Snowflake Photography

By Karin Lynn Kandur
Photos by Kenneth Libbrecht

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INTRO

Snowflakes! You can catch them on your tongue, pack them together to make a perfect snowball, and even use them to build a fort. But did you ever think about taking pictures of them?

 

Ken Libbrecht did. He is a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology. Although the weather in California is usually warm and sunny, Ken’s hobby is photographing snowflakes. He travels to cold areas like Alaska and Canada to find snowstorms and take pictures of the frozen flakes.

“The crystals are often beautiful, and every snowfall brings new surprises,” says Ken.

A snowflake is made of tiny snow crystals with six branches. The word snowflake can mean either a single snow crystal or a large puffball of snow made of many crystals stuck together.

Ken photographs snowflakes with a high-quality digital camera. The trick is using a microscope with a special lens to enlarge the tiny snowflakes. To get the best images, Ken built a special photo-microscope just for snowflakes. He collects flakes by letting them fall onto a piece of foam board.

“When I spot one I like, I pick it up using a fine paintbrush and place it on a microscope slide,” Ken explains. “Once I get one on a slide, I have a few minutes to photograph the snowflake before it starts evaporating.”

Snowflake photography must be done outdoors, so Ken wears lots of layers to stay warm. But his fingers often get cold, because it’s difficult to wear gloves or mittens and work with a tiny snowflake without squashing it.

The hardest part of photographing snowflakes is “waiting around for a good snowfall,” Ken says. The best crystals fall when the temperature is between 0 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even though snowflakes appear to be white, they are actually clear and colorless. Ken shines colored light on the flakes from different angles to help them show up better in photographs. The light isn’t too hot or bright, so he doesn’t have to worry about the snowflakes melting.

No Two Alike

Each snowflake has shapes and patterns that make it as unique as a person’s fingerprint. The hobby of snowflake photography is also unique. Ken estimates that he is one of only a handful of people who do it.

So the next time a snowstorm blows through your town, take a closer look at the flakes before you gather them into a snowball or shovel them off the sidewalk.

Catch a few, and peek at them through a magnifying glass. See if you can notice their unique structures and patterns. Millions of snowflakes are waiting for you!