18 Dec 2008
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.