A Camera Lens Made From Ice

Alasdair Allan
5 min readOct 25, 2018

Mathieu Stern, a French photographer and filmmaker living in Paris, is an experimental photographer who often plays with weird and vintage lenses, and who recently became obsessed with making a lens out of ice.

A lens made of ice. (📷: Mathieu Stern)

Having thought about the idea that if glass can focus light, ice should also be able to do so, for almost two years. Stern went ahead and 3D printed a lens body to hold his ice lens and then, using a hacked ice ball maker, started experimenting with optical half spheres made from ice.

A 3d printed lens body. (📷: Mathieu Stern)

However the resulting lens he made were cloudy, so in a quest for pure ice earlier this year he travelled to Iceland and the Jökulsárlón Ice Beach to find ice that came straight from a glacier to try and make a better lens.

The story behind the Iceberg Lens. (📹: Mathieu Stern)

But because of the cold, each lens took 45 minutes to make, and after the first four lens broke he was on the verge of giving up when finally on the fifth attempt he managed to successfully craft a workable lens. He then had less than a minute, before the lens melted, to take his pictures.

Jökulsárlón Ice Beach seen through the ice lens. (📷: Mathieu Stern)

“…I was amazed by the images I saw on my screen, of course they are not sharp or clean like a modern lens, but they are amazing when you know it’s just a piece of ice that focused light.” — Mathieu Stern

Jökulsárlón Ice Beach seen through the ice lens. (📷: Mathieu Stern)

While the images were not sharp, they have a curious beauty, taken as they were by the only 10,000-year-old lens in the world.

“Really beautiful work. The relationship between the ephemeral nature of ice melting and the age of the ice is fascinating. When removed from its place in the sea, it “ages” rapidly. The water that captured your images is from the Neolithic and Agricultural Revolution. Those images can and will never be captured the same way twice in all of history. As the ice melts the quality of the light and photograph shift. Each image is unique. Fantastic work.”Spirus Visuals

Jökulsárlón Ice Beach seen through the ice lens. (📷: Mathieu Stern)

Ice made in a home freezer is often cloudy because the water you use has both dissolved gasses and minerals in it. As ice forms in an ice tray it freezes from the outside in, so mineral impurities which would normally be excluded as the ice freezes are instead pushed into the middle and are trapped there. This doesn’t happen with glacial ice, as mineral impurities are excluded from the ice as it freezers.

But when glacial ice forms on top of the glacier it begins as fluffy snow, which means that there is initially a lot of space for air between the snow flakes. The snow is compacted year on year as the snow fall accumulates, the gases are trapped between the compacted flakes. Which means that glacial ice often contains millions of tiny bubbles, all filled with a sample of the atmosphere as it was when the ice was laid down.

So while much cleaner than ice made in your freezer, as it does not have the included minerals, lens made from glacial ice will still contain trapped gases. While analysing these trapped gases can tell us a lot about the history of the climate, they also probably don’t make for good photography.

Really pure ice can be made in the laboratory by boiling purified water inside a vacuum-sealed chamber. This means that any dissolved gases or minerals are removed, and no more ambient gases can be dissolved into the water.

Vacuum chamber in a cold bath. ( 📷: Ice Core Lab, University of Rochester)

Placing this water directly into a cold bath will then force the water to freeze from the bottom up, minimising any further uptake of gas and pushing any remaining impurities to the surface, rather than towards the middle.

Pure ice made in a vacuum chamber (left) versus glacial ice (right). (📷: Ice Core Lab, University of Rochester)

So, if Stern wanted to have another attempt to try and get sharper imagery using his ice lens, he might want to contact his local University physics or geology department.

But then again, I don’t think that’s really the point.

I think his imagery is perfect, the uniqueness and curious beauty of the shots give them a haunting presence. Having stood myself on the same ice beach at Jökulsárlón, I can say that images capture the bleak feel of the ice flows rather well. That feeling of standing on the edge of the world, looking out.

Jökulsárlón Ice Beach, Iceland, April 2017. (📷: Alasdair Allan)

If you’re interested in finding out more, you can read more about the ice lens on Stern’s blog, and see more of his work on his Instagram and on YouTube.