Snowflakes

Snowflakes from a recent snowfall:

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) is the pioneer of snowflake photography. More recently Kenneth Libbrecht and Nathan Myhrvold have taken snowflake photography to new technical heights. Bentley, Libbrecht, and Myhrvold all take a similar approach of isolating a single snowflake on a slide and using a camera with a microscope optics. Liebbrecht also grows snowflakes for photography in addition to photographing naturally occurring snowflakes.

Over a number of years, I’ve done snowflake photography using a high magnification lens, but I’ve used leaves and other plant materials as a setting instead of slides. I’ll set out a leaf to catch some snowflakes, and then set it on a table under an overhang and search for an interesting subject. I like the look of these settings better, but my technique has a lot of drawbacks. I work outside while the snow is falling and a breeze can blow away the snowflake, the leaf, or both. A controlled environment with a microscope stage is much better, but I like taking my chances.

Besides isolated crystals, it’s also interesting to see the the complex structures that occur: interpenetrating crystals at different angles or in a single plane, as in these two images. Visit Libbrecht’s site, snowcrystals.com, for illustrations of the many forms snowflakes can take and the conditions for forming them.

19 thoughts on “Snowflakes

    • They are pretty and complex. If you haven’t read about snowflakes, it’s pretty interesting. Libbrecht is a physicist, there’s a lot of science (chemistry, crystallography, physics) in play in snowflake study. The different states of the water molecule is what makes for the variety of crystal forms.

    • En plein air – that’s it. 🙂 In part it’s the look and approach I prefer, but also I don’t want to invest in the time and equipment for the images that Libbrecht and Myhrvold have taken.

    • The simple backgrounds in classic snowflake images show off the purity of the designs, but I like a “real” setting. I’ve tried other materials, but leaves are the easiest.

  1. I love the challenge of trying to actually catch one, or even a small grouping, and then trying to actually capture it before it can be blown away or melt. It’s a good excuse to play in the snow.

  2. I just was thinking about how I used to catch snowflakes on my mittens and sleeves. These are beautiful. I appreciate the more clinical approach — the isolation, the slides, and such — but dare I say the approach seems a little cold? I like your way better.

    I was especially taken with the flake on the right in the first photo. It looks remarkably like this flower I found in the east Texas woods. That flower happens to be white, too, which adds to the resemblance. I had it ID’d at one point, but I can’t find that right now. I never imagined a snowflake would bring it to mind!

    • Lovely flower image, the flower looks familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Maybe I’ll get another opportunity for a snowflake image this season. Thanks for the kind words!

      • Found it! Stylisma pickeringii var. pickeringii, or Pickering’s dawnflower. The photo’s from the Sandylands Sanctuary near Kountze — it’s a Nature Conservancy site.

  3. I certainly enjoy viewing the more technical photographs of others with the dark backgrounds, but I also love the extra context yours provide. With yours it feels like I’m out there in the woods looking very closely at the snow falling on a leaf. I suppose it feels a little more participatory, as if I’m right there. With the others it’s a little less personal. Both are fascinating but in very different ways.

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