When a snowflake whispers in your ear, listen up.

Isn’t it cool how answers show up in the most unusual ways…when we have burning questions, problems that need solving, or lessons to learn? Allow me to share a story with you…

Snowflakes, snow crystals, photograph, ice

The center “eye” in this split star is the connecting column which joins two partial, or split crystals. Here’s the theory: The two plates start out symmetrical, but as soon as one edges ahead, it starves the other of water vapor and retards or alters its growth. The asymmetrical results can be quite beautiful.

Call me crazy, but I love freezing my arse off to photograph snowflakes.

In that way, nothing’s changed since the 1980s, when I first started photographing “sky flowers.” I was shooting film back then, and I faced one obstacle after another. For example, Canon hadn’t released the queen of macro lenses, the MPE-65mm yet, so I used a reversing ring to marry a 50mm lens onto the front of a 200mm lens. (To my non-photographer readers, stay with me on this). Though I achieved an impressive 4x magnification (200/50=4), it was not always with impressive results.

They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?
~ Jeanette Winterson

Snowflake, snow, Formvar, snow crystal

My early (1999) attempt at preserving snowflakes using Formvar resin.

I also dabbled with preserving snowflakes in liquid Formvar resin, which crawls on the surface of the flakes to make a kind of plastic shell, a permanent replica. Later I’d photograph the specimens under a microscope.

Then there were lighting issues. Snowflakes are clear ice. Without decent light, there’s not much to see. Trouble is, if I tried to light up snowflakes with incandescent flashlights, the crystal structure melted like warm Jell-o. High-powered–and cool–LED flashlights didn’t come on the scene until 1999, so I was limited to daylight hours. Even then, beautiful snowflakes didn’t always cooperate (fall on cue) between the hours of 10 AM and 3 PM. Remember, we’re talking short, winter days in Alaska.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
~ Voltaire

And trying to get everything in focus? Depth of field was an enormous challenge, especially for triple-decker snowflakes, and obstinate ones that landed cockeyed on the glass slide, as if propped up on an elbow. Focus-stacking software such as Helicon Focus hadn’t been developed.

img_6701-6702 snowflake

A near-perfect symmetrical snowflake; actually, this is a stellar dendrite (classic-shaped) snowflake. Dendrite means “tree like”, so stellar dendrite snow crystals have branches and side branches. This is the most popular and recognized snow crystal type, sometimes growing to large and extravagant crystals in conditions of high humidity.

Then digital cameras came along, and thankfully, many obstacles melted away.

[For those of you dreaming of photographing snowflakes, here’s my current setup: A Canon 5D MarkIII mounted on one end of an extension tube, with a microscope objective (lens) on the other. These days I use LED flashlights to highlight the crystal facets without worrying about melting my subjects.]

I was very excited, thrilled, actually, at the prospect of finally being able to single out, and photograph with confidence, the most perfect and beautiful snowflakes in the world.

Yet, something didn’t feel quite right.

snowflake, snow, snow crystal, ice

Look closely at the center of this snowflake. What do you see? The father of snowflake photography, “Snowflake Bentley”, often looked for familiar shapes and patterns within the center plate of snow crystals. Milk bottles, mittens, and flowers, as seen here.

Were only perfect snowflakes worthy of attention?

Am I limiting myself?

Will I overlook something in the process?

And am I judging nature?

What does perfect mean, anyway?

Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.
~ Henry David Thoreau

If you’re like me, you grew up believing that all snowflakes were 6-sided symmetrical shapes; like something created by clipping triangles and diamonds from folded paper. So I carried that belief into the field, as I scrutinized a fresh batch of newly fallen snowflakes. I discarded ones that didn’t measure up, and photographed just the perfect flakes.

Not any more.

I’ve learned to let go of the myth (and all the expectations) and accept that there is perfection in imperfection. I needed to relax and practice Slow Photography.

It makes me think of a wonderful little book, What the Road Passes By, with photographs by Dewitt Jones, a top professional photographer whose thoughtful columns in Outdoor Photographer kept me renewing my subscription for years.

There are times in my life, sometimes with a camera, sometimes without, when the world is so achingly beautiful, when everything holds such meaning, that I am incapable of any expression except tears of joy. The boundaries of my being begin to blur, whatever separates one thing from another begins to dissolve, and in that confluence of light and line and law, lies an experience for which I have no words.

Sometimes photographers set the bar pretty high in a quest to produce the perfect shot, the Pulitzer prize-winning image. As a result, I think we pass by, not just a lot of great images, but meaningful experiences that are meant to be the rule, not the exception.

The snowflake below is far from symmetrical, but for me, time seemed to stop as I brought this regal beauty into focus.

img_6909-6904-snowflake

This is probably one of my favorite snowflakes. The soft hues, contrast and regal-ness. Time seems to stand still while I do this kind of work. I take naps, graze a little and photograph through the wee hours of the night and day.

And this snowflake (pictured below), with its warts, pimples and funny arms…

What do you think, is it any less beautiful in its own imperfect way?

snowflake, rime, water, ice

Rime or reason: Toward the end of this snowflake’s 20-minute journey to earth, cloud droplets bombarded it like buckshot, freezing and sticking to the ice surface on contact. These “water warts” are called rime.

Snowflake, snow, snow crystal, photograph, real snowflake

Look, mom, lots or arms! This snowflake is unusual in many ways. For one thing, it’s born of at least two plates, visible at the center, and grew at different rates.

Thanks for visiting.

P.S. If you’d like to discover the beautiful, overlooked world of snowflakes, take a look at this article in the Alaska Dispatch News which features my photographs and some tips for snowflake watching.

This entry was posted in Essays and inspirations, Our world, Photography, Where curiosity leads me and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to When a snowflake whispers in your ear, listen up.

  1. Deborah Webb says:

    Marion, thank you for sharing this with your readers and the world; this is truly regal work – so inspiring! I am sure you are also familiar with the similar work Masaru Emoto has done regarding the shapes water takes when exposed to sounds as succinct as words or as complex as music: http://www.masaru-emoto.net/english/water-crystal.html. Brilliant, isn’t it? Thanks again for doing this word and publishing it!

    • marionowen says:

      Hi Deborah, Yes I have seen his work, and a friend gave me a book as well. Very interesting. Thanks for your comments and thoughts. Have a wonderful week, and I look forward to sharing more on my blog. Cheers!

  2. Deborah Webb says:

    *work*

  3. Colleen says:

    Thank you, what beautiful pictures and insight, so kind of you to share.

    • marionowen says:

      Thanks, Colleen, for your comments and inspiration. I hope to find more snowflake opportunities this winter, but so far it has been pretty warm in Kodiak, Alaska.

  4. Deb Anderson says:

    Marion, the info you share is always so amazing, and I so look forward to reading your blogs. We are experiencing a lot of snow now in Michigan, and I can’t wait to try my hand @ taking some interesting photos. Thanks for keeping us all informed–I love all the imperfections in life–without them, things would be pretty dull!

  5. Kathleen Pearson says:

    Always find interesting information in your blog newsletter. Thanks!

  6. Norbert Span says:

    Hi Marion,

    amazing pictures !!! Do you use a microscope lens (which one) or the Canon mpe 65, which is more useful ??
    greetings from Austria
    Norbert

    • marionowen says:

      Hi Norbert, While I do use the MPE65 for macro work, I use a different setup for snowflakes: A long extension tube adapted for my Canon 5D Mark III, with a microscope objective on the “business end.” I hope that helps. Do you shoot snowflakes?

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