Twelve years ago, after moving to Colorado Springs from the California coast, I walked into a snowstorm and became fascinated by the tiny flakes attaching themselves like sequins to my fleece jacket. Each unique crystal was startlingly beautiful.
As I marveled at their complex beauty, the flakes disappeared before my eyes. Mother Nature had issued her challenge, and there and then, I decided that I must find a way to photograph these short-lived magnificent jewels.
Photographing snowflakes soon became my passion. I studied the extensive work of the snowflake master, Professor Kenneth Libbrecht at California Institute of Technology. I constructed a portable snowflake setup and practiced in my studio on miniscule plastic and metal snowflake stand-ins. As with many obsessions, the excitement of this new project was only heightened by the scarcity of opportunity to pursue it. Photographable snowflakes are capricious subjects; even at our home in Colorado Springs, at 6500 feet elevation, conditions were rarely perfect to produce splendidly formed snowflakes. I’m now living in Bend, Oregon, where we get about the same amount of snow, but weather conditions are right for snowflakes only a few days each winter.
First of all, it has to be snowing (duh), with a temperature range from about -5° to 30° F (-1° to -20° C). If it’s any warmer, the snowflakes melt instantly; colder, and nice feathery crystals do not form (and besides, it’s just too cold to be out there photographing). Certain atmospheric conditions are required for the formation of excellent crystals. The snowflake starts as a speck of dust; a droplet of water vapor attaches to the speck of dust, and as it moves up, around and through the clouds, more droplets adhere and a crystal forms. If conditions are just right, the snowflake floats to the earth with its complex design intact, and there I wait to capture it with my special snowflake setup.
For all my photography I use Canon equipment, of course, and for snowflakes, the more resolution and magnification, the better! My personal choice for this project is the Canon 5DS R (50mp) camera body, but cameras from 20mp on up are adequate. For magnification, I find that 5X, using the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X macro lens, is the perfect choice to get all the detail I’m looking to capture. I also use one of Canon’s macro strobe systems, the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX, to light the subject. (Note that Canon has now introduced the Macro Twin Lite MT-26EX-RT unit that has additional power and features.) The Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX and MR-14EX II are also excellent choices for snowflake photography.
From the look of them, one might think snowflakes are flat, but in fact they are complex and three-dimensional. Focus stacking technique is required to capture the whole crystal sharply in focus, and at 5X magnification it can take from five to twenty composited images to render the subject completely sharp. (For more about focus stacking, see my Canon See Impossible story from March 2017).
The day has arrived and crystals are falling! I have my photographic setup cold and ready on the covered porch outside, and I’m on the hunt for worthy subjects. I use a black felted card for the capture; as the snowflakes fall on it, their unique formations and shapes are clearly visible. I move the card to my photography setup, and, using a small paintbrush, carefully transfer the chosen snowflake into position under the camera setup. Then I’m ready to photograph the snowflake, using flash and focus-stacking techniques to capture the crystal before it disappears. It’s bittersweet: One tiny miracle of nature, captured on my sensor but gone forever, while, on the driveway beyond, a gazillion of its unappreciated fellows accumulate, waiting to meet my shovel.
For more information about snowflakes and snowflake photography, see the several books published by Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist at California Institute of Technology, and Canadian photographer Don Komarechka’s Sky Crystals. These two photographer/authors are great resources for those seeking to explore the science and art of photographing snowflakes.