There are few things as pure, beautiful, and magical as a snowflake. Amazingly, all snowflakes have a six-fold symmetry, but no two identical snowflakes have ever been found. When billions of the tiny snowflakes accumulate together, it turns the outdoors into a winter wonderland which brings delight to kids and adults alike.
The formation of snowflakes is actually a rather complex process. The surrounding air temperature where the snowflakes form must be 32 degrees or colder, which causes the water vapor in the clouds to condense into ice crystals instead of water droplets around some type of particulate, such as a speck of dust. Environmental factors impact the various shapes the snowflakes can take.
Nathan Myhrvold is one of the most famous snowflake photographers around. If you guessed that photographing snowflakes would be challenging, you’d be correct. Due to their propensity to melt immediately upon contact with anything warmer than them, Myhrvold needed to figure out how to keep the snowflakes cold enough to have their picture taken before melting.
Lucky for us, Myhrvold was up to the task. Holding a Ph.D in theoretical mathematics and physics, he spent 14 years as Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer and was curious as to whether who could build a camera-microscope hybrid. His creation ended up weighing 50-lbs, and contained a thermoelectric cooling system, carbon fiber framing, and cool LED lights which ensured there was no heat emanating onto the snow flake in focus. It also could take the highest resolution photographs of snowflakes ever taken.
Speaking to the SMITHSONIAN, Myhrvold said:
“In the back of my mind, I thought I’d really like to take snowflake pictures. About two years ago, I thought it was a good time and decided to put together a state-of-the-art snowflake photography system…but it was a lot harder than I thought.”
Not only did he create the perfect instrument, he also travelled to the perfect climate to ensure he had the best conditions for successful snowflake photography, which ended up being in Ontario, Canada.
“Somewhere between negative 15 degrees and negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit is the snowflake-shooting sweet spot,” he says.
He had the equipment, the locale for perfectly-formed flakes, and now he needed to figure out how to keep the flakes from melting on the slides. Since glass is a known insulator, traditional glass slides were not conducive to snowflake photography. But he found that artificial sapphire has a lower thermal conductivity ratio than glass, so he created slides made out of the material.
“Only one out of every thousand snowflakes is perfect enough to photograph,” he says. “Often, they’ll stick together, so you can’t take too much time and you have to pick the best one you can quickly transfer. You really want to get them on the microscope right away.”
Once he has a snowflake on a slide, he quickly takes over 100 photographs of the same specimen, changing the exposure with each shot.
“That photo [is usually the result of] 100 photographs put together using computer software,” he says. “You have to take many photos in order to get a high enough resolution, because many photos put together allows you to have enough depth of field to see an entire snowflake very sharply.”
Myhrvold’s creation has captured the most detailed and exquisite photographs ever taken, but he’s already thinking of ways to improve the design. Prints of Nathan’s beautiful snowflake photos as well as his other photographs can be viewed and purchased from the Modernist Cuisine Gallery.