EDMONTON — The sight of a snowfall usually sends Paul Burwell’s north Edmonton neighbours to their windows to observe his odd behaviour. So far, he says, none of them has found the courage to ask him why he stands outside his garage and stares intently at the outstretched sleeve of his black parka for minutes at a time, or gazes fixedly into a snowbank.
“But I’m sure they wonder,” says Burwell, chuckling.
They would also likely wonder why he was so “jazzed” about last weekend’s weather, with its plummeting temperatures and huge dumps of snow.
Burwell is a snowflake photographer.
Not all the time, of course. He owns his own photography school and for most of the year, specializes in taking pictures of wildlife. After the first snow flies, though, wildlife photography opportunities in the city become few and far between, unless “you want 20,000 photographs of sparrows.”
Three years ago, he turned his attention to something that had been the bane of his existence, and the cause of his aching back and sore shoulders — snow. He still shovels it, but now he photographs it, too, one snowflake at a time.
“I took a close look as I was shovelling and saw all these beautiful crystals,” says Burwell. “I did a bit of research and figured out a way I could photograph it and document it to make it look like art instead of something in a textbook.”
He got some advice via e-mail from Ken Libbrecht, a California physics professor who’s considered one of the world’s pre-eminent snowflake photographers. “He’s been helpful,” says Burwell. “Especially about how to handle the snow in terms of how to get it from one place to another.”
Burwell uses the tip of a small paintbrush to transfer the tiny perfect crystal from the fabric of his parka to his unheated garage studio, where it is carefully placed on a glass plate. It is then lit with different coloured backgrounds to accentuate its unique shape and characteristics before being photographed. The camera he uses has a big macro lens and a series of extenders, or bellows, which gives him the magnification he needs to showcase the snowflake’s unique properties. He also uses lighting to reveal its structure.
“The lighting is where the magic happens.”
Time is of the essence. Burwell has less than two minutes, tops, to work his magic. Snowflakes begin sublimating immediately once they’re handled — which is a fancy way of saying they start to melt.
“It doesn’t take long for a snowflake to disappear entirely and each moment of delay in photographing them means they become less and less interesting.”
If you get it right, though, the results can be astonishing. Snowflakes, while made of regular ice, are neither frozen raindrops nor are they formed from liquid water, explains Burwell.
They’re created when ice forms directly from water vapour in the atmosphere. The complex dynamics of crystal formation govern their appearance and uniqueness. The dynamics of the various permutations and combinations by which they form guarantee that no two are identical.
“Some of the ones I’ve found look like they have a jewel dead centre in the middle of them; others are perfectly symmetrical. It’s amazing the endless variety of snowflakes I’ve come across.”
Burwell offers the snowflake prints for sale and has sold several of them. They range in price from $500 to $1,200. He also sells snowflake greeting cards.
Despite what people might think — especially following last weekend’s storm — Burwell says his snowflake portfolio isn’t really that voluminous. Since he began three years ago, he figures he has amassed a couple of hundred snowflake photographs in his collection.
“The biggest problem with photographing snow is getting the right conditions,” he says. “Last year there was only about five days altogether; so far this year we’ve had maybe three days of what I consider good snowfall weather for photography.” He says the most interesting snowflakes tend to form when the outside temperature is between -10 and -15 C.
“It’s when it’s cold out and you see the snow glimmering in the air in the sunshine. They look like little slivers of glass falling. Those are the really cool snowflakes.”