Photographing Snowflakes—Computer Time

by Kevin Shank | Jan 2, 2024 | 0 comments

Editor’s note: For background to this lesson, you may recall that last month I mentioned how my interest in learning snowflake photography led me to the book by Don Komarechka, Sky Crystals. Mr. Komarechka goes into great detail in his book concerning the techniques he uses to capture and process snowflake photographs. While I’m sharing from our short experience, please note that success can go much farther than where we have gone. Mr. Komarechka’s photograph below demonstrates where the techniques he uses can take you.

snowflake on black background
Snowflake. Photo © Don Komarechka.

Last month we discussed how many, many photographs are taken of a single snowflake to compile the results you see in this lesson. Between the field time and the final product are hours of computer time, processing the results of the photo session. Consider this lesson an overview, not an exhaustive discourse. No doubt there are a variety of computer programs that will work to process your photos, but in this lesson I will only refer to the programs we use as though they are also the programs you use.

To begin with, open all the RAW photos in Lightroom. Look through them and “pick” all the photos that have sharp detail on some aspect of the snowflake, by pressing the letter “P.” Once the photographs are picked, go to “Filters” and check “Flagged” so Lightroom hides the non-flagged photos.

There are several ways to move forward from here. In his book, Mr. Komarechka illustrates the next moves based on initially stacking in Photoshop a percentage of the many photos taken. Then the preliminary stack is evaluated for areas of non-sharp focus. He assumes some areas will be noted, so he charts the steps he goes through to return to his inventory of photos in Lightroom to search for/add additional photos that can complete the composite. What he teaches both in terms of shooting a hundred or more photos as well as the steps to make the composite, are good.

However, we didn’t shoot as many photos as we should have. With only thirty or forty originals taken, we opted to choose all that had a sharp focal plane on some aspect of the photo, and process them initially without the intermediate step of doing a preliminary stack evaluation. For sake of space, I’m going over each step as if this is all achieved in one pass through without the need to back up and add a second batch of photos.

Choose a single photograph that has sharp focus near the core of the snowflake, and use it as a baseline from which to make basic color and exposure adjustments. When adjusting the white point, bring it up until the snowflake is quite white, yet the details remain in the brightest areas without washing out.

Your pictures will likely benefit from sharpening. You may do this to taste, but expect to crank up the “Masking” adjustment beyond 50%, while leaving “Radius” and “Detail” at the default settings. You may hold down the “Alt” key while making the adjustment, so you can see how the photo is being affected.

Once you are happy with the adjustments to this photo, apply the adjustments you made to all the “picked” photos. When this is done, highlight the photos and right-click. From the menu, choose “Edit” and then “Open as layers in Photoshop.”

In Photoshop, select all the layers by clicking on the top one, and then shift-clicking on the bottom one. Next, go to the edit menu and select “Auto-Align Layers,” and use the default setting “Auto.” This step will make the adjustments needed to align the details of each snowflake layer. This is important because the technique we used to capture the photographs resulted in some camera movement between photos.

Next, with all the layers highlighted, right-click on one of them and choose “Duplicate Layers.” With the duplicated layers still highlighted, go back to the “Edit” menu and choose “Auto-Blend Layers.” Use the default settings—“Stack Photos” and “Seamless Tones and Colors.”

Once the blending is complete, right-click on one of the layers and choose, “Merge Layers.” Drag the blended layer to the bottom of the layers in the “Layers” palette. For the original layers above the blended layer, make a layer mask for each one. To do this, click the third button from the left at the bottom of the “Layers” palette. Next turn off all the original layers except for the one sitting right above the blended layer. You are now ready to fine-tune the stacked layers.

Since I use a large monitor, I like to enlarge the snowflake detail to 200% for making adjustments. The snowflake, as you see it on the monitor, should have the bottom two layers turned on, with a layer mask on the next-to-bottom layer. At this point, the mask will appear white. Before I go farther, let me take a minute to explain the layer mask for those not familiar with it.

The blended layer that is on the bottom is the closest to our final product of any of the layers. However, you are not seeing the blended layer at all, since the layer above it is turned on, and we see the topmost layer. Now click in the white layer mask to activate it; then press “Control+i” on PC, or “Command+i” on MAC. Notice how the white mask becomes a black mask. Also, notice how you now see the blended layer that is at the bottom. Flip back and forth between white (top layer not masked because all is visible) and black (totally masked because none of the top layer is visible) while looking at the details of the snowflake. While the blended layer looks best overall, a careful study of the details may reveal a few spots where the original layer is sharper than the blended layer. When you find such a spot, make the layer mask black to begin the adjustment. With the layer mask activated, use a soft brush tool (0 hardness) and paint over the soft-focus area that you determined was sharper on the original layer. Watch as the snowflake detail becomes sharp. Notice that the black mask now has a white hole in it. What you have done is effectively told the computer the bottom layer is what you are going to use (by largely having the layer mask black), except for the one, two, or three areas you painted white. Those areas get overwritten by the layer above, as it is allowed to shine through to the layer below where the holes have been painted in the mask. As you paint holes, learn to use “Control+x” or “Command+x” to toggle between painting white holes, and replacing with black where too large of a white hole was made.

When you are satisfied you have added back to the base layer any benefit the next-to-bottom layer offers, move up to the third-to-bottom layer and turn it on and repeat this process. Do this for each of the twenty, thirty, or forty layers you are using to make the compilation.

It’s work, but it is rewarding work. I like to think that God created each of the snowflakes for His pleasure. He gets to see each one in perfect detail. Yet He is honored, I believe, when we put forth some effort to enjoy the designs with Him.

Locate the layer that has the forward-most slice of the snowflake in focus. This will also be the photo that has the softest background, since the the background was farthest from the focal plane. On this layer, paint in all the background on the layer mask. This will override the more cluttered background of the bottom layer with the cleanest background readily available to you. This step may significantly jump-start the clean-up of the background.

After much toggling and tweaking through all the layers, it is tempting to think the work must surely be done. However, there are still adjustments you can make that will take your snowflake to even higher levels. It’s time to flatten the layers together and dig in with the “Rubber Stamp” tool. Use it to clean up any remaining imperfections that are logical to remove.

You can take the photo back to Lightroom and tweak the sharpness of the photo again. Perhaps some snowflake tips are darker than others. If so, you may use the “Local Adjustment Brush” to increase clarity. You may further “clean up” the photo by removing the fringes of cyan and magenta that often appear due to chromatic aberration. Back in Photoshop you might also wish to make adjustments to polish the final color tones of the snowflake.

Mr. Komarechka uses several pages to teach these last adjustments. We are still learning ourselves, and space doesn’t permit us to go farther here.

We hope you enjoy plowing into this fascinating aspect of photography—exploring the treasures of the snow one flake at a time. We also invite you to send us your results. We delight in seeing the snowflake photos Nature Friend readers are capturing.

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