Wilson A. Bentley: The Man Who Photographed Snowflakes

How do you photograph a snowflake? It’s an easy enough question, but one that throws up a host of problems. For one, how do you capture one single snowflake, without crushing or damaging it? Secondly, how do you keep it from melting long enough to get it in front of a camera lens? And even then, how on earth do you guarantee that you’ll be able to see it in any kind of detail?

Despite all those difficulties, one man not only managed to photograph a snowflake in astonishingly beautiful detail, but he did so more than 100 years ago—and went on to produce such an impressive library of snowflake images that his research is credited with establishing the theory that no two snowflakes are alike.

Wilson Alwyn “Willie” Bentley was born on a small farmstead in Jericho, Vermont, on February 9, 1865. His mother, a former schoolteacher, owned a microscope which she had used in her lessons and which Bentley—who had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge fueled by reading his mother’s entire set of encyclopedias as a child—soon became fascinated by. But alongside the fragments of stones and birds’ feathers that Bentley collected and observed through his microscope, from an early age his curiosity landed on one subject: snowflakes.

Photo of snowflakes by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Working during the winter from a freezing cold room at the back of the family farmhouse, Bentley would collect airborne ice crystals on the microscope’s slide, and quickly work to focus on them before they began to melt or lose their shape. In the early days of his work, he simply recorded the countless different shapes and forms he saw by drawing them as best he could in a notebook. But knowing full well that these rough sketches were no substitute for the astonishing complexity that he saw under his microscope, he soon sought other ways to record what he discovered.

Bentley asked his father for a bellows camera—an early type of still camera, with a pleated, accordion-like body that could be used to alter the distance between the lens and the photographic plate—and with no photographic training himself, attached a microscope lens. What followed was a long and immensely frustrating period of trial and error, with innumerable failed attempts along the way. But finally, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, Bentley succeeded in taking a single perfect image. He later wrote:

The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.

Bentley is now credited with taking the earliest known photograph of a single snowflake in the history of photography. He was just shy of 20 years old at the time—and he wasn’t done yet.

Photo of a snowflake by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For more than a decade, he continued to perfect not only his photographic skills, but his snowflake-collecting technique too. Working swiftly (and mainly outside) to avoid the risk of them melting or evaporating, Bentley would collect the snowflakes on a tray, covered with a swatch of black velvet, that he would leave outside during bad weather. Individual snowflakes could then be transferred onto a pre-chilled glass microscope slide using a small wooden peg, where they could be photographed in astonishing detail. Bentley eventually amassed a library of several hundred snowflake images—and as word spread of his work, it soon attracted the attention of scientists at the nearby University of Vermont.

George Henry Perkins, a professor of natural history and the official state geologist of Vermont [PDF], persuaded Bentley to write, with his assistance, an article outlining both his method of photographing snowflakes, and his groundbreaking findings. Although initially reluctant (Bentley was an introverted character, and reportedly believed his modest home-schooling could not possibly have led to him discovering anything that wasn’t already known to science), he eventually agreed, and in May 1898 published A Study of Snow Crystals. In it, Bentley’s writing shows just how passionate he was about his subject:

A careful study of this internal structure not only reveals new and far greater elegance of form than the simple outlines exhibit, but by means of these wonderfully delicate and exquisite figures much may be learned of the history of each crystal, and the changes through which it has passed in its journey through cloudland. Was ever life history written in more dainty hieroglyphics!

Several more articles in ever more weighty publications—including Harper’s Monthly, Popular Mechanics, and even National Geographic—followed, and soon Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley’s astonishing research became known nationwide. He began giving talks and lectures on his work all over the country, and slides of his astounding snowflake photographs were sold all across America to schools and colleges, museums, and even jewelers and fashion designers looking for inspiration for their latest creations. And throughout it all, Bentley continued to work.

Photo of a snowflake by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

But not without controversy. When, in 1892, a German scientist named Gustav Hellmann asked a colleague to photograph snowflakes, the resulting flake photos were nowhere near as gorgeous or symmetrical as Bentley's. Eventually, Hellmann accused Bentley of manipulating his photographs. According to New Scientist [PDF]:

"What is clear is that Bentley gave his white-on-white images a black background by scraping the emulsion off the negatives around the outline of each snowflake. But did he sometimes scrape away asymmetries too? Hellmann claimed he had 'mutilated the outlines,' and Bentley’s defense of his methods is not entirely reassuring. 'A true scientist wishes above all to have his photographs as true to nature as possible, and if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified.'"

Though their feud raged on for decades, Bentley never changed his methods of photographing snowflakes. And though he expanded his studies during warmer weather to include investigations into the structure and formation of dew, mist, and rainfall—he even proposed radical meteorological theories linking raindrop size to different storm types [PDF] and devised a way to measure the size of raindrops that involved letting them hit a tray containing a layer of sifted flour, then weighing the ball of paste each raindrop produced as it hit—Bentley’s first love always remained the same. Having continued his painstaking research, by the 1920s he had amassed a gallery of more than 5000 snowflake images, some 2400 of which were selected for publication in a book, Snow Crystals, in 1931.

Later that year, however, his work finally got the better of him: After walking six miles home during a blinding blizzard, Bentley caught pneumonia and died at the family home in Jericho on December 23, 1931. He left his extraordinary library of photomicrographs to his brother Charlie, whose daughter donated them to the Buffalo Museum of Science in New York in 1947.

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8 Pro Tips for Taking Incredible Pictures of Your Pets

Thanks to the internet, owning a photogenic pet is now a viable career option. Just ask Theron Humphrey, dog-dad to Maddie the coonhound and the photographer behind the Instagram account This Wild Idea. He gained online fame by traveling across the country and sharing photographs of his dog along the way. But Maddie’s impressive modeling skills aren’t the only key to his success; Humphrey has also mastered some essential photography tricks that even the most casual smartphone photographer can use to make their pet look like a social media star.


Based on her Instagram presence, you’d guess Maddie is either in the middle of a road trip or a scenic hike at any given time. That’s no accident: At a pet photography workshop hosted by Adobe, Humphrey said he often goes out of his way to get that perfect shot. “You need to keep situating yourself in circumstances to continue making great work,” he said, “even if that means burning a tank of gas and going someplace you’ve never been.”


Dog and owner on a couch.

That being said, it’s important to know your pet’s limits. Is your dog afraid of flying? Then leave him with a pet sitter when you vacation abroad. Does your cat hate the water? Resist the temptation to bring her into the kayak with you on your next camping trip, even if it would make for an adorable photo opportunity. “One thing I think is important with animals is to operate within the parameters they exist in,” Humphrey said. “Don’t go too far outside their comfort zone.”


Not every winning pet photo is the result of a hefty travel budget. You can take professional-looking pictures of your pet at home, as long as you know how to work with the space you’re in. Humphrey recommends looking at every element of the scene you’re shooting in and asking what can be changed. Don’t be shy about moving furniture, adjusting the blinds to achieve the perfect lighting, or changing into a weird outfit that will make your pup’s eyes pop.


Two dogs in outfits.

Ella and Coconut Bean.

Trying to capture glamorous photos of a moving, barking target is a hard job. It’s much easier when you have a human companion to assist you. Another set of hands can hold the camera when you want to be in the picture with your pet, or hold a toy or treat to get your dog’s attention. At the very least, they can take your pet away for a 10-minute play session when you need a break.


The advent of digital cameras, including the kind in your smartphone, was a game-changer for pet photographers. Gone are the days when you needed to be picky about your shots to conserve film. Just set your shutter to burst mode and let your camera do the work capturing every subtle blep and mlem your pet makes. Chances are you’ll have plenty of standout shots on your camera roll from which to choose. From there, your hardest job will be “culling” them, as Humphrey says. He recommends uploading them to a photo organizing app like Adobe Lightroom and reviewing your work in two rounds: The first is for flagging any photo that catches your eye, and the second is for narrowing down that pool into an even smaller group of photos you want to publish. Even then, deciding between two shots taken a fraction of a second apart can be tricky. “When photos are too similar, check the focus,” he said. “That’s often the deciding factor.”


When it comes to capturing the perfect pet photo, an expensive camera is often less important than your cat’s favorite feather toy. The most memorable images often include pets that are engaging with the camera. In order to get your pet to look where you want it to, make sure you're holding something your pet will find interesting in your free hand. If your pet perks up at anything that makes noise, find a squeaky toy. If they’re motivated by food, use their favorite treat to get their attention. Don’t forget to reward them with the treat or the toy after they sit for the photo—that way they’ll know to repeat the behavior next time.


Person with hat taking photo of dog and dog food.

According to Humphrey, your pet’s eye should be the focus of most shots you take. In some cases, you may need to do more to make your pet the focal point of the image, even if that means removing your face from the frame altogether. “If there’s a human in the photo, you want to make them anonymous,” Humphrey said. That means incorporating your hands, legs, or torso into a shot without making yourself the star.


This is the mantra Theron Humphrey repeated throughout his workshop. You can scout out the perfect location and find the perfect accessories, but when you’re shooting with animals you have no choice but to leave room for flexibility. “You have to learn to roll with the mistakes,” Humphrey said. What feels like a hyperactive dog ruining your shot in the moment might turn out to be social media gold when it ends up online.

ESA/Hubble, NASA
Hubble Telescope Image Shows Two Galaxies Colliding 350 Million Light-Years Away
ESA/Hubble, NASA
ESA/Hubble, NASA

Since launching in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has captured some magnificent images of our corner of the universe, from neighboring planets to distant nebulae. An updated picture released by the European Space Agency shows two galaxies colliding 350 million light-years away, a process the ESA has been tracking for 52 years, Gizmodo reports.

Galaxies are constantly changing shape and creeping through space. When two of these massive networks cross paths, their stellar material begins to intermingle, and they eventually merge into one entity under the force of gravity. In this image depicting two barred spiral galaxies in the Cetus constellation, the two nuclei are still separate, but the explosive merging process has already been set in motion. Long tidal tails—streams of gas, dust, and stars—feather out from the top of the cluster. The bright blue patches indicate "stellar nurseries" where gas and dust stirred together by gravity are producing new stars.

The photograph was first released in 2008, but this latest version has been updated using Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). According to an ESA statement, the galaxies "are like a natural experiment played out on a cosmic scale, and by cataloguing them, astronomers can better understand the physical processes that warp spiral and elliptical galaxies into new shapes."

Galactic mergers are a vital part of the evolution of the universe: Even the Milky Way is on course to crash into a neighboring galaxy 4 billion years down the road. But the process, though violent, is slow-moving. It will be millions of years before these two galaxies in Cetus settle down into one.

[h/t Gizmodo]


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