When I first opened my copy of Sky Crystals, by Don Komarechka, I was struck by the beauty of the snowflakes, and Mr. Komarechka’s ability to capture that beauty photographically. Furthermore, I was impressed by the detailed instructions guiding other photographers who wish to learn this fascinating aspect of photography.
Previously, my idea of how a snowflake photo was taken included some kind of “perfect” setup, perhaps a camera on some kind of a microscope, then click—photo captured. Not so with Mr. Komarechka’s technique. Among other things, he teaches shooting the snowflake many, many times—even 100 or more times—then focus-stacking the results. His approach suddenly seemed do-able to me. Already, I owned equipment similar to what he used. I did add a battery pack, as I could see the importance of a lot of battery power for the flashes.
The snow was falling rapidly, and the black mitten I held was soon peppered with flakes. I stepped under the shed roof while we inspected the mitten for prospects. Soon we spied a beautiful specimen, and it was time to get busy.
Our set-up included a Canon 1D Mark IV camera with a 180mm macro lens. Between the camera and lens we had a set of Kenco extension tubes for additional magnification. On the front of the lens was mounted a Canon macro twin-lite. (While I am mentioning some specific equipment in this article, many camera and lens combinations can work with this technique. Experiment with the equipment you already have, and have fun.)
We used manual camera settings. First of all, to capture fine details, we chose an ISO of 200. We used an aperture of f/5.0 or f/5.6. The shutter speed was set to 1/200th second. (Ideally, choose the highest shutter speed your camera will sync with the flash.)
Perhaps you are wondering why we chose f/5. First of all, we did because it is the aperture Mr. Komarechka recommended in his book, for someone shooting at 4x life size. He goes on to explain that as magnification increases, the effective aperture also increases. An aperture that is too small can cause problems with diffraction limiting and actually result in a blurry photo. Why this occurs is outside the scope of this article. However, the solution is to open the aperture. Smallest apertures (highest f/numbers) are f/11 for 1:1 (life size), f/8 for 2:1; f/6.3 for 3:1; f/5 for 4:1, and f/4 for 5:1.
A simple way to determine the power of your macro setup is to photograph a millimeter ruler at your highest magnification. Look in your camera’s owner’s manual and determine the sensor size of your camera. If it is 36 mm wide, for example, divide that by the number of millimeters visible on the photograph you took. If you counted 9 mm in the photo, you are shooting four times bigger than life size.
Let’s get back to the snowflake on the mitten before it melts. We had several goals:
- Achieve sharp focus on some aspect of the snowflake, and then shoot a burst of photos. (Our camera could take several frames per second. This is why a big battery pack for the flashes is valuable. Flashes need to recycle quickly.)
- Do this repeatedly, making sure to vary which point of the snowflake is in focus. By shooting lots of photos, and by focusing on the various points of the snowflake, we hoped to capture the photos needed to later make a sharp composite photo.
- Re-run the first two goals.
To focus, we physically moved the camera forward or backward rather than turning the focus ring. We found that by using a monopod, we could get more flexibility than we could have with a tripod, yet have more stability than we would have had by only hand holding the camera.
The sharp focus is not achieved by a sturdy tripod, but rather by the very short duration of the flash of light. This is because the combination of a relatively fast shutter speed and a reduced aperture in the low light of a snowstorm is not bright enough to record a photo, except for the duration of the electronic flash. So, if the flash duration is 1/2000th second, effectively the shutter speed is 1/2000th second.
Something I noticed about Mr. Komarechka’s photographs is that his snowflakes are usually on an angle. He explains why in his book. While glare is often not desirable in photography, with snowflakes it is. The goal is to try to bounce light glare into the lens. So, if the left side of the snowflake is closer to the lens than is the right side, the flash should illuminate the snowflake from the right side of the lens. Only by experimenting can you learn the right angles for your specific setup. This is one aspect of this photography that we did not have the best success with yet. We could see gorgeous glare from natural light, but getting the flash and snowflake angles right to glare light into the lens was a challenge. A flash with a modeling light on allows you to see glare from camera’s angle. I don’t have such a flash—Mr. Komarechka does.
After the boys and I had taken turns photographing a variety of snowflakes, I made a fun discovery. As I was attempting to lift a snowflake off a piece of black Plexiglas to make a microscope slide, I ended up setting the snowflake on two points as if they were legs. Quickly I recognized the opportunity to photograph the snowflake with its reflection. Soon we were taking turns photographing snowflakes with reflections.
When Allen had his turn at the camera, we made another interesting observation. We began to notice miniature icicles beginning to form on the branches of the snowflake he was photographing. The more photos he took, the longer the icicles became. This was possible because the snowflake was standing upright.
On this reflection photo, notice how aspects of the reflections are out of focus. Guess what. We failed to look at the reflection as we focused for photos. By always focusing on the flake, parts of the reflection got missed. We should have continued shooting more photos, and closely watched our focus throughout the reflection area too. Hummm. I’m already getting eager for winter. Maybe while you are curled up in a chair sipping hot chocolate and reading this, we will be out trying again in another snowstorm.