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Snow crystals are made of ice, and ice is clear, like glass. If you look at an individual snow crystal under a microscope, it looks clear, like a small piece of shaped glass. So why does a snowbank look white?

Clear as Glass, White as Snow
The picture on the right shows small piles of salt, sugar, and crushed glass (from left to right). All three of these materials are intrinsically colorless and transparent (glass especially so), but the piles look white because they reflect light instead of absorbing it.

When a ray of light hits a pile of glass bits, some of the light reflects off the surfaces of the grains, while some is transmitted through the transparent glass. But some of the transmitted light then reflects off more grains, and then off more grains. The result of all these countless reflections is that nearly all the light is reflected, and little is absorbed. And that very property is what makes something look white.

A snowbank looks white for the same reason -- light reflects off the surfaces of all those countless snow crystals. A cloud looks white for the same reason, except the light reflects off small water droplets (which are also clear).

Light and Snowflakes
This tmage at right shows two photographs of the same snow crystal taken in different lighting. The first photo used reflected light, so this is about what the crystal would look like if you lobserved it on a black mitten. Notice how the surface markings and edges reflect light, and thus appear bright. But the smooth ice areas on the interior look clear. This is just how a piece of shaped glass would look.

The second photo used colored lights that illuminated the crystal from behind, so the camera sees a bright background behind the crystal. Now clear ice bends the rays of light, as would a complex lens, giving the photograph a sense of depth and accentuating the crystal’s internal structure and patterning.

We often illuminate using colored lights this way, because this highlights the structural features and can create a variety of pleasing photographic effects. The first images looks nice also, but you can see more of the ice structure in the second.

In the second photo you can also see how I used some red light off to the side, which gave the crystal some subtle red highlights. Whenever the mood suits me (and it usually does), I like to add some color to my snow crystal photographs.

A Rainbow Snowflake
This photos was also taken using illumination from behind, but this time I used a rainbow filter to illuminate the crystal with all different colors from different angles. The result is a very colorful snow crystal photograph.

The photo was not taken using polarized light (as people often think), and the colors were not added digitally later. This is pretty much what the photo looked like when it came out of the camera. The color comes from illuminating the crystal with colored lights. The ice bent the light in complex ways, yielding the colorful highlights you see here.