AAT: Ice Flowers

The Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) has three year-round research stations, Mawson, Davis and Casey, which are administered by the Hobart-based Australian Antarctic Division. During the winter months, temperatures on these research stations frequently fall below -40° C. This is the perfect environment for ice flowers – also known as ice ferns – to flourish.

Ice flowers are intricate ice patterns that form when humid airs meets a sub-zero pane of glass or glass window. They are icy, fern-like patterns that ‘grow’ on the surface of the glass, resulting in beautiful formations.

They may start as mere droplets of water melted by the daylight sun, only to emerge as icy beauties by morning. These formations can even change, depending on whether dust or other matter is also present on the glass.

The AAT Ice Flowers stamp issue, designed by Sharon Rodziewicz and which will be released on 20 September 2016, features photographs of four stunningly intricate formations from AAT research stations during winter.

The stamps are also part of a minisheet that features six embellishments. The $1 light-blue stamp is foiled with a translucent pearl foil; the $1 purple-blue with a clear holographic foil and embossed with a hand-sculptured embossing die (as is the top-left of the minisheet itself); the $2 orange stamp is foiled with a clear foil and debossed; and the $3 grey-green ice flower stamp is foiled with a metallic silver-gold foil and embossed with a hand-sculptured embossing die.

We interviewed Victoria Heinrich and Peter Hargreaves, two of the photographers whose amazing photographs feature in the stamp issue, to learn more.

What do you find so incredible about ice flowers?

Vicki: The fantastic shapes you can see and the challenge of getting a non- blurred photo. Often they seem to just appear, and the closer you look, the more detail you see.

Peter: Their uniqueness and individual shapes and structure, even in an area where there might be heaps they are all still different to each other and unique; just amazing to see.

How prevalent are the ice flowers at AAD research stations during the winter months?

Vicki: Ice crystals will form on many surfaces, but it is those seen through a window with the light behind that look most spectacular. If you're in a vehicle or field hut and it is cold enough outside, then you will often see ice crystals/flowers form on the glass from the condensation of people’s breath. They are not always the striking forms seen here, often it is just a foggy window! You have to keep an eye out and take the photo when you see it, as just the sun shining on the window or a change of temperature will mean they melt and disappear. Like a snow flake, ice flowers always seem different and taking the time to notice the little things can lead to the most amazing sights and photo opportunities.

Peter: The particular ice flower I photographed is not overly prevalent. This image up on the plateau at Mawson was in an area maybe 20 metres square, one spot of only a few in the greater Mawson area I saw during my winter. There could potentially be many more but it’s having the right conditions and no snow covering them which is half the challenge.

How do you photograph them, from a technical point of view?

Vicki: Either a compact camera in the macro setting or a SLR camera with a macro lens, steady hands, and many, many images in order to get a sharp picture. Sometimes using manual focus is easier with an SLR, although a simple compact camera in the macro setting can produce better pictures. If possible, I will place the camera directly against the glass or ice to take the photo. I also move around the window or feature (if it’s a tide crack, frozen puddle or frozen lake) to gain a variety of angles and changes in light. I tend to focus in on a small area, particularly on the macro setting, so that you can see the fine detail in the ice crystals.

Peter: I use my Panasonic point and shoot as it can be placed on top of the ice and it usually will still be in focus, and I have the settings on auto with no flash. I generally take several shots of each subject before moving the camera, because when photographing into ice you are never quite sure where the focal point is and what is or isn’t in focus. It’s easier to take several photos and check them back in the warmth of inside. Minus 30 degrees is not the place to be looking too long at a small camera scene! Another technical tip, be it not a camera one, is to have warm gloves, otherwise your fingers will start to freeze and you’ll have to stop, missing the opportunity.

What are some of the challenges when photographing them?

Vicki: The back ground – contrast of light or dark background makes the ice crystals stand out the most – the correct focal length and a steady camera to produce a sharp image. Often only when you look at an image on the computer can you know if it has worked. Cold temperatures means that camera batteries go flat quicker, and the focus capacity of a lens and SLR camera may slow down. Condensation freezes on a camera when you head back inside to warm up too. Ice flowers are ephemeral!

Peter: Light. Getting the right light to capture them best, without too much sun or glare, and if it’s either side of mid-winter when there is minimal light you need to make sure the camera flash, if used, is capturing it correctly and not reflecting back off the ice.

What is your background and how did you come to photograph the ice flowers?

Vicki: I grew up on a farm on the Yorke Peninsula before moving to Adelaide for university. I joined the Bureau of Meteorology in 2003 as a weather observer. After moving around Australia with the bureau I’m now based in Adelaide. I have had many opportunities to travel to remote locations where there are weather stations like Giles in WA and the Australian Antarctic Stations of Davis, Casey, Mawson and Macquarie Island. Photography is an easily transportable hobby that is constantly challenging and allows me to capture memories of all the places I’ve been lucky enough to travel to.

Peter: I was raised on a farm at Boweya in Northeast Victoria, remaining in the general region after school and completing a plumbing apprenticeship. I travelled overseas which is where I first developed an interest in photography. I moved to Yeppoon in central Queensland for nearly a decade, travelled around the world, then moved back to Northeast Victoria to Wangaratta, where I still live when not in Antarctica. After a few years I applied to go to Antarctica, a dream I’d held for over two decades. Since that first application in 2009, I have spent four seasons, including three winters, one each at Davis, Mawson and Casey. I was captivated with Antarctica from the first time I set foot there, and my love of photography grows each visit. Photography is a great way to capture the unique and spectacular place that Antarctica is and share it with family and friends; it’s also a great pastime and is a good reason to get out and about in all types of weather – even the middle of the night if there is a good Aurora lighting up the sky.

Technical details

  • Issue date

    20 September 2016
  • FDI withdrawal

    18 October 2016
  • Denomination

    2 x $1 se-tenant. 1 x $2, 1 x $3
  • Stamp design

    Sharon Rodziewicz, Australia Post Design Studio
  • Product design

    Sharon Rodziewicz, Australia Post Design Studio
  • Printing process

    Offset lithography
  • Sheet layout

    Module of 50 no design
  • Stamp size

    35mm x 35mm
  • Perforations

    14.28 x 14.28
  • National postmark

    Kingston TAS 7050
  • Issue withdrawal date

    31 December 2016
  • Paper

    Tullis Russell Red Phos (C100)
  • Printer

    RA Printing

*This content was produced at the time of the stamp issue release date and will not be updated.