January 31, 2023

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A 12-sided snowflake? Colorado photographer captures unusual snowflake formation

5 min read

AURORA, Colo. – Every six-sided snowflake is a unique piece of nature’s art, but their incredible designs usually go unseen as they pile up by the zillions during winter storms.

Colorado doctor and photographer Jason Persoff is taking the time to make sure these hidden gems don’t go unnoticed. Treating the sick for his day job, Persoff spends his off time during Colorado’s winter storms snapping mesmerizing photos of snowflakes in all their glory. Last week, one of his pictures really caught his fancy: a rare 12-pointed snowflake – double the sides of a regular snowflake.

Persoff has spent decades chasing the more traditional supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes but said he sought out photographing snowflakes to make his snowy Denver winters brighter.

“I think, like a lot of people, the shorter days of winter left me a little dreary,” he told FOX Weather. “I saw an amazing photographer, Don Komarechka, who was taking snowflake photos, and I felt that was the next direction my photography should go in. It was a game changer.”

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So how does he do it?

“A lot of people want to know how I keep the snowflake from melting,” he said.

You have to be willing to brave the elements. This is not about walking outside to grab a pile of snow, then coming back inside and taking photos amid the warmth of your home.

“You have to catch the flakes while they are coming down,” Persoff said. “Processes such as sublimation will cause the flake to lose its spectacular structure (after they sit) even if temperatures are super cold.”

That means bundling up, as all the photography must be done outside during the snowfall. Persoff said that ideally, the temperature outside needs to be from 10-25 degrees Fahrenheit.

A budget-minded photography set-up

Persoff said he’s focused on a budget-friendly photography studio for capturing nature’s icy gallery and has even created a step-by-step tutorial on YouTube to share his secrets. 

“I catch snowflakes on, of all things, a black wool sock,” Persoff said. “Later, that allows me to subtract the background much easier to get the flakes you see in my photos.”

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His camera is a version that can be found on aftermarket sales for under $200, and add in some relatively inexpensive extension tubes and a macro lens coupled with LED lights and a ring flash, “and boom, you have the studio,” he said.

All that’s left is to be willing to sit outside in frigid temperatures and see what exciting creations Mother Nature has in store for the sock today. Later, after a bit of post-processing in photo editing software, his social media feeds come alive with awe-inspiring beauty.

“I always practice a catch-and-release philosophy with the snowflakes,” he joked. “So, none are harmed in the process, to the best of my knowledge.”

The rare 12-pointed snowflake

The reason each snowflake is unique is that no snowflake takes the same path from cloud to Earth, meaning snowflakes never experience the exact same atmospheric conditions during their creation. Temperature and humidity inside the clouds will determine the general shape of the flakes, but each has its own unique imprint that acts like a transcript, detailing its own personal journey through the atmosphere.

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“The atmospheric conditions where (snowflakes) form are in the clouds around -10 to -20 degrees Celsius (14 to -4 degrees Fahrenheit) called the dendritic growth zone (DGZ),” Persoff said. “The closer the DGZ is to the ground, the more intricate the designs. The higher up, the more that snowflakes can be damaged or melt on the way down. Winds can cause snowflakes to bash against each other, resulting in broken pieces and fragments.”

Persoff was especially excited about his catch last week which featured a few rare 12-point snowflakes instead of the common six-sided frozen dendrites.

Those 12-pointed snowflakes are rare because they require a chance meeting.

“Water can only make crystals with angles of 60 degrees, so a 12-sided snowflake is impossible,” Persoff said. “What happens is that early in the snowflake’s genesis, two snowflakes become adhered together. Then, as they fall through the clouds, they encounter identical atmospheric conditions leading to the arms of each flake forming the way you see in (the) photo”.

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It’s the thrill of a different kind of chase – one that requires keeping warm instead of keeping warned. It’s led to a year-round adventure with Mother Nature.

“I chase storms in the spring and summer, and snowflakes in the autumn and winter,” Persoff said.

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