The 19th-Century Photography Trick That Changed How We See Snow

Illustration for article titled The 19th-Century Photography Trick That Changed How We See Snow

Today, it just takes a camera with a good zoom lens, patience, and a cold climate to produce stunning close-ups of snowflakes. But in the late 1800s, even the basic personal camera was a relatively new tech. So, just how did a 19th-century farmer in Vermont take these beautiful macro shots of snowflakes?

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In response to this post asking for your most fascinating local history tales, commenter GeneralLordisimo shared this tale of the role his small town played in getting the very first detailed photograph of a snowflake 130 years ago:

I grew up in the small Vermont town of Jericho, which lies right under the Green Mountains and is about 20 minutes away from Burlington. Not a lot of specific events from the area, but the big thing is that it was the hometown of Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley who in 1885 became the first known photographer of a snowflake. Throughout his lifetime he captured more than 5,000 images of snowflakes and his photography contributed a wealth of knowledge about the formation of snow. Jericho has a small museum of a photographs and equipment and there was a memorial sign in the town center about him.

Besides the fact that it snows a lot in Jericho (being right by the mountains) I feel like I learned more about snowflakes and snow formation simply by Mr. Bentley's association with then town than I would have anywhere else. Jericho is real proud of snowflakes.

Even more impressive is that Bentley, a farmer and self-taught photographer, invented both the technique and the apparatus to get both that first snowflake picture and the subsequent ones that he took entirely on his own.

In 1922, Bentley finally revealed his technique in an article in Popular Mechanics. As suspected, a microscope was, indeed, involved. But several of the other tools he used to get his shots —including turkey feathers, a blackboard, and a good pair of mittens — were satisfyingly low-tech:

The necessary accessories are an observation microscope, a pair of thick mittens, microscope slides, a sharp-pointed wooden splint, a feather, and a turkey wing or similar duster; also, an extra focusing back for the camera, containing clear glass instead of the usual ground glass, with a magnifying lens attached; this is used for final focusing. A blackboard, about 1 ft. square, with stiff wire or metal handles at the ends, so that the hands will not touch and warm it, is used to collect the specimens. As it is necessary to cover the end of the microscope objective with a strip of black card, that takes the place of the usual camera shutter which controls the duration of exposure, it is necessary to fit two vertical rods at each side of the microscope tube to hold the card. The snowflakes are caught on the blackboard as they fall, and examined by the naked eye or with the assistance of a hand magnifying glass. The feather duster is used to brush the board clean every few seconds, until two or more promising specimens alight upon it, when it is immediately removed indoors. From this point onward the photographer must work fast.

The results of the technique, some of which you can see above, were not only unique at the time, they were also undeniably beautiful, as you can see below.

Illustration for article titled The 19th-Century Photography Trick That Changed How We See Snow
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Illustration for article titled The 19th-Century Photography Trick That Changed How We See Snow

Images: NOAA Photo Library

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