Embrace, endure, or leave. Those are pretty much the choices when it comes to winter in Vermont. It is not uncommon for those who stay to find themselves wavering between the first two choices, while those who left are content to look at the pictures.
That’s a lot of snowflakes and, like my daddy always said, “When life gives you lemons, shut up and eat your lemons,” although in this case it’s snowflakes, not lemons.
Group shots of snowflakes can be tricky, especially on a sunny afternoon, but individual portraits are more interesting. The most famous snowflake photographer of all has to be Wilson A. “Snowflake” Bentley, a resourceful farmer from Jericho, VT, who became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885.
Photography has come a long way since Snowflake Bentley hooked up a microscope to his big bellows camera and exposed individual glass plates. Gear was just part of the equation, though. Snowflakes are small, fragile, and temporary, so conditions and technique were also important. They still are, no matter what kind of rig you use. With almost as many camera variations as there are snowflakes in my dooryard, I’ll leave that part up to you. Getting those snowflakes in front of your lens, keeping them there, and having a chance at a decent photo is what this post is about.
Scroll down for more, or just skip it by clicking the photo below to view the new Snowflake Gallery at Nonesuch Mountain Images. Clicking any snowflake photo on this page will take you there.
(I just said this isn’t about the gear but, for the record, I’m using an Olympus TG-4. More on that at the end of this post.)
Snowflake Photo Tips:
→ Go outside! Snowflakes don’t conveniently stick to window glass very often. You need to go to them. Even if it’s just to the porch, deck or balcony, embrace winter and spend some time outdoors. Give yourself plenty of room to work; taking pictures of such tiny things requires a surprising amount of elbow room!
→ I am not your mother but, for goodness sake, dress warmly! Even if you’re just on the porch, deck or balcony, plan on spending a little time out there. Besides, going back and forth, in and out, opening and closing the door all the time because you got cold is just going to get you yelled at.
→ Choose a calm part of the storm. Snowflakes are fragile and break against each other in the wind. They are also easier to catch when they’re not travelling horizontally. Set up out of any breezes to keep your subjects from blowing away and under cover to prevent too much of a good thing from gathering while you shoot.
→ If the snowfall is due to advancing warm air, the best snowflakes will probably fall during the first part of the storm, before a “wintry mix” sets in. If a cold front is sweeping through, the end of the storm may be best, but I take samples throughout the day because the conditions that form snowflakes are found thousands of feet up and even miles away.
→ Choose a background. You can wander around, looking for snowflakes where they land and taking what you get, or you can give them something to land on that you can control. Some people use a piece of cloth or even a coat sleeve but I find the textures and loose fibers distracting. A DSLR allows you to fine-tune the focus but compact cameras that have limited focus control or rely on auto-focus are just as likely to focus on the cloth as the snowflake. Cloth also wicks moisture and snowflakes can get sucked in and distorted.
More power to those who use cloth but, as a nod to Snowflake Bentley, I prefer a flat black background and use a piece of acrylic plexiglass sprayed with flat black stove paint (he used wax, I believe). With seven wood stoves to take care of, I’ve always got a can or two hanging around. Experimenting with other colors might be interesting, as long as they are not glossy and don’t add unwanted reflections.
Working on the porch or just inside the barn, I hold the plexiglass out and collect a dusting of flakes. A few seconds is usually enough to collect a dozen or more specimens. A wipe with a cold, soft cloth clears the surface for another round.
→ Whatever you choose to use as a background, it must be cold and so must whatever you set it on! I keep my plexiglass on the porch and put the table I use out there ahead of time, so it has a chance to become the same temperature as the outside air. A micro-fiber cloth is good for wiping away water drops from any melting.
→ I also bring my cameras out, in their bags or cases, and allow them to come to temperature gradually while I set up. Sudden temperature changes are not good! Keep bags and cases outside with you.
→ With a sampling of snowflakes on my background, I bring it under cover and set it on a
wobbly old table sturdy flat surface. At the magnification needed for snowflakes, the tiniest tremor will register as a catastrophic earthquake. An ill-timed cough and passage of the town snow plow are just two of my excuses.
→ A steady background serves no purpose if the camera moves, so use a tripod and your camera’s built-in timer if you don’t have a remote trigger. Pressing the shutter button causes movement and using the timer will allow the shivers to pass. When using a tripod, turn Image Stabilization off because that sensor, ironically, causes movement.
A GorillaPod® or similar small unit can be used for compact cameras but, when it comes to snowflakes, the sturdier the better.
→ Snowflakes gather, refract and reflect more light than you might expect and I haven’t found a need for supplemental lighting, as long as I’m using a tripod. To avoid the noisy images I get at high ISO settings, I use ISO 100 or 200. I don’t have aperture control in macro settings, which would be more for light than depth of field in these close quarters, so I deal with it later, in processing. DSLR users can tweak away to their heart’s content, but it doesn’t matter what kind of camera or settings you use if things aren’t steady!
→ Working so closely, a single breath can obliterate your subject if you don’t pay attention. It’s also easy to accidentally fog a lens. Hold your breath or turn your head!
→ Once you’ve collected some images or just had enough of the cold, put that cold camera into its cold bag or case and zip it up before you bring it in. Some say to wrap the camera in a plastic bag first but, whether you do or don’t, leave your camera in its bag or case for longer than you think necessary, allowing it to warm up slowly and avoid condensation inside.
(Go take a hot bath, have a cup of tea or do something else while you wait. Maybe read a couple of posts from the archives of The View from Fish in a Barrel Pond, like Vermont Hand Crafted Tenkara Rods or The One About Poop )
→ I use Light Room for processing but I would never attempt to tell anyone else how to use it. I don’t do much more than adjust exposure and contrast, but because I’m shooting in color, I do get some purple fringe and odd prism effects that I either worry about or not. How you process images is up to you, just like which camera you use and how you use it. Have fun!
A broken glass plate or bad exposure cost Snowflake Bentley both his egg money and the time he lost, but digital technology allows us to capture and delete images immediately and at will, using devices that fit in the palms of our hands. He created 5,000 snowflake images over the course of his lifetime, painstakingly composed with a jury-rigged contraption and developed by himself, in his own lab, which is about 10,000 fewer pictures than today’s average American takes of themselves in a year.
No matter how they are photographed, snowflakes remain fascinating, intricate, beautiful and, of course, unique. It’s easier than ever to create images of snowflakes but the underlying principle is the same now as it was 100+ years ago:
Keep yourself warm and keep everything else cold and steady.
Why an Olympus TG-4?
Last year I found myself needing a new water-proof compact camera for knocking about and wanting a macro lens for my Canon DSLR. My budget wouldn’t allow both but the search led me to some reviews of the new Olympus Tough TG-4, which spoke highly of its macro capabilities and showed some of what it could do. It is also shock-proof, water-proof and cold-rated to 14°F (-10°C). It does in-camera focus-stacking in macro mode, live composites for nighttime photos and star trails, and it also has time-lapse and super slo-mo video capabilities.
I like mine very much and you can visit the Olympus Tough TG-4 web site by clicking this link.