People react differently when snow sweeps over a region: Some joyously build snowmen, some begrudgingly brush off their cars, and others hunker down in the comfort of their homes. Very few grab a black wool sock and capture high-definition crystal images of snowflakes. But Jason Persoff does.
No snowflakes are the same. These stunning close-up photos are proof.
“They’re these transient structures made out of water vapor and dust, and they’re ethereal. They’re here for a short period of time and then they’re gone,” said Persoff, who has been taking pictures of snowflakes for six years.
While many photographers work out of studios, Persoff’s studio is his back deck, where he has placed a black wool sock, a camera, a table and some lights. After the fibers from his sock catch the falling flakes, Persoff holds his breath and hosts snowflake auditions.
It takes nearly 40 high-focused images stacked on top of each other to create one mesmerizing snow photograph.
Each snowflake tells a story of how atmospheric conditions combined to etch out each unique crystal pattern. Based on the shape and the definition of each snowflake, scientists can determine the temperatures it encountered on its way down and how close to the ground it formed.
The dazzling chiseled flakes form right above ground level, Persoff told The Post.
“It’s not only that there aren’t two snowflakes that are alike, it’s that every single one of them is so damn cool,” said Persoff, an assistant director of emergency preparedness at the University of Colorado Hospital.
Kenneth Libbrecht, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, said capturing beautiful crystals can be challenging because the average crystal is, “small … beat up, asymmetrical, [and] not branched.”
“Your average snowflakes are pretty dull-looking,” said Libbrecht, who has studied snowflakes for over 20 years.
Stellar dendrites, the snowflakes so often featured on holiday illustrations, form when water vapor combines with dust in clouds and freeze. Once an individual water droplet freezes, the tiny piece of ice acts like a sponge absorbing more water vapor from the air, causing the ice to grow. Other unfrozen water droplets in clouds evaporate and condense onto the ice.
“The liquid first evaporates and then the vapor deposits on the snowflakes,” Libbrecht said. “It takes about 100,000 droplets to make a snowflake because the droplets are very small.”
It takes just over a half an hour before a crystal grows to a few millimeters in size. Once the crystals are heavy enough, they fall.
Sometimes, the tiny glasslike crystals come in colors that are nearly invisible to the naked eye in normal lighting. Through a process called thin-film interference, the center of some snowflakes reflects vibrant colors similar to the colors reflected from soap bubbles. Color only develops when the crystal forms with thin flat bubbles on the side, according to Libbrecht.
“As the light goes through one layer and then the next layer and then bounces back, it creates these colors that are like water and gasoline,” Persoff said.
The location of where the snow falls plays a huge role in whether images can be taken at all. Aurora, Colo., where Persoff has lived for most of his life, has near perfect conditions for capturing the flakes due to the “right temperatures and generally low humidity,” he said.
Persoff added: “Most of the time when I've encountered winter precipitation elsewhere in the country, it hasn't been these amazing individual flakes.”
Libbrecht said the best crystals form at the “magic temperature of 5 degrees Fahrenheit” and in places that don’t experience a lot of wind. Northern parts of Japan, Ontario and Sweden and much of Vermont are known for “gorgeous snowflakes,” he said.
But even given the right conditions, the crystals could still turn out to be “very unattractive-looking,” Libbrecht said. “Each crystal experiences slightly different growth conditions, temperature and humidity. So they all grow a little bit different.”
Finding a perfect snowflakes is possible “any place where it gets cold enough,” Libbrecht said. “You have to be patient.”
Persoff has developed a series of instructional videos on YouTube for anyone interested in photographing snowflakes.
Photo captions were provided by the photographer, Jason Persoff, and edited for length.