Nature's Witness: Freeze Frame

A photographer records the fleeting but beautiful individuality of snowflakes

01-30-2017 // Photographs by Steve Gettle

Microscopic images of snowflakes by Steve Gettle

INFINITE IN VARIETY AND EPHEMERAL IN NATURE, snowflakes captivate photographer Steve Gettle, who has mastered the art—and science—of photographing some of nature’s tiniest treasures.

Working outside in the cold of a Michigan winter, Gettle catches flakes on black velvet. Then he uses two hairs in an artist’s paintbrush to transfer a flake to a slide, which he mounts beneath a microscope attached to his camera. “Lighting is the trickiest part,” he says, because the ice crystals would melt instantly if exposed to heat. To prevent that, Gettle uses four, fiber-optic light tubes attached to his setup to illuminate the flakes and bring out detail. 

“I’ve looked at thousands of crystals and have never seen two alike,” he says. “I love the symmetry, the intricate detail, the beauty.” That beauty is fleeting. After about three minutes, the flakes melt away. Yet these lasting portraits attest to the magic that a droplet of water can create as it tumbles through frigid air.

To submit images for consideration, write to with “Nature’s Witness” in the subject line.

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