August - hurricanes You are here: Home Techniques Photographing snow crystals and rime


Introduction

Rime, ice flowers and hoar frost are easy to photograph since these structures occur frequently on winter mornings in temperate climates.

Snow crystals are the well-known small hexagonal ice crystals with dendritic structure that are always depicted on anything having to do with winter, (northern hemisphere) christmas, and such. They are not the typical dense white snow that falls from the sky when the temperatures are below freezing - these are called snowflakes. Snowflakes can be large and are conglomerates of snow crystals. Although snowflakes can grow to several centimeters across, snow crystals are generally quite small, typically around 1 mm (1/25") in diameter.

Photographing snow crystals is not difficult, but you need some preparation - and a lot of patience. Apart from the fact that it may not snow very often or for long periods where you live, you need to have all the necessary equipment at hand beforehand.

Equipment

You will need a camera with some sort of macro-lens, able to image an ice crystal of a few millimeter as large as possible on the film format you use. Another easier option is to use bellows between the camera body and a normal lens, for example, a standard 50mm lens. Whichever setup you use, the macro function should have an enlargement factor of around 5 or higher for typical snow crystals imaged on 35mm film. If you use bellows or extension rings, I recommend you to use the camera lens backward. Some camera manufacturers (e.g. Nikon) have special adapters for this.

Other things needed are a steady tripod, a cable release, a table, and a black piece of cloth (linen or cotton) or a piece of black cardboard. This black card can be about 30x30 cm (1 square foot).

To photograph snow crystals as detailed as this you will need to photograph through a microscope. If you have everything inside a coolbox with dry ice you will have more time before the crystal melts, evaporates or rimes. You can also grow such crystals in the coolbox, as was done for this photo.

Photography technique

The simplest method is as follows. While it is snowing, setup the camera on the tripod, facing down to the table. The front lens element must be quite close to the table surface in order to focus correctly.

Lay down the black cardboard or cloth on the table, and look at the crystals falling on it. Depending on the type of snow falling, humidity, temperature, and wind, the crystals may or may not be good for photography. Big, dense snowflakes are conglomerates of crystals and will usually not break up nicely into good samples. It may help to stand near to a house, downwind, where only the lightest precipitation will fall - if you're lucky you will see beautiful hexagonal crystals falling on the black sheet, a millimeter or so in diameter. Other shapes you may see could be needles, columns with or without plates at the end, and hexagonal plates. You may need magnifying glasses to look at these small crystals.

Study the falling crystals, and if you see a good one, shift this under the camera lens and make a photo. You must use a fairly high aperture setting like f/11 or f/16 in order to get adequate depth of focus. But the aperture should not be too small to prevent unsharpness due to diffraction.

For every photo you will need to refocus since the table and the cloth may be irregular, and when doing macro the focal distance is much more critical than usual. Also, it is better to photograph only crystals that are more or less horizontal on the sheet. Repositioning crystals can be done with a small toothpick or brush, but they are very fragile. They will melt or blow away even from your breath.

This is the easiest way to photograph ice crystals and snowflakes falling from the sky. A better way is to use a microscope with a camera adapter for photography, with which you can enlarge the crystal much more and much easier. However, the preparation needed to do this is substantial and expensive. I suggest trying an easy way first, and if you like photographing ice crystals, proceed to better methods.