By Don Corrigan (Webster-Kirkwood Times)
Snow is not just for shoveling. Dr. Richard Walters of Webster Groves wants those who loathe the snow to take a new, close-up look at the white stuff. He makes it easy with his snowflake photography exhibit.
His prints on display at the Webster Groves Public Library this January offer an array of snow crystals, including needles, bullets, plates and rare capped columns. Of course, there also are the typical six-armed stellar forms that we all associate with snowflakes.“I’m into details and there’s a lot of work and care that goes into capturing the details of snowflakes,” explained Walters. “For one thing, you have to hold your breath to keep the crystals from melting and distorting when you are shooting them.”
It’s a little breath-taking to observe the variety of snowflakes in Walters’ collection of prints. They offer proof for the science that maintains that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.
Walters counts himself among 20 photographers in the world who specialize in snowflakes. He said he was inspired by a 19th Century photographer, W.A. Bentley of Jericho, Vermont. Bentley rigged a microscope contraption to shoot individual snow crystals for microphotographs.
“Thus, in 1885, the first individual snowflake was photographed,” said Walters. “Bentley took some 5,000 such snowflake pictures in his lifetime.”
Walters will lecture on techniques and equipment that he employs to photograph snowflakes at a library program at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 22. So much of Walters’ success depends on the weather, and he admits to a little child-like joy when snow is in the forecast.
According to Walters, the ideal temperature to photograph a snowflake is between 18 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit. When it’s warmer than 25, it’s too close to melting. If it’s colder than 18, it’s too cold to work outside for the hours required to make it all happen.
“It’s tougher now to be this kind of photographer in St. Louis,” noted Walters. “It’s warmer and we just don’t get the snowstorms of 10 to 20 years ago. I am definitely a believer in climate change and global warming with the changes in our winters.”
An Early Fascination
As a six-year-old boy growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Walters remembers admiring the beauty and intricate design of snowflakes on his coat sleeve. His fascination with their beauty and sparkle was a foreshadowing for his later avocation.
In high school in central Illinois, Walters borrowed a teacher’s camera and began taking his first photos. He found he liked doing close-ups.
It wasn’t until he graduated from medical school that he received his own camera, a gift from his parents. He had asked for a camera and a close-up lens because he knew he would be using them in his dermatology residency.
“I actually found myself using the equipment more often in the outdoors taking photos of flowers and insects,’” said Walters. “I really discovered that my passion was photographing nature subjects smaller than an inch.”
Walters grew to love small flowers and insects as his photographic subjects. Today, he advises people to not just take time to smell the flowers, but to take a look at what is inside of those flowers.
Unfortunately, the Midwest does not allow for photographing insects and flowers in its winter seasons. So, Walters turned to photographing some of nature’s best offerings during winter – tiny snow crystals.
Walters perfected a technique in which he ventured out into the falling snow with a parcel of black velvet. After successfully catching the right snow crystals, he moved into his garage with its helpful fluorescent lighting.
He then carefully removed the snow crystals from the velvet and transferred them to a plate of glass. He shot the crystals from above the glass, while flash units pointing upward were activated beneath the glass.
Walters’ technique worked and normally would provide about a 10-minute window in which to photograph the crystals before they melted into oblivion. Walters still subscribes to some variation of that early technique to capture the best specimens of a snowfall.
A Retirement Hobby
Walters said it’s probably not a big surprise that he enjoys the details of fine photography. As a dermatologist, the doctor has spent a lifetime analyzing the tiny imperfections on the skin of his many area patients.
He shuttered his practice in Webster Groves in July 2014, and then worked with another doctor for two years. He retired in 2016, and now has more time for his photography hobby.
Walters’ work has been published in more than 20 magazines around the world. His work has appeared in a number of books, including biology and mathematics textbooks.
“Now that I am retired, I am working on catching up with the digital technology and computer programs for photography,” said Walters. “Things have come along way since I took 150 shots during a snowy night, mailed the film off to Kodak and hoped 15 might come back providing good images.”
See more photos of the snowflakes on the Webster-Kirkwood Times website.