Say “Freeze!”: An Innovative High-Resolution Camera Captures the Stunning Intricacies of Snowflakes

Ice Queen, by Nathan Myhrvold.
Ice Queen, by Nathan Myhrvold. / Nathan Myhrvold/Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC

In the late 19th century, Wilson A. Bentley captured the first known photographs of snowflakes. Not only did his life’s work popularize the idea that no two snowflakes are exactly the same, but it also demonstrated just how stunning each intricate pattern really was.

Snowflake photography has progressed over the last century or so, and Nathan Myhrvold just brought it to a new level with what he believes are the highest-resolution snowflake snapshots ever taken. After leaving his job as Microsoft’s chief technology officer in 1999, Myhrvold founded Modernist Cuisine, a food innovation company that encompasses a cooking lab, several food photography books, and a corresponding art gallery. As Smithsonian Magazine reports, he’s also spent the last 15 years nurturing an interest in tackling snowflake photos.

No Two Alike
No Two Alike / Nathan Myhrvold/Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC

Two years ago, he started developing his own specialized camera to do it. To keep the snowflakes from melting before he could snap any photos, Myhrvold outfitted his device with a thermoelectric cooling system and LED lights—cooler than other lights—that flash about 1000 times faster than regular camera lights. He’d catch a batch of snowflakes on a black foam board and then use a tiny paintbrush to push the best flake onto a slide made of synthetic sapphire (which conducts less heat than glass).

The type of snow had to be perfect, too: colder than what falls in the Pacific Northwest and drier than anything the humid East Coast can usually offer. “Somewhere between -15°F and -20°F is the snowflake-shooting sweet spot,” Myhrvold told Smithsonian. He found that sweet spot in Ontario, Canada.

Yellowknife Flurry
Yellowknife Flurry / Nathan Myhrvold/Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC

Myhrvold’s secret to creating his uniquely high-resolution images is software that overlaid 100 shots of each snowflake, forming sharper and more scintillating pictures. Wilson Bentley would surely be filled with wonder and pride.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]