Snowflakes are an interesting photographic challenge. Their diminutive size brings many difficulties common to macro photography, and the cold environment does not offer any comfort. Still, the tiny snowflake can be an endless source of opportunity for a photographer up to the task.
The process is relatively low-tech: get a dark woolen garment (I use a black mitten) and leave it outside for a period of 10-15mins to acclimate to the outside temperature. When the snow is freshly falling, set it out to begin collecting your best “specimens”. Not every snowfall provides beautiful snowflakes, you might have to try a few times before the clouds cooperate.
If I find that photogenic snowflakes are in abundance, I grab my camera gear and start looking for the best crystals. Usually large hexagonal centers are eye-catching, and so are symmetrical designs. Finding the snowflake in the viewfinder can be quite the challenge too, without any solid frame of reference, I can spend a few minutes hunting for the crystal.
The magnification I am using is rather extreme. Most macro lenses will get as close as 1:1, which is life sized. In comparison, the Canon MP-E 65mm lens I use gets five times closer, and with a set of extension tubes I can achieve as great as 6:1 magnification. This is needed for the smallest snowflakes, but you can get away with less for the bigger crystals. A regular macro lens with extension tubes can work well, and reverse-mounting a regular kit lens on your camera can give great results too – often higher in magnification than a dedicated macro lens! However, photography on this scale is anything but easy.
I photograph the snowflakes on an angle, which allows me to manipulate light in some interesting ways. I can get surface reflections that make the snowflake “shimmer”, as well as reveal beautifully unexpected colors from inside the ice. The three-dimensional qualities of the snowflake also become apparent, with edge detail becoming visible and the flash casting shadows that highlight different layers of ice. For all the benefits, photographing a snowflake on an angle creates a huge problem: almost non-existent depth of field.
The depth of field of these images redefines “razor thin”; there is no way to illustrate the entire crystal from tip to tip in a single frame. I need to photograph each snowflake at every possible focus point along the way, and combine them together in a post-processing technique called “focus stacking”. Because these images are shot entirely handheld, I drastically overshoot. I might need between 30-50 images to complete a single snowflake image, but I have shot more than 200 just to be sure that I have all the pieces I need.
Even a snowflake measuring half a millimeter in diameter might require 20 frames to focus stack. That’s fewer frames than average, but the depth of field in each image is around 0.025mm, or around 1/10,000 of an inch. This pushes the limits not only of technology, but of the physics of light. There is no way to increase the depth of field by controlling the camera’s aperture, as the effects of diffraction make the entire image appear soft or blurry. Combining multiple images to achieve greater focus is a necessary evil at this scale of macro photography.
Roughly four hours of editing goes into each image. This time is spent combining images via focus stacking in Photoshop, as well as various techniques for enhancing color, sharpness and contrast. The background mitten pops into focus quite often, and plenty of time is spent with the clone tools removing stray wool fibers. The end result is an image that can capture the curiosity and wonder of just about everyone… the road is long, but the results are worth it. – Don Komarechka
Komarechka has recently 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+.