The quest to capture a ‘perfect’ snowflake
Just like students at other universities, RIT students lose sleep hours to “crunch” before finals, spend long nights at the lab, write a big research paper or even hang out late with friends.
But losing out on shut-eye to photograph snowflakes?
“I have always been interested in taking photos of unique things, and I heard about the opportunity to take pictures of snowflakes here at RIT so I wanted to give it a try,” says Marissa Masek, a fourth-year biology and photographic imaging technologies student from Bedford, Mass. “You get addicted to trying to find the perfect one. You know that you need to get some sleep or get some work done, but you don’t want to miss that perfect snowflake.”
Masek has joined this unique quest— embarked upon by scores of other photography students during the last decade ever since RIT professor Michael Peres received the inspiration from a former student who attended an exhibit at the Buffalo Museum of Science. The exhibit featured the work of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, a Vermont farmer who—after years of trial and error—became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885.
Every winter since the Buffalo show, Peres, fellow RIT professor Ted Kinsman and photography students like Masek have been scurrying around campus—or outside the garage of Peres’ Brighton home, where he has created a “microclimate” ideal for catching snowflakes.
They carry pieces of black velvet draped over trays, desperately looking to delicately snatch the flawless flake to photograph under a microscope within scant seconds.
The images of these dazzling snowflakes have not gone unnoticed. Last winter, Robert Johnson ’94 (photo illustration), director of photography at The Weather Channel, came across Peres’ photos on Facebook and worked with the RIT professor to post them for enjoyment worldwide.
While The Weather Channel success marked a major publicity coup, Peres and Masek caution that finding “scope worthy” snowflakes can be maddening.
“I’ve gone out to shoot snowflakes multiple times, but the majority of my best images came from one shoot,” recalls Masek. “To get good snowflake pictures, you are truly at the mercy of nature.”
“But it’s so much fun at the same time,” says Peres, associate chair of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences and former chair of the biomedical photographic communications program.
While taking pictures of snowflakes is anything but an exact science—there are tons of variables such as temperature, wind conditions and condensation of the flake—Peres has developed some relatively basic techniques using common equipment and practical approaches.
Peres says black velvet is ideal for enabling easy identification of the best flakes and it also provides easy lifting of snow crystals. Demonstrating the meticulous nature of the work, he and his students often use a sewing needle taped to the end of a pencil to elevate flakes for closer inspection.
Using the needle, they carefully lift the ice crystal and transfer it to a glass slide. Snowflakes come in many sizes. Peres says using a simple microscope can achieve just the right magnification.
And while there are no easy ways to connect a compact digital camera to a microscope, Peres says it’s possible to make microphotographs using a cell phone or digital camera.
Peres and his students often use a fiber-optic light to supplement the microscope’s built-in illumination, creating images with fascinating internal reflections.
Masek says she can’t wait to take more snowflake pictures “if the weather is right” this winter.
“While at RIT, I want to take advantage of all the opportunities that I have here,” she says. “What other school gives you the chance to take pictures of snowflakes?”
And, yes, even miss out on a little sleep doing so.
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