Thanks to the renewed interest in snowflake photography, more and more people are learning about the legacy of Wilson Bentley. Bentley, who worked as a farmer in Vermont for most of his life, is credited with capturing the first close-up photos of snowflakes in the late 1800s.
It took Bentley approximately two years to figure out the best way to photograph a snowflake using his technology. After much trial and error, Bentley figured out the right combination of lights, focus, and aperture to get the perfect shot of a snowflake in a short amount of time.
Once Bentley saw a snowflake he liked, he would quickly put it into a microscope slide and hold his breath. He then placed his camera on top of his microscope to get the perfect shot.
Modern photographers draw a great deal of inspiration from Bentley’s dedication to the craft, especially considering how few tools he had at his disposal. Since Bentley lived on a farm in the frigid Northeast, he couldn’t develop his photos till springtime.
Throughout his life, Bentley produced some 5,000 professional photographs of snowflakes. His first published work on snowflake photography was an article in a 1904 edition of the Christian Herald.
Bentley also worked with researchers at the Smithsonian Institution Archives to share his photos and findings. People close to Bentley say he wanted to preserve his photos for future generations.
Believe it or not, Bentley sold these first-ever close-ups of snowflakes for a meager five cents. Bentley never raised his price throughout his life.
Although Bentley passed away in 1931, his legacy certainly lives on. During the Great Depression, the National Weather Service released a special collection of over 2,500 of Bentley’s photos. Entitled Snow Crystals, this text is considered a classic of both microphotography and meteorology.
According to Bentley’s great-grandniece, Sue Richardson, her “Uncle Willy” was obsessed with microscopes from a very early age. Indeed, Bentley was so interested in science that he asked his mother for a microscope on for his 15th birthday.
Bentley probably couldn’t imagine his immense impact on professional photographers. Building on Bentley’s work, photographers now use multi-angle cameras to capture images of snowflakes as they fall from the sky. There are even phone apps that can help amateur weather geeks take professional quality snowflake pictures in a snap.
Sue Richardson hopes all of this new technology will both help preserve those fleeting snowflakes in the sky as well as her great-grandfather’s legacy. Although Bentley wasn’t much appreciated during his lifetime, this renewed interest in snowflake photography should encourage more people to read about Wilson Bentley’s immense contributions to science and photography.