How To

Photographing Snowflakes

Snowflake Detail
Snowflake No.1
Snowflake
Flat Plate Snowflake
Snowflake No.2

To photograph snowflakes, all you need is a snowfall! Well, that's not exactly the whole story. Until recently, I did not fully appreciate the affect that temperature has on the formation of snowflakes. The formation of the classic snowflake shape is quite dependent on outside air temperature and humidity level. Based on the temperature, snowflakes can look like anything from ice chips and columns to flat plates and delicate lacy flakes. In a single snowfall, there can be quite a wide variety of types of flakes.

There are three main stages to photographing snowflakes: preparation, isolating flakes, and imaging.

Preparation

Keeping the absolute lowest temperature possible for your equipment is essential. The colder your setup is, the longer you have to work with a flake. As an example, in a recent snowstorm, the outside air temperature was between 29 and 27 degrees Fahrenheit, and it took over an hour for my equipment to cool to a useable temperature.

Plan out everything you need in advance. If possible, leave as much equipment outside in a sheltered location so that it will be pre-cooled when you need it. Anything that touches a snowflake needs to be absolutely as cold as possible. That being said, your camera will not like the cold, so you need to take care to bring your camera in from time to time to let it warm up. When you bring your camera inside to warm up, it is a good idea to place it inside a sealed bag to keep moisture from condensing. A few items that I have found useful are:

- Dark piece of cloth or paper (for collecting flakes on)

- Small piece of plate glass or microscope glass slide (to photograph the flakes on)

- Small artists paintbrush (to transfer and move flakes)

- Tweezers, pliers, or other gripping tools (to hold cold objects)

- Imaging equipment (more detail below)

- Lights (more detail below, but try different things)

Isolating Flakes

Collecting the individual snowflakes is probably the hardest part of the process. Most snowflakes fall tangled with other snowflakes and do not tend to image well. To get a nice, individual snowflake takes patience and can take a lot of time. Wear warm clothes.

A dark colored piece of cloth or paper works well for collecting flakes. Let a light dusting fall on the cold collection surface. Look over the flakes and identify any that are not tangled and have nice form. Depending on temperature, it may take an hour to find a good flake. If you do not see any flakes with nice form, the temperature might not be conducive and you might want to have some hot cocoa and try again later!

Once you have identified a nice flake, you need to collect it for imaging. Use a small artist's paintbrush to gently sweep the flake onto the pre-cooled plate glass or microscope slide. It may be necessary to hold the glass with tweezers or small pliers. Touching the glass with even gloved hands can add enough heat to melt the flakes.

Imaging

Now comes the fun part! You have a lot of options for ways to image captured snowflakes. The first thing to think about is the lighting. It is unlikely that there will be enough ambient light to adequately image the detail of a snowflake. I have found that backlighting seems to produce the best results. LED light or light from a distance seems to work well. If the light source is warm, and too close, you will have very little time to image the flake. Even a small light can easily melt a snowflake.

I have had success photographing snowflakes using a standard macro lens with an extension tube. With a good macro lens / extension tube combination, I have been able to get about an inch away from snowflakes with good results. Use the smallest f-stop you possibly can. The small f-stop will give you a nice, high shutter speed and a great rendered background. You can photograph from either side of the glass plate; whatever is convenient.

Another imaging optics option is to come up with a high magnification setup similar to a microscope. The advantage of this arrangement is better magnification and image clarity. The disadvantage to this type of arrangement is that it is bulkier to use, and may require up-front investment. I have had quite good luck using standard 40x microscope optics. A used microscope can be purchased for less than you might think, and an improvised lens attachment is not that hard to make.

Other Options

If it does not snow in your area, you are still likely to get an occasional frost. You might be surprised at how much detail there is to even a light frost. A hand held light and a macro lens can yield some amazing results. The windshield of our car has provided some excellent specimens.

Regardless of what you try, it definitely takes practice to get a photograph of a snowflake or ice crystal. With the right attitude, warm clothes, and hot cocoa, you can explore a new avenue of macro photography.

Good luck!

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Hi there!

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http://jpgmag.com/stories/9720

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21 responses

  • Lois Martin

    Lois Martin gave props (19 Dec 2008):

    Very appropriate story for the season, and very informative!

  • Anna Chipman

    Anna Chipman said (19 Dec 2008):

    Great article and wonderful photographs!

  • Sherry Stone

    Sherry Stone gave props (21 Dec 2008):

    Wonderful article. Gonna have to try this. Love the photos. My vote.

  • Kelly Roper

    Kelly Roper gave props (22 Jan 2009):

    Very nice....I have always found photographs of snowflakes amazing and your images are a wonderful example!

  • Siim Vahur

    Siim Vahur said (14 Mar 2009):

    Button says: "Yeah! It rocks!"

  • Matt.

    Matt. (Deleted) gave props (17 Apr 2009):

    Yeah It rocks!!!

  • Karen Foto Fiddler

    Karen Foto Fiddler (Deleted) gave props (29 Apr 2009):

    Excellent tutorial!

  • Karen Foto Fiddler

    Karen Foto Fiddler (Deleted) said (29 Apr 2009):

    Oh and I voted yes!

  • Trish Meyer

    Trish Meyer (Deleted) gave props (23 Jul 2009):

    Interesting and informative story.

  • Lynda Jeffers

    Lynda Jeffers (Deleted) gave props (1 Aug 2009):

    Very informative and the pics are amazing!

  • Nelson Campbell

    Nelson Campbell (Deleted) gave props (6 Oct 2009):

    Absolutely it should be published!!

  • Stefi Failk

    Stefi Failk (Deleted) gave props (22 Nov 2009):

    I agree with Nelson..should be published!

  • Breezy Ritter

    Breezy Ritter gave props (6 Jan 2010):

    This is FANTASTIC! Amazing job on this!

  • Katy Aretxabaleta

    Katy Aretxabaleta (Deleted) gave props (8 Jan 2010):

    I totally admire your photography skills and I simply adore your snowflake photos

  • wijnand loven

    wijnand loven gave props (12 Jan 2010):

    great work and thanx for the tutorial!

  • Paul Bonnell

    Paul Bonnell gave props (4 Apr 2010):

    Terrific information. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Linda Hudrick

    Linda Hudrick said (24 Nov 2010):

    Beautiful Michael!
    I would love to hear more about the microscope "improvised lens attachment"!

  • Katherine Nak

    Katherine Nak   gave props (31 Jan 2011):

    Thank you for the info., and thank you for your time. I'm inspired, I live in Utah!

  • Robin Perkins

    Robin Perkins gave props (23 Feb 2011):

    magical, wonderful, voted

  • Rachelle Crockett

    Rachelle Crockett gave props (18 Nov 2011):

    Thank you so much for the rather informative article! Your pictures are amazing and I can hardly wait for it to snow a bit around here so I can try all this out! Better have a camera for it by then, lol - Thanks again!

  • Patty Krajewski

    Patty Krajewski said (17 Dec 2013):

    I've been trying to capture a picture of "a snowflake" falling but that seems near impossible! (I've taken lots of "many" snowflakes falling which are quite awesome but never the less I'll keep that shutter going) I've taken some pictures of the snow on tree branches and it's not the same. Today is the third time it's snowed in a week so I've got a little bit of practice. I'm going to try this approach and see how it goes! Thanks for the great advice!!

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