How to Photograph Snowflakes
You would be hard pressed to find a human being that doesn’t like the serene and calming atmosphere brought on by snow when it covers the land in the winter time. A snowfall is a very common occurrence for our planet, but snowflakes themselves hide an even more fascinating design within their structure, the one invisible to our eyes.
If you observe a snowflake through a microscope or using a camera with a lens modified for extreme macro photography, you will clearly see how it’s made of many detailed crystal structures combined together and that it could be described as a beautiful piece of art or jewelry.
What’s also impressive about snowflakes is that none of them are alike and each has a different looking structure. The aim of our guide is to introduce you to the most popular techniques and methods of photographing snowflakes and provide you with a springboard for you to jump off into this fascinating area of photography.
What kind of gear is the best to photograph snowflakes?
Since we are delving into the area of extreme macro photography, regardless of the camera body you decide to use, a macro lens with a magnification of at least 1:1 will be required to get you close enough to even attempt photographing snowflakes.
You will also need something more to increase your minimum focus distance. The best option would be to get extension tubes. These are placed between the lens and the camera body and will allow you to focus even closer on a snowflake and really reveal those impressive crystalline structures in as much detail as possible.
They will also reduce the amount of light reaching your camera, so you’ll need external lighting. This is where a macro flash ring comes into play. It’s a circular LED light that attaches at the front of your lens and will enable you to illuminate any smaller subject in front of you and naturally, any snowlake you decide to photograph.
When it comes to choosing the right camera body, a sensor size won’t matter much in terms of image quality, since any modern DSLR or a mirrorless camera will be perfectly fine for the job and you’ll be shooting at low ISO values and with a lot of light available to you, either of the natural or the artificial variety.
Is a tripod necessary for snowflake photography?
It’s not always needed for photographing snowflakes, but in the case of our guide, which will touch on the topic of focus stacking, it is a requirement. Focus stacking is a technique of combining multiple images, with each of them focused differently, into one photo with much greater depth of field.
Since snowflakes are so tiny and large magnifications are required to get a photo where all of their details are clearly visible, the depth of field ends up being very thin and getting an entire snowflake sharp and in focus becomes an impossible task with a single frame. So, the aforementioned focus stacking comes to the rescue.
After you mount your setup on the tripod and you choose your perfect angle, adjust your exposure by keeping the aperture at around f/8. Now, use the live view mode and focus magnification to put your focus point on the closest part of the snowflake. After you’ve done so, take a shot and focus on the blurrier part next to the part you’ve previously focused on.
Take another photo and keep repeating the same process until you’ve passed the entire surface of the snowflake. Don’t worry about the number of photos you’ve taken, the more the better. All that’s left to do is to combine them in the photo editing software of your choice, which will align them automatically for you and you’re done.
Framing and creativity tips
The first thing about framing snowflake shots that you should keep in mind is finding a background dark or colorful enough to separate them more easily from the rest of the photo. A simple winter glove will do, but also the leaves on the ground or the ground itself will do the trick.
Also, make sure that you photograph snowflakes in a cold enough environment to prevent them from melting too fast. Try not to breathe too close to them and especially don’t try to shoot them at home. You’ll need to stay outside on this occasion. Doing it all during a snowfall will give the best possible chance to capture them successfully..
It will also enable you to use the rest of the snow on the ground as an additional background detail, instead of capturing only a single snowflake each time. As an additional advice, don’t waste all of your time trying to find the right composition like you would for different types of photography. Instead, use the limited time you have to capture blur free and sharp photos.
How to correctly expose snowflake images
Since you’ll be using a tripod and external lighting most of the time, there would be little reason to bump up the ISO to anything more than 100 or 200, depending on the base ISO value of your camera body. It’s always better to increase the intensity of your lighting setup or lower the shutter speed and keep your photos as clean as possible.
In regards to aperture, it’s best that you keep it at around f/8. That will give you a fine balance between depth of field and optimal sharpness, but also reduce the effect of some flaws like vignetting or aberrations that your lens could exhibit at wider apertures at such high magnification.
When it comes to shutter speed, just pick the fastest one you can, so you can give yourself enough time for focus stacking before the snowflakes melt away. Increase the light intensity of your light source, no matter if it’s a ring or traditional flash and you’ll be able to fast enough shutter speeds to avoid any blur in your images, especially if you decide to use a tripod.
If, however, you don’t plan on using a tripod and you want to try your luck in shooting handheld, make sure that you pick one of those rare sunny winter days, so you can have as much natural light as possible available to you.
Editing and color correction guide
When editing snowflake photos, first and foremost, be sure that their overall brightness is just right and that the light that was bouncing off crystals and snow particles isn’t too intensive. Make sure that the intricate details are shown well and not buried in a sea of white light.
If necessary, reduce the black levels and the contrast to make each of those small details more distinctive, but without making the images pale and lifeless. Adjust the white balance if the snowflakes look too blue or too yellow and the colors in general if they don’t look right to your eyes. Try to achieve a cool and calming effect, nothing too flashy or colorful.
Add some sharpening and noise reduction to your taste and apply a level of cropping to your snowflake photos if you were unable to focus close enough and your camera has enough megapixels to leave you with a decent resolution after the fact.
Now that you know the basics of photographing snowflakes and you have all the information you need in regards to picking the right gear, focus stacking, framing and composition, exposure and editing, you are ready to explore the magic world of nature and observe the snow in a whole another way.
If you are the one of the lucky ones to live in the part of the world that is covered in white all of the time or just a couple of times of the year, don’t be afraid to go out, put on some warm clothes and battle the lower temperatures. It will all be worth it from the first time you gaze at the inner beauty of a snowflake and see it in all of its glory on your screen.