All of the snowflake photos on this page, believe it or not, were captured using a six-year-old point-and-shoot Canon camera and a standard 58mm SLR lens that was produced in the USSR sometime between 1958 and 1992. Such photography ought to be impossible without a microscope or other expensive gear, but it just perfectly illustrates the photographic and aesthetic ingenuity of Alexey Kljatov, a Russian photographer who lives in Moscow.
To take these photos with a normal camera and lens, Kljatov exploits a fairly well known photographical hack: reversing a standard prime lens to turn it into a very strong macro lens. Without getting into the physics of how camera lenses work, here’s a basic explanation of how it works: A standard 50mm lens has to reduce everything it sees down to the size of the film negative or digital CMOS sensor. If you reverse the lens, it does the opposite, projecting an almost-life-size image upon the negative/sensor. This is obviously no good for photographing large objects, but it’s perfect for the details in small objects, such as flowers, bugs, or snowflakes.
Alexey Kljatov’s setup consists of a Canon A650 IS point-and-shoot (extended to its maximum 6x optical zoom), attached to a reversed Helios 44M-5 (58mm f/2.0) prime lens. Because the rear element of the lens is exposed, an extension tube is screwed onto the end, acting as an ad hoc lens hood. The entire thing is strapped to a plank of wood and wrapped in black plastic — to keep it still, and to block any stray light from entering the contraption. The camera is then rested on its head, pointing down through some glass at a target. Kljatov photographs snowflakes either on a transparent piece of glass, or on a dark woolen fabric. He illuminates the snowflakes with a flashlight, or sometimes shoots in natural light.
Curiously, Kljatov doesn’t use a microscope — unlike Wilson Bentley, the original snowflake photographer, who famously caught snowflakes on a blackboard, transferred them to a microscope slide, and then quickly took photos before the snowflakes melted.
Kljatov says that the original shots are almost monochromatic, so he performs some post processing to add some color. Otherwise, the photos appear to be straight out of the camera, with a bit of cropping.
See more photos of snowflakes — and also to be wowed by my surprisingly large amount of snowflake-related trivia below, such as, how do snowflakes form, and is it true that no two snowflakes are the same?
Some snowflakes are almost painfully beautiful — it’s hard to believe that billions of these beautiful shapes can be created and destroyed at the whimsy of nature.
Snowflakes can take on almost any shape, but they nearly always exhibit six-fold radial symmetry.
The shape of a snowflake is dictated by the micro-environment of the snowflake as it forms (while falling through a cloud). The reason almost every snowflake is symmetric is because the structure of an ice crystal is a six-sided hexagon — and so each “arm” of a snowflake grows from one of those points. Depending on the temperature and humidity, water molecules attach themselves differently, creating different shapes.
Because snowflakes are so small (on the order of a few millimeters), the micro-environment is very similar for the entire snowflake — but even still, there can be small changes across the diameter of the snowflake, resulting in nonsymmetrical growth.
The saying goes that “no two snowflakes are alike” — and, while it’s impossible to prove, this is very likely to be the case. A typical snowflake consists of around 10 quintillion (1019) water molecules, and the odds of two snowflakes having the exact same arrangement (due to wildly random atmospheric conditions) are very close to zero.
Finally, here are two compilations of Alexey Kljatov’s snowflake work.