How to photograph snowflakes

From meteorologist Bill Endersen:

Maybe you would like to take a closer look at or even photograph some of our flakes, such as those quarter-size flakes that fell on Sunday. Paul has been adorning his winter Updraft entries with exquisite photos of snowflakes, taken by Dr. Ken Libbrecht if I remember correctly.

Photographing snowflakes is extremely challenging. After they fall they break, clump, melt, evaporate and change shape due to vapor pressure gradients. The photography must be done in cold weather where even body heat can ruin a gorgeous flake. The lighting must be just right to reveal all the intricacies without melting the fragile flake.

So how did such a hobby get started? I’m glad you asked.

Wilson Bentley was a shy, curious, self-educated, bachelor farmer who lived in the small village of Jericho, Vermont. He was born in 1865 just as the Civil War was coming to a merciful end. As a youngster he enjoyed studying small objects through a microscope that his mother had used when she was a school teacher and he also became fascinated by snowflakes. So he tried to sketch them but was dissatisfied because he could not capture the layers of detail that he could see through the lenses.

Maybe, he thought, it would be possible to photograph these delicate objects of art. He somehow convinced his parents that they should buy a large bellows camera with a microscope objective lens so he could continue his studies.

He knew nothing about photography, so much trial-and-error followed as he learned to master temperature, lighting and the large dry plates (negatives that had to be made into positive prints) that far preceded film and digital photography.

During a snowstorm in January 1885, at the age of 19, he made the first successful photomicrographs ever taken of an individual snow crystal. Later he said that the greatest moment of his life was when he developed that negative and found it good.

Bentley continued his photomicrography every winter for nearly a half century until 1931. The variety of crystals from rather simple hexagonal plates to incredibly intricate stellar flakes and columns amazed him and led him to ponder the history of each flake in its “journey through cloudland.”

After his death, 2453 of his black-and-white plates were published in the wonderful book “Snow Crystals” which is still available in softcover from Dover Publications.

The photos below show Wilson Bentley as an older man still using his original bellows camera and also samples of his life’s work.

Wilson Bentley.jpg


page of snowflakes.jpg


You might not have the equipment (or patience) to photograph snowflakes, but next time it snows go outdoors with a chilled, dark-colored towel. Catch a few flakes as they fall and take a good look at them through a magnifying glass. You will see a small but exciting world of crystal. And then give a nod toward Jericho, Vermont.

Bill Endersen

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