Don KomarechkaDon Komarechka

By Don Komarechka

Snowflakes have fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries, but how can you preserve the temporary splendor of nature’s sky crystals? Photographing snowflakes might seem difficult, but any beginner can get started with just a few simple tips:

Stay cold and stay fresh

A snowflake is a fragile structure, and any ambient heat can quickly melt it away into a tiny droplet of water. Work outside when the ambient temperature is at least -8C for the best results. It’s also best to work with freshly falling snow, because even on cold days the snowflake will slowly evaporate back into thin air once it reaches the ground.

Get Close

The average snowflake is only a few millimeters across, with the largest specimens reaching a size of roughly 1cm. If you want to photograph snowflakes, you’ll need a way to increase your camera’s magnification!

Those photographers using a camera with interchangeable lenses can opt for a macro lens, which will get you reasonably close, but many people want to fill the frame with the smallest crystals. To get even closer, consider a set of close-up filters to fit in front of the camera lens or extension tubes that sit between the lens and the camera. These allow your camera to focus closer than ever before, and the brilliant details will soon fill your viewfinder.

Isolate a single snowflake

Many snowfalls provide an overwhelming abundance of specimens to choose from, but individual details can often provide better compositions. You’ll also want the details to stand out, and snowflakes photographed on top of other fallen snow can wash away the fine details you’re after.Lay a piece of dark woolen fabric outside, as well as a fine paintbrush. Keep these items outside for the duration of the winter in a sheltered area, so when the time comes to put them to use your snowflakes won’t melt on contact. As the snowflakes fall on the fabric (I use a black mitten), the individual details start to emerge quickly. Snowflakes will frequently fall in clumps, and the paintbrush can be used to gently move the crystals around into a pleasing arrangement.

Be careful with this tool, however; even the strongest snowflakes can easily be snapped into pieces with the slightest pressure.

Use your flash

At this scale, many photographers will find it challenging to get a good clear shot of a snowflake that shows the vibrant details they may see through the viewfinder. Motion blur can be a culprit, and so can the angle of light.Using a flash, you’ll be able to direct the light onto the snowflake in a more instantaneous manner that should produce clearer images, and if you have a ring flash or off-camera flash at your disposal you can change the angle of light to get the surface of the crystal to shine.

Setting the Exposure

If you’re using a flash, I often find a lower ISO works best to help eliminate the ambient light (say, 200-400). Set the shutter speed to the fastest flash sync speed you can use, which is normally between 1/200 and 1/300 sec but certain cameras and flash models may find different results. As for the aperture, try to avoid setting it any higher than F/11, as some complex physics can start to blur the photograph when you work at these magnifications.

If that sounds daunting, don’t worry – you can still make beautiful snowflake images without a flash, but your technique will be different: Shoot at a much higher ISO (around 800 – 1600) and a wider aperture setting around F/5.6 or wider. This should give you faster shutter speeds when shooting in Aperture Priority mode and you should get clearer images. Remember to change the angle of the camera to see different reflections on the crystals!

6. Practice Indoors

With a plate of glass from an old picture frame and a bottle of super glue, you can preserve a snowflake “fossil” for use indoors to tone your technique! Leave the glass and glue outdoors to cool down, and let the snowflakes fall onto the glass surface. Super glue doesn’t freeze until around -20C, so it’ll stay liquid without melting the snowflakes. Place a drop of glue on top of the best snowflakes and then hide the glass under a sheltered area until the glue hardens – this can take a day or so, depending on the environment.

The glue forms around the crystal, so even after it melts the snowflake details still remain – a snowflake fossil is formed!

If you’re ready for more details and some advanced techniques, check out Don’s book Sky Crystals: Unraveling the Mysteries of Snowflakes.

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