Snowflakes. Not only are they minuscule and fragile, there are no two alike. This makes snowflake photography a great, if somewhat challenging, project.
Is capturing snowflakes something you’ve always wanted to do but needed a push? Consider this it.
We have all the information you could possibly need to get those snowflakes sharp, detailed, and awesome.
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How to Do Macro Photography in the Winter
When it comes to macro photography, the winter doesn’t provide us with many subjects. Flowers hide under the snow, insects vanish and all the tiny details disappear.
But the winter months bring snowflakes. This means, snowflake macro pictures. They are as beautiful as they are difficult to photograph. The best thing about them is, you won’t even have to travel far to see them.
(Unless you’re from California or you live somewhere really warm, where the typical winter scene doesn’t exist. Then you’ll have to travel.)
Due to their size (typically 2-5mm across), you will need to get very close to them. This requires powerful magnification and good lighting.
You can use any camera (even a point-and-shoot or compact camera like a Canon Powershot). The only parameter is getting close enough to have that macro lens effect. Most cameras and lenses have a minimum focus length, which needs to be considered.
How you approach the scene will also give you OK or great snowflake photography. Your body heat, especially your warm breath, need to be carefully directed.
What Gear Do You Need for Snowflake Photography
We are looking for a macro image or a macro snowflake. This means that the resulting image needs to be bigger than a 1:1 ratio. This is important for shooting as most macro lenses can only reach 1:1.
This ratio isn’t enough. A 4mm snowflake will take up 2% of the scene when photographing with a full frame sensor.
Extension tubes will allow you to capture a 2:1 scene. These hollow tubes sit in-between your lens and camera, allowing your camera to focus closer to the front element.
These set of extension tubes are by far the most effective and efficient way to photograph snowflakes. Close-up filters also work, just not as well.
We recommend the Kenko DG Auto Extension Tube Set for Canon and Nikon alike.
These filters act as a magnifying glass, and many can be stacked together to further the magnification. They will distort the edges of your image, but you can crop them out later.
The problem with close-up filters is that they interfere with the autofocusing of your subject.
We recommend capturing snowflake photography with manual focus.
You may think that lighting for snowflake photography will be a challenge. With a flash-ring, it becomes incredibly simple. In other areas of macro photography, they are overlooked due to the reflections they give.
We recommend the Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring Lite for Canon DSLRs or the Sigma EM-140 DG Macro Ring Flash for Nikon.
Where it fails for insects, it works well for snowflake photography. Some ring-flashes even have two areas or ‘banks’ that allow independent light strengths.
Some amateur photographers only use one side to light the snowflake pictures. This is down to how the snowflake relates to the light.
Mixed with a correct angle, the light can really make snowflake photography pop.
This will need some trial and error, as even the minutest angle degree change can have the biggest effect.
The background can be anything. Dark backgrounds are best as it allows the easiest separation. Some photographers use their gloves, as they’re readily available (it’s cold outside!).
Different colours can help to make the image interesting, but opt for darker shades.
Metal surfaces aren’t great to use as they are good conductors of heat. The smallest amount of heat turns your snowflake into a water droplet very fast.
How to Get Those Sharp Snowflake Images
Use your background or glove to catch the falling snow. You don’t have to move it, just keep checking it for beautiful snowflake shots.
More often than not, you’ll find small balls of ice called ‘rime’. Wait for the best ice crystals to form. You want big, clean flakes, with as many branches as possible because it will be hard to create that in post-processing.
It is important to photograph them during a snowfall. After that, the air starts to get a little warmer. The snow crystals will start to melt.
If you are using cloth or clothing as a backdrop, you can use this to pick up snowflakes from the ground. They will stick to the material. This is especially helpful in-between snowfalls.
Why Focus Stack Is Your Best Bet
The best way to capture photos of snowflakes is to use the focus stacking method. Here, you photograph the snowflake with different focal points.
When you merge or stack these images together, you create an overall snowflake photography image – all in focus.
You can do this by changing the distance between the camera and the snowflake. Move it slightly toward or away from the subject.
This is important if you are photographing at an angle. Only small parts of the snowflake will be in focus.
Some images may take over 20-30 photographs stacked together. You’ll need patience. Notice we didn’t suggest using a tripod. That’s because a tripod can get in the way.
Having the camera and equipment stationary, it takes a lot of effort for changing the height and angle. With the ring flash, you won’t need one.
Image that your selection process has a ratio of 4:1. This means you need to capture four images to get one that is usable. If your end image needs 20 images, then you need to shoot 80+.
It is easy enough to do, as long as your shooting angle doesn’t deviate too much.
For more help on focus stacking, please read our full article. We also have an article on how to get the best images from this technique.
If you’re brave enough to face the weather, head out there and give these tips a try. And show us your captures in the comments section!