Capturing Snow Crystals, No Two Really Are Alike
by Robin Seaton Jefferson
Photographs by Richard Walters © All Rights Reserved
Richard Walters encourages people to pay close attention to their jackets and windshields this winter. As the snow begins to fall and blankets the local landscape, Walters said there is beauty in the details, beauty he goes to great lengths to capture—on film.
As many curse the snow because of the way it inhibits their comings and goings, Walters said he “sees the beauty of the fallen snow instead of the nuisance of it.”
Walters is one of a handful of snowflake photographers in the world. He said he was inspired by a farmer who, in the 19th century, took photography to a new level and wound up getting his work in the Smithsonian.
While the first observer to convey the snow crystal graphically was Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Upsala, in the 14th century with wood carvings, it was W. A. Bentley of Jericho, Vermont, who captured individual snow crystals on microphotographs. “At age 20, his parents gave him bellows and a microscope contraption,” Walters said. “And in 1885, the first snowflake was photographed. The man took 5,000 pictures over his lifetime.”
Bentley’s photographs were history in the making, Walters said. “He took what we would consider now primitive equipment and took leading edge and innovative photographs of a subject that had never been photographed before.”
It is true, Walters said, that as with fingerprints, no two snow crystals are alike. “Mathematically, it’s practically impossible that any two snowflakes would be identical. The way those water molecules would be arranged, is nearly infinite. That’s why scientists think no two snowflakes are alike.”
Walters refers to a single piece of snow as a snow crystal. He said a snowflake is actually a bundle of snow crystals. “Technically, a snowflake is a fluffy collection of many snow crystals clumped together,” Walters said. “Snow crystals come in a variety of shapes depending on the temperature and amount of water in the atmosphere at the time they are forming.”
Snow crystals come in the shapes of six-sided plates, six-armed crystals, columns, needles, bullets, shapeless irregular ice, miniature popcorn snow, and many combinations.
Walters said the ideal temperature to photograph a snow crystal is between about 18 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit. “If it’s warmer than 25, it’s too close to the melting point of 32 degrees. If it’s colder than 18 degrees, it’s just too cold to work for hours at a time. The six-sided stars form at minus 15 degrees Centigrade and with average amounts of water in the clouds. It’s what’s happening two to six miles over your head.
“An interesting phenomenon occurs when snow crystals fall through clouds of super-cooled water droplets. The tiny droplets of water can exist in liquid form despite being in temperatures below freezing,” Walters explained. “The instant the water droplet touches anything, it crystallizes into an ice droplet. This rime ice, as it is called, can completely obscure the fine details of the snow crystal it encases.”
Those six-sided stars have been more rare in the St. Louis Metropolitan area in recent winters, Walters said. “The temperature and amount of water in the clouds is different enough that we don’t tend to get six-sided crystals as much.”
Walters said at the centre of every snow crystal is a speck of ice or dust or mold. “Then the water molecules begin to grow. Scientists even now don’t know how it happens. They freeze and grow out. It is all based on the symmetry of the water molecule.”
A fascination and love of snow crystals began with Walters when he was just a boy. Growing up in a small rural town in Pennsylvania, the six-year-old boy studied the tiny shapes on the sleeves of his coat and thought how “beautiful and marvelous they were.”
But it wasn’t until high school in Central Illinois that Walters borrowed a teacher’s camera and took his first photos. “And it wasn’t until my graduation from medical school that I owned my first camera, which was a gift from my parents,” Walters said. “I asked for a close-up lens as I knew I would be using it in my dermatology residency. But I found myself more often outdoors using the camera and close-up lens to photograph the small intimate details of nature. Soon I discovered that my passion was in the photography of nature subjects smaller than one inch, especially insects with their endless variety of colours and shapes.”
But when Walters realized he couldn’t perform his most-loved hobby during the winter months, he took to photographing a more winter-friendly subject.
As the snow is falling, usually in the dead of night, and most people are snug in their beds, Walters will venture out into the harshness of winter equipped with, well a piece of black velvet. “I use the black velvet because the threads point straight up so you can lift things off it easily,” he said.
After catching the snow crystals, Walters moves into his detached garage where he houses a 12-inch fluorescent light. He then lifts the snow crystals off the velvet with a sliver of wood and places them on a piece of glass under which are the electronic flash units. The camera is pointed down onto the glass with the snow crystal on it and the flash is pointed up to give the crystal its sparkle. Walters said a typical snow crystal will last up to 10 minutes if he does everything just right.
But other factors come into play as well. “I often hold my breath, because any kind of heat is a big problem,” he said. “Even your fingers generate heat, which can be a problem in focusing my lens because I can’t wear gloves and still focus the special lens.”
Walters said it’s no surprise he finds pleasure in the details. A dermatologist by trade, Walters spends his days looking at the little imperfections of the skin. “I’m into the details,” he said.
Walters’ work has been published in more than 20 magazines in eight languages and a number of textbooks including mathematics, science, and biology books.
He encourages others to look at the snow in a more discriminatory way this winter. “Put some dark fabric over a piece of cardboard and see what crystals are falling. Check several times during the snowfall. The types of crystals often change from hour to hour.”
The above article is being reprinted with permission from writer Robin Seaton Jefferson and StreetScape Magazine®, in which the article first appeared in Volume 3, Issue 4, Winter, 2008. All Rights Reserved. Both Jefferson and the magazine are based in Saint Charles, a suburb of Saint Louis, Missouri, www.streetscapemag.com. Richard Walters is a close and dear friend of the WHOLifE editor.