Snow can seem anything but delicate when you consider avalanches, nor’easters, and the fact that we generally stomp through it, shovel it, and drive over it. But on a microscopic level, each individual snowflake is an intricate design, as delicate as glass.
So reveals a new project by Nathan Myhrvold, a former CTO of Microsoft and founder of Modernist Cuisine, a food innovation lab. Over the span of 18 months, Myhrvold built a camera with a microscopic lens and then shot in the freezing locales of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. All to capture individual snowflakes—millimeters across—in sparkling, high-res detail.
Photographing the snowflakes was no easy feat. Myhrvold’s camera is far bigger than your average device—it’s more like a big box built on a carbon fiber frame with a computer-controlled focus. Myhrvold captured his snowflake specimens by setting out black foam core when snow was falling. He then used a tiny watercolor brush to grab individual snowflakes and place them on a “cooling stage” under the camera.
Cold is key—even the camera itself and the plate he places the snowflake on must be left outside and chilled in order to photograph the snowflake before it melts. But that’s not the only element to keep those snowflakes cool: He also uses special, high-speed LED lights that don’t generate as much heat. The cold is also important to a snowflake’s shape, says Myhrvold, who shot his specimens at temperatures between –15°F and –20°F. You might call this the snowflake sweet spot: They form into the “best,” most complex designs between these temperatures.
The results are simply dazzling. Myhrvold captured three kinds of snowflakes with incredible clarity: sector plates, stellar dendrites, and fernlike stellar dendrites. The photographs look simple, but each final image is a composite made up of about 100 shots. I, for one, will never look at snowflakes the same way.
Myhrvold had previous experience building microscopes from his work in food photography, but this was the first time he worked with snowflakes, which were shot at a higher resolution than he’d ever used before. Myhrvold initiated the project after hearing about a microscope that CalTech physics professor Kenneth G. Libbrecht designed to capture snowflake images.
The photographs are a peek into how beautiful our surroundings are if you look at them up close. “One of the things I just love about snowflakes is they’re utterly beautiful, but on the other hand they’re utterly common,” says Myhrvold. “Sometimes to see nature’s beauty you have to travel to the Grand Canyon or get up late at night to see the stars,” he says. But with snow, all you have to do is pause and look down at your mitten. “It’s a beautiful thing.”