Snow: most “fair weather photographers” avoid it, but it can be the most captivating subject you put in front of your camera all winter. With enough magnification in your lens, you can capture an unseen world of natural beauty just two feet from your back door.
There are a number of challenges you’ll need to overcome when photographing snowflakes. Magnification, lighting and depth of field all come into play, but first you’ll need to find an individual snowflake worthy of your photographic efforts. What makes for a great snowflake, and how do you isolate a single crystal from the millions that might be falling around you?
This part of the process is simple. Leave a black-woolen item outside (I use a mitten, but a scarf or hat would work well) to collect your snowflakes. The background behind all of my images is the same black mitten, providing contrast, but also helping me blur the background for a simple composition. Each snowflake becomes supported by a few fibers of the mitten and this isolates the crystal from a heavily detailed background. The few fibers that enter the frame can be edited out afterwards. This scenario will also keep the snowflake from melting; only a few fibers will make direct contact and will prevent the transfer of any residual heat – the snowflake will not melt quickly. A simple black mitten is the key, accompanied with a small artist’s paintbrush to help manipulate the snowflake if needed.
Not all weather systems will provide you with beautiful snowflakes, so you might have to observe a few snowfalls until you’re happy with the crystals you find. Cold temperatures and low wind will generally provide good results.
The next challenge is magnification. The smallest snowflakes are far smaller than a millimeter across, with the largest pushing up to 1cm / 0.4in. At 1:1 Lifesize (the closest magnification that an average macro lens can obtain), the largest snowflakes will fall short of filling the frame. How do you get closer? Extension tubes are the preferred method. These are hollow tubes that sit in-between your lens and your camera, pushing the lens further away from your camera body. This allows for you to focus closer to the subject and increase your magnification. Want to get even closer? Use extension tubes in conjunction with a teleconverter. Normally a teleconverter will not fit onto a standard macro lens, but if you add extension tubes around the protruding lens elements, the optics will combine properly.
Canon makes a dedicated lens for this kind of work, so Canon shooters can look at the Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens that will allow 5:1 magnification without any tricks. Be warned, however – this is the most difficult lens to use in the Canon lens catalog, and for good reason; extreme magnification results in incredibly shallow depth of field.
Depth of field is affected by a number of factors: aperture, focal length, and distance from your subject. As your magnification increases, your depth of field quickly diminishes to a fraction of a millimeter. There is very little chance to get an entire snowflake in focus – don’t even try, you’ll only encounter more challenges related to diffraction limiting…. But that’s a problem for another post! In this scenario, we cannot get the entire snowflake in focus in one frame, but we can capture every slice of focus in separate images. These images can be later combined in a process called “focus stacking”, which can be automated by software. There is no in-camera way to get an entire snowflake in focus unless it sits completely parallel to the focal plane – quite a difficult task, and the results will be rather flat and lifeless. The average number of frames combined in each image presented here is 40, but as many as 70 have been used for a single snowflake shot.
It’s important to note the fleeting nature of snowflakes. Even in cold temperatures, a snowflake will begin to sublimate (evaporate from a solid) and will disappear back into thin air. Identifying pristine crystals even an hour after they have fallen becomes difficult. You need to work fast. In the above example, the same snowflake was photographed twice, 22 minutes apart. Even at freezing temperatures your subject will vanish in front of you.
These images are photographed with a ring flash, which allows for convenient control over the angle of light around the subject; the angle-of-light is the final challenge. Everything depends on the angle of the flash you’re using to light the snowflake. A change of a few degrees can radically alter the appearance, and I often aim for a highly reflective surface to bring out the best details. This angle can be difficult to locate and requires the camera to rotate around the subject as an anchor. No tripod will allow for this configuration. With the subject being so time-sensitive, all of the snowflakes featured here were shot entirely handheld.
When the best angle is found, it is easy to rest one’s left hand against the surface you are photographing on, and grasp the end of the lens with your fingertips. This can create a stable environment for shooting, and any deviations between each frame can be fixed in post-processing. You’ll need steady hands and plenty of practice, but the task is not as daunting as it might first seem.
All of this can happen two feet from the warmth and comfort of home. This allows for a rapid learning process and within a couple of attempts, techniques can be honed and you’ll be photographing snowflakes every time they fall from the sky. For a complete photographic workflow, check out the 304-page hardcover book Sky Crystals - the entire photographic process is described in exhaustive detail. - Don Komarechka
Komarechka has published a 304 page hardcover book on snowflake photography discussing in-depth photographic techniques as well as the science behind how such crystals grow. You can find out more and order the book at www.skycrystals.ca. To see more of Komarechka's work, visit his website at www.donkom.ca. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, 500px, Pinterest and Google+.
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS-1D X, Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens, Canon MR-14EX Ringlite, extension tubes - Software applications used in postprocessing: Lightroom, Photoshop, onOne Perfect Resize