Nathan Myhrvold’s sense of snow

Photographer captures the highest resolution photos of snowflakes ever

Nathan Myhrvold snowflakes

Photo: Nathan Myhrvold / Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC
“Ice Queen”

Portland, Ore.

Nathan Myhrvold snowflakes

Photo: Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC
Nathan Myhrvold is founder of Modernist Cuisine and the author of several groundbreaking cookbooks. Previously, Myhrvold was the chief technology officer under Bill Gates at Microsoft. He retired in 1999 and founded Intellectual Ventures to pursue his lifelong interests in photography, cooking, and life sciences. Myhrvold lives in the Greater Seattle area. In 2017, Myhrvold was inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame at Norsk Høstfest in Minot, N.D.

Photographer Nathan Myhrvold has captured the most detailed images of snowflakes on record, thanks to a custom-built high-resolution cooled camera he made to specifically deal with the numerous challenges of photographing the delicate ice crystals.

As you can probably imagine, there are numerous challenges to overcome if you want to photograph snowflakes. Those challenges were what led Myhrvold to try and do it, as he felt compelled to tackle the subject matter. Only a few millimeters across, snow crystals present a challenge due to their size and fragility.

The images captured were shot on location in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Some of the best snowflakes Myhrvold found were at temperatures between –15 and –20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Snowflakes both melt and sublimate, causing the sharp features of the crystal structure to degrade over a short period of time. When building his method, Myhrvold had to carefully consider time, temperature, weather conditions, and equipment.

Nathan Myhrvold snowflakes

Photo: Nathan Myhrvold / Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC
“Yellowknife Flurry”

According to his representation, Modernist Cuisine, Myhrvold spent about 18 months designing and building a custom snowflake camera so he could photograph snow crystals with this degree of detail and clarity. Calling it “the highest-resolution snowflake camera in the world,” it uses a Phase One sensor (100MP) adapted to a microscope objective. Myhrvold developed an optical path to fill a medium-format digital back, allowing him to obtain a larger, sharper image than most microscopic photographs. 

Nathan Myhrvold snowflakes

Photo: Nathan Myhrvold /
Modernist Cuisine Gallery, LLC
“No Two Alike”

To deal with the problem of melting, the microscope had a cooling stage that kept the snowflakes from vaporizing too quickly, giving Myhrvold more time to capture and focus-stack images. 

The camera was paired with short-pulse, high-speed LED lights, typically used for industrial purposes, to reduce the heat they put out and increase the speed he was able to capture images. With this innovation, the camera has a minimum shutter speed of 500 microseconds.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.