Photographer and scientist Nathan Myhrvold has developed a camera that captures snowflakes at a microscopic level never seen before
The first chill of a winter storm is enough to send most people indoors, but not Nathan Myhrvold. The colder the weather, the better his chances are of capturing a microscopic photograph of a snowflake. Now, nearly two years in the making, Myhrvold has developed what he bills as the “highest resolution snowflake camera in the world.” Recently, he released a series of images taken using his creation, a prototype that captures snowflakes at a microscopic level never seen before.
Myhrvold, who holds a PhD in theoretical mathematics and physics from Princeton University and served as the Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft for 14 years, leaned on his background as a scientist to create the camera. He also tapped into his experience as a photographer, most notably as the founder of Modernist Cuisine, a food innovation lab known for its high-resolution photographs of various food stuffs published into a five-volume book of photography of the same name that focuses on the art and science of cooking. Myhrvold first got the idea to photograph snowflakes 15 years ago after meeting Kenneth Libbrecht, a California Institute of Technology professor who happened to be studying the physics of snowflakes.
“In the back of my mind, I thought I’d really like to take snowflake pictures,” Myhrvold says. “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.”
Photographing snowflakes is nothing new. In the late 1880s, a Vermont farmer by the name of Wilson Bentley began shooting snowflakes at a microscopic level on his farm. Today he’s considered a pioneer for his work, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. His photography is considered the inspiration for the common wisdom that “no two snowflakes are alike.”
More than a century later, the field of snowflake photography has continued to evolve by leaps and bounds, which is evident in the high-res images that Myhrvold has produced with his own camera.
In simple terms, the system Myhrvold developed is comprised of one part microscope and one part camera, but with a number of parts that work in tandem to complete the arduous task of capturing an image of a snowflake, a subject that’s not only miniscule (most snowflakes measure less than a half-inch in diameter) but also quick to melt. In fact, a snowflake’s tendency to disintegrate was one of the biggest challenges Myhrvold had to overcome with this project. His solution: equipping his 50-pound camera system with a thermoelectric cooling system, a carbon fiber frame and LED lights, which give off less heat than standard lights. Every single part of his Frankenstein-esque device, which stands at about five feet in height off the ground when placed on a table, was built using materials that are less likely to cause melting or sublimation of the subject matter.
Obviously, some locales are better suited for snowflake photography than others. For example, snowflakes in the Pacific Northwest, where Myhrvold is based, aren’t nearly cold enough and either melt or sublimate (when ice turns to gas) too quickly, while on the East Coast, they’re too wet due to the humidity in the air, which can cause snowflakes to stick together. So, he ventured to an even higher latitude with perfect conditions—Timmins, a town in northeastern Ontario, Canada.
“Somewhere between negative 15 degrees and negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit is the snowflake-shooting sweet spot,” he says.
Myhrvold also had to figure out how to physically capture a snowflake. (It’s not quite as simple as hoping that the perfect snowflake just so happens to fall into your mittened hand.) He quickly learned that catching them on a glass microscope slide wouldn’t work; glass is a known insulator. But an artificial sapphire slide, made of the same crystal material as one would find in a high-end watch, had a lower thermal conductivity ratio than glass, making it the perfect material to gather specimens.
Myhrvold adds that it’s taken a lot of “trial and error” to get his project to the point where it is now. And even now, he’s still tinkering with different elements to add to his snowflake photography system.