In 2003, one of my former students visited an exhibition of Wilson Bentley’s snowflake photographs. She came back to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) and asked me to set up a microscope so we could try to make snowflake photomicrographs. Now more than a decade later, I love taking pictures of snowflakes. For my work, I try to isolate single flakes to reveal their structure and design. Snowflakes are special because they have a relatively short life and I have the pleasure of being the only one to see them.
On average my home in Rochester, New York, can expect to receive more than 100 inches of snow annually. Just for the record, not all snow will produce good photos. There can be needle, granular, and platelet snow in great abundance, but only a few snowfalls provide the sort of flakes you are probably imagining. However, I recommend photographing whatever snowflakes you find because coming across the right snow will be random.
Working Outside Below Freezing
Photographing snowflakes must be accomplished in temperatures below freezing and frequently outside. To photograph snowflakes, all equipment that touches them or the glass that holds them must be kept below freezing. A camera does not have to be kept cold, though.
I catch the snowflakes and then move them to pre-cleaned microscope glass slides. The snowflakes are captured, photographed, and often melt or sublimate within a minute or sometimes less. The simple activity of shining a light on a snowflake will cause it to begin to warm and melt, so you need a setup that lets you work quickly.
I photograph in my garage, and I leave my equipment out (so it is cold all the time) to be ready when the right snow arrives. In many ways I feel like the fire brigade! Because the garage is also used for my cars, there is also a lot of humidity there. To minimize the equipment’s exposure to the excess moisture of winter and road slush, I often take the lenses off the instruments and bring them along with the camera inside when not in use. Isolation from wind and falling snow is important for success. If you don’t have a garage, a garden shed or a tent might serve as a good space too.
Catching and Moving Snowflakes
To collect good snowflakes for photographing, I use a piece of black velvet in an old metal baking pan. When it’s snowing, I walk around the driveway to catch them while they’re falling. Black velvet is ideal for catching and provides a good surface for the easy selection of the good flakes from others.
I then use a fine sewing needle that is taped to a pencil to pick them up. I find the best crystals from each catch and transfer them to 1″ × 3″ glass slides. It’s also possible to catch snowflakes directly on slides or a pane of glass. When working on the collecting of—or transferring of—flakes, try not to breathe heavily because you may accidently blow the flake away or worse yet, melt it. I actually sometimes hold my breath.
Snowflakes will come in many sizes, shapes, and conditions. On average 1-2mm flakes are best for the system I use. I find that working in the 2-8x magnification range is just about right for my equipment and my DSLR.
Achieving this magnification range can be accomplished using various types of equipment and methods. I have tried many instruments including a compound microscope, a macro lens on a bellows, and a stereomicroscope. Recently I built a homemade microscope using parts from vintage instruments including the base of a Nikon MultiPhot that uses a focusing stage from a 1930s Bausch and Lomb Bench L. Making photomicrographs in this magnification range has some interesting challenges, and the images will have a shallow depth of field.
You can use almost any microscope for this kind of work. However, it should be equipped with low magnification objectives, such as 2x and 4×. Higher magnifications are not useful for snowflakes; the magnification produced using a microscope might actually be too high to see the whole flake at once.
Snowflakes have a variety of facets and characteristics that require alternative approaches to lighting. I often interject my finger into the microscope’s light path to create interesting lighting effects. I have also placed a large coin or colored plastics on the collecting lens.
Using a macro lens attached to a bellows or an extension tube will also work well. Shorter focal lenses will create higher magnifications and longer focal length lenses will provide more working distance. A lens and camera that I personally have not used but would like to try is the Canon equipped with their Macro MP-E 65mm f/2.8 lens. This lens can achieve magnifications up to 5x without accessories.
Using a Smartphone or Point-and-Shoot Camera
While using a DSLR would be optimal, it is still possible to photograph snowflakes using a smartphone camera or a point-and-shoot digital camera in combination with a microscope or with a supplemental lens to create more magnification.
To configure your setup with a microscope, place the smartphone camera lens or compact digital camera just above the microscope’s eyepiece, approximately where you would place your own eye. When this is accomplished, the camera’s lens will relay the image to the sensor without significant degradation. I suggest setting the camera to its shortest focal length when using this technique.
You can also create a setup using a magnifying lens or lens from a pair of reading glasses with a +2 or +3 diopter lens. The supplemental lens should be located at the front focal point of the smartphone’s lens to make enough magnification. You won’t be able to handhold the camera, so I suggest using a small lab stand with brackets to hold the phone or compact camera and use a small LED flashlight to light your work as in the image below.
If you are handy, you can also try following these directions to fabricate a smart-photomicroscope.
Finally, Taking the Photographs
Because handholding the camera to photograph snowflakes is impossible, most of the time I use a copy stand and suspend a DSLR camera over the microscope. You could also use a tripod and place the microscope on the ground.
When using a DSLR, remove the camera lens—you don’t need it. Locate the camera at the distance where the microscope’s image is large enough to cover the entire sensor. By using black construction paper, you can make a light baffle, which should be made long enough to reach the camera body but not enter the camera itself. This baffle will block extraneous light from being imaged. Lastly, it is important to trigger the camera in a fashion that does not create vibration, such as by using the camera’s self-timer.
I would strongly recommend practicing using your setup before trying to photograph actual snowflakes. You can use a small white rice grain to size the system.
Remember, you won’t have a lot of time to photograph the snowflakes you find. Snowflake molecules aren’t fully solid, so they will sublimate, meaning they will shrink and evaporate, in about 45 seconds to a minute. Have fun and share your snowflake photographs in the comments below!
Michael Peres is a professor of biomedical photographic communications at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Photographic Arts & Sciences where he specializes in photomicrography, biomedical photography, and other related applications of photography used to support research and discovery in science. He joined the RIT faculty in 1986.
Peres enjoyed a varied photographic career before joining RIT as an advertising photographer, portrait and event photographer as well as medical photographer. He has been actively publishing most of his career and served as the editor in chief of the Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition. He serves as the coordinator of RIT Big Shot projects.
Peres has received numerous awards including the 2003 RIT Eisenhart outstanding faculty teaching award and the RIT Gitner prize presented for outstanding achievement in the graphic arts two times. Peres was awarded the Schmidt medal by the BioCommunications Association for lifetime achievement in the field of bio-communications. He holds a master’s degree in instructional technology and bachelor’s degrees in biology and biomedical photographic communications. He is also a board certified biomedical photographer.
You can see more of his work, including more snowflake photographs, on his website: mrppph.cias.rit.edu.