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Canon See Impossible

George Lepp - In Pursuit of the Elusive Snowflake

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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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Snowflake main image
A rare 12-pointed snowflake, created when two snowflake crystals combined early in formation and a structure with 30 degree angled arms developed.
Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Photo Rig
A copy stand holds Lepp’s equipment setup for snowflake photography: a Canon DSLR camera and Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro lens with attached Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flash. The snowflake, placed on an elevated glass stage, is lit from below by two flashes or LED lights covered with blue and red gels that add hue to the normally transparent subject. A blue light placed below the stage provides a blue background for contrast. The small LCD flashlight positioned on the subject aids in focusing.
A Fleeting Subject

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.

The Conditions for Photographic Snowflakes

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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Snowflake 1
Typical snowflakes have 6 arms at 60-degree angles. This example lacks the intricate branching that can develop as the crystal evolves.
Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Snowflake 2
A more complex snowflake crystal displays a few attachments of rime ice (frozen water droplets) that have attached to the flake as it moved through the cloud.
The Basic Equipment Needed to Photograph a Snowflake

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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Snowflake 3
All snowflakes are different. According to snowflake expert Kenneth Libbrecht, a typical snowflake contains an estimated 1 quintillion molecules of water (1,000,000,000,000,000,000). The odds are long that any two might develop into precisely identical shapes although a uniform environment may generate similar crystals.
Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Snowflake 4
A snowflake that becomes encrusted in rime ice to the point it can barely be seen as a crystal is called graupel (soft hail or snow pellets). There’s a six-sided crystal in there someplace, but the details are obscured by the tiny bits of ice.
Snowflakes are Complicated Structures

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).

Capturing a Falling Snowflake for Photography

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.

More information

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.

Canon See Impossible - George Lepp - Catching Flakes
Canon Explorer of Light George Lepp creates high-resolution images of snowflakes. Here, he captures potential subjects on a black felt card. When a worthy subject is identified, he uses a tiny paintbrush to transfer it from the card to the macro photography setup in his outdoor studio. To preserve the delicate crystal long enough for photography, all the tools and the photographic environment must be maintained at the ambient (below-freezing) temperature.

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