microscopic crystalline landscape photography by tim oliver

About Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver’s work is a study of the subtle balance of chaos and order. His abstract photographs are mysterious yet comforting, his process unfamiliar but derived in part from everyday, domestic materials. The effect is satisfying in colour and form.

As a student of geology in the late 1970s, Oliver caught a glimpse of a crystalline world, and it remained with him. After graduation he returned to his first love – music – working as a producer and recording engineer with New Order, Brian Eno, The Stone Roses, Goldfrapp, Sinead O’Connor and many others. But photography always held a strong appeal. If twenty-first-century technology has made it possible to capture that glimpsed world, Oliver’s abstract, textural approach is rooted in the modernist tradition: the organic rhythms of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, André Kertész’s oblique perspectives, the energy of Cornish expressionist painters such as Peter Lanyon and the bright palette of Miró, Picasso and Kandinsky. Ansel Adams’s powerful landscapes and the immediacy of his printing techniques have also been a crucial influence.

About the process

At the heart of the process is a tri-nocular polarising microscope. Attached to the third eyepiece is a Canon D650 SLR, which in turn is connected to an Apple Mac. The Mac is used to control ‘Live View’ shooting and the display used for focus and composition. The subject is a prepared microscope slide generated from a crystalline solution or melt. A drop of mineral solution on the slide is covered by a slip to make an even thickness and left to crystallise under different environmental conditions: cold, hot, room temperature and so on. The different conditions cause the solutions to crystallise at different rates and in different ways. All the resulting colours are natural and in no way computer-enhanced. The effects are produced solely by the polarising filters on the microscope as they interact with the crystals according to their type and quality. A number of other light-influencing tools on the microscope also have a bearing on the final image.

The subject-matter has opened up a world of image possibilities. The opportunities for experimentation are unending and immediate: looking through the kitchen cupboard has new and exciting implications; the idea to crystallise his own urine came to Oliver as he woke up one morning, and two days later he had created a series of beautiful, compelling images.


There are a number of people active in capturing the beauty of rocks and crystals under polarised light and of them all Brian Johnston of Canada provided me with the most inspiration for the content of these photographs.

Thanks to Alan Potter at Brunel Microscopes for his tireless advice and instruction in assembling the necessary gear to do this.

Also thanks to my lecturers at Manchester University who put up with my tendency towards crystallographic aesthetics rather than their scientific enquiry.

And finally to my parents for a garden with no fences and for the encouragement to explore my heart.