20 winners of this year's Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition.

View a Slide Show of the 20 Winning Images from under the Microscope

From thousands of entries, four judges (Gary Borisy, director and CEO of Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.; photographer Charles Krebs; Jamie Shreeve, science editor at National Geographic; and journalist Clive Thompson) selected the 20 winners. A popular winner is also chosen via a vote on the contest Web site. This year's popular winner, seen here, is by Dennis Breitsprecher of Hannover, Germany. He captured, at 63 times life-size, fluorescent actin bundles as they grow from the surface of coated beads with an in vitro total internal reflection fluorescence microscope (TIRFM).

Winners from past years are on tour throughout North America or can be seen here.