A New Gallery and Tips for Photographing Snowflakes

One in a Gazillion

One in a Gazillion

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.

Drifting Among the Drifts

Drifting Among the Drifts

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.

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

(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.

Clear Plexiglass, Painted Flat Black

Clear Plexiglass, Painted Flat Black

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.

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

→ 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.

The Sturdier The Better!

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 )

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

→ 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.

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

Snowflake, Nonesuch Mountain Images

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. 

Categories: Vermont, Winter | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Hoar Frost

Sometimes, even winter holds its breath and, in the cold stillness of a winter night, water vapor changes from gas to solid on contact with chilled surfaces, constructing crystal matrices resembling feathers that last until the sun hits them or somebody coughs.

The adjective “hoary” is sometimes defined as “gray or white, as with age, and in some cases worthy of veneration”. It can also mean “old, overused and trite” but with frost it supposedly refers to the appearance of an old man’s beard.

Old and overused, maybe, but trite?

Old and overused, maybe, but trite?

Tomorrow will have one minute more light than today, and when tomorrow becomes yesterday there will be one minute more as we begin tilting slowly back toward the sun. Meanwhile, it is winter, and even winter can hold its breath.

Yukon Jack, “The Black Sheep of Canadian Liquors” and purported to be the regimental liqueur of the South Alberta Light Horse regiment of the Canadian Army, claims a “taste born of hoary nights…” which probably means it was too dang cold out to go find some better whiskey, so someone mixed what they had with some honey in an old turpentine barrel and hoped for the best.

Something else born of hoary nights is the poetry of Robert Service. There are worse ways to spend the next nine minutes of your life than watching this video recitation of “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:

Categories: nature, Vermont, Winter | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Little Snowflakes

Months of quarrels and quandaries, intrigue and innuendo, distractions, misdirection and outright prevarication finally came to an end and I found myself, one November morning, strangely relieved it was over yet wondering what the heck had just happened. It seemed surreal and nearly beyond belief, but once sober enough for thoughtful reflection, I knew it was very real, indeed, believe it or not.

The adrenaline wore off, shock set in, and I had to sit in order to contemplate the new, horrible, sad reality.

That’s right, friends, another season had come and gone here at Fish in a Barrel Pond.

Fish in a Barrel Pond

Fish in a Barrel Pond

The banshees of winter wail outside the door, the lake froze-over three weeks ago, and anything stuck to the ground now is stuck until spring. The camps are again empty and quiet, smelling only of cold air and anti-freeze in the drain traps. A little happy dance has been done, a nap has been took, and as I catch up on my reading I can’t help but notice that this job, once more, failed to make any major publication’s list of “Best Fly Fishing Jobs!” Continue reading

Categories: Humor, nature, politics, Vermont, Winter | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

From Other Places, Taking American Jobs!

The following item is the result of recent conversations with local activists. Some did not wish to be identified, fearing reprisals for not being “politically correct enough.” A few, however, agreed to be photographed in order to illustrate their plight. We ask that their privacy be respected and remind readers that, while the statements made and opinions expressed by these brave workers do not necessarily reflect the views of the management here at Fish in a Barrel Pond, their patriotism can’t be denied.

“I don’t want to sound racist or nothin’,” said an activist we’ll call ‘Roy’, “but they all look the same to me! It ain’t right.”

“Yeah,” added ‘Myra’, “especially when they’re all in a big group outside the store, practically begging to go home with people. It’s creepy.”

“Just look at ’em!” said Roy. “I think they’re into drugs, too!”

We Know Why They're Smiling

Why Are They All Smiling Like That?

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Categories: Humor, Rural Life, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Same Old Thing

There is a lightning-scarred hemlock on a “corner,” where a small cove projects from the main body of Fish in a Barrel Pond. I know that casting a red humpy into the shade of that tree will often bring a trout rocketing to the surface from six feet down, up the face of a submerged ledge. If a humpy doesn’t do it, a fluttering stimulator usually will.

Down the shore a bit, that same ledge is more exposed, and it’s always worth skating an elk hair caddis over the drop-off on a warm afternoon. Adding a pupa imitation, about 18″ down, can add to the excitement, creating the potential for double hook-ups.

In the gloaming of a late spring evening, yellow drakes can come off so thick that it’s tempting to catch one fish, to show I can, and spend the next fifteen minutes just watching the orgy. Anglers lucky enough to hit the Hexagenia hatch will talk about it for years and if they never hit it again they’ll say things aren’t like they were in the old days.

I am always ready for the ant falls of August, carrying imitations as early as Opening Day, and I like going out on gloomy days because drizzly afternoons bring hatches of blue-winged olives.

blue-winged olive

Stylishly Fringed Wings

It’s possible to scare up a trout or two more often than not and, after ten years of fishing this one small lake and nowhere else, things are sometimes so dialed-in that it almost appears I know what I’m doing. Dark visions fill my head of ending up some earth-bound Mr. Castwell, doomed for all eternity to catch those same fish at the same corner “for ever and ever.” Continue reading

Categories: Fly Fishing, Humor, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

That’s All?

As if surviving at the bottom of a lake or stream, passing through two dozen or more life stages (instars), shedding their skin each time wasn’t enough, mayfly nymphs eventually rise to the surface and shed their skin one last time, emerging as winged adults. Having dodged all manner of fishes on the way, they breathe air for the first time and then fly off into it, also for the first time. Bypassing the traditional insect pupal stage, one morning a nymph is eating algae off a sunken log and that evening it’s flying for its life, trying to get to a bush or a tree before the birds and the bats can get it.

I wonder if mayfly nymphs realize what’s coming and how their lives will change. Would they do anything different?

Mayflies rest and get their bearings after their initial, panicky flight. One might think they’d be hungry after all they’ve been through, but it just doesn’t matter; they have no working mouth parts and couldn’t eat if they wanted to.

Everything's Different Now

Everything’s Different Now

Even after a complete change of form and relocation to another world, mayflies are still not mature. They shed their skin one more time, trading their dull, lightly fringed wings for shiny ones that sparkle like crystal, sometimes changing the color of their bodies, even to the point of becoming nearly transparent. Plus, their sex organs function! All grown up and decked out in new duds, now it’s time to get it on. Continue reading

Categories: Humor, nature, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

Deer Fly

Deer Fly

Deer flies are persistent and their bites are painful. In some places they are important pests of both humans and livestock. Strong fliers, they can move several miles from their breeding grounds in search of a meal or just following their chosen target, waiting for a chance to strike. Males are typically mild-mannered, feeding on pollen and flower nectar; females, however, feed on blood, using two pairs of “blades” to lacerate skin, soaking up flowing blood with a sponge-like tongue.

Some species have iridescent eyes, which almost makes them pretty. After nailing me but good on the arm, this deer fly agreed to sit still and let me take a few close-ups of her eyes. Actually, gripped in the jaws of a pair of pliers, she agreed to nothing, having no choice in the matter.

Deer fly

Look into my eyes…

Continue reading

Categories: nature, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

For Want of a Nail

Beyond dues, assessments and other monetary considerations, there is a price to pay for membership in an organization like the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society. They say a person can’t truly enjoy fly fishing until they have a family of their own to ignore, but ever since the first shower was installed, all those years ago, part of that price has included, at minimum, a weekend at Fish in a Barrel Pond with at least one’s spouse, maybe even the grand-kids.

Not steeped in the lore and traditions of grand old fishing clubs like this, those spouses and extended families are prone to confusion, fear and misunderstandings. It often falls to me to assuage their fears and explain how things are done around here, though I think some anglers harbor secret wishes that that everyone will be so miserable they never want to come back.

This spring I was approached, for the fifth time in as many years, by one of those disoriented spouses I find wandering around from time to time, who said, “Quill, there’s a spider in the shower.”

He was clearly distraught but there wasn’t much I could do since I’d been paid good money to put that spider in the shower in the first place. Continue reading

Categories: +The Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society, Fly Fishing, Humor, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Nearest Fly Shop

The nearest fly shop is not all that near to here and sells a lot of stuff besides flies, but it’s better than nothing, I guess. With a couple hours off and a specific pattern in mind, I motored over the mountain this morning, hoping for the best but willing to settle for a nice drive.

Hay fields and the Battenkill gave way to signs of civilization as the road passed through a golf course, and I once again wondered if golf wasn’t really invented by fly fishers, to keep a certain type of people off the water.

Just past the Range Rover dealership, I turned right, in front of the kind of hotel that has real bellboys stationed at the door, wearing plus fours and argyle stockings. Proceeding through one of those five-way intersections every New England town has at least one of, I was soon at the doors of the closest thing to a fly shop in this neck of the woods.

Above the Doors

Above the Doors

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Categories: Fly Fishing, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pink and Purple Pictures Because People Are Like Pistachios

Some are quite average and run of the mill. Some are pleasant, others merely tolerable, while still others exude goodness and make you wish there were more like them. Overall, as a group, they’re not so bad, even easy to take, but every so often one finds a bad taste in one’s mouth.

A really bad taste. The kind of taste there’s not enough root beer in the world to cancel. Jarring and traumatic, it lingers long after the initial shock has worn off, inspiring great trepidation at the thought of chancing another experience like it and putting one off one’s feed in general.

People are like pistachios. Continue reading

Categories: nature, Rural Life, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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