11 pm. The last of the lake effect snow bands passed a few hours ago. Since then the sky has cleared. A full moon hangs overhead, and the stars shine clearly, as they only can on a cold winter night.
I don’t know where they come from, but every now and then a snow crystal tumbles out of the sky. The crystals that are falling now are large – some are over ½ inch in diameter – and they spin and tumble as they fall through the sky. Stand with a plate of glass, watching for falling crystals. When I spot one falling I run over to it and try to catch it in on the glass plate. It’s sort of like playing ping pond with a glass paddle and a ball the size of pea.
Every now and then I’m successful, and take the captive snow crystal into the garage to get a shot of it. The crystals falling out of this clear sky are big, complex, symmetrical and rich. The way that they spin and tumble in the air as they fall to earth is almost as fascinating as their structure.
Ultimately, around midnight, with the temperatures dropping into the teens, I call it quits. The clear sky has stopped sharing, but I’ll be back for the next round…
Peering into the camera’s eyepiece, I spy the snow crystal. One the first of this season – it greets with twelve arms held out in an icy and ridge embrace. Personification of the cold indifference of the universe, and yet a welcome sight after all these months.
Yes – it been cold here in south west Michigan. For the last week or two a dusting of snow has stubbornly clung to the ground. It’s hard to believe that just three weeks ago I walked in shirtsleeves in summer-ish fields. Now I don my old black parka before venturing out of doors. Summertime’s flip-flops sit unused in the mudroom, as I step into leather shoes before treading into the slushy mush outdoors.
Yah – it’s winter. It came up fast.
For a few days now I’ve dodged the inevitable. It’s cold. It’s snowing. I need to get out and shoot some snow crystals. I never got around to dismantling last season’s setup, so tonight I went back into the garage to get things going again. The table-top tripod, 50mm macro less, extension tubes and bellows were all as I had left them. I had snapped lens caps in place when I last used them, so every ting was still pretty clean. I wash the glass plates that catch the snow crystals, wipe off of the table, hook up the camera and flash, and everything is ready for another year.
Well, everything except the temperature… The first snow crystals I collected melted into tiny droplets of water when I brought them into the garage. I pulled the thermometer off it’s bracket outside of the dining room window. There it read 20 F, but inside the garage it soared to a balmy 34 F.
Looking around me, I realized that the garage was warmer simply because it trapped warmer air. I found a box fan – normally used in hot summer months – and set it up to blow cold air from the garage floor up into the rafters. I probably introduced more stress into the lives of the mice who live up there, but within an hour the temperature in the garage had dropped from 34 down to the mid 20’s - which was good enough to get going with a few snow crystal shots…
By then the snow was thinning out, and shortly after I got started working in the now cool garage the snow stopped altogether. But, it was enough to get me back into gear and I’m ready for the next storm – which, according to the weather forecasters – should be coming along any time now.
So here is the first snow crystal shot of 2008/2009 – a twelve armed crystal. Hopefully, more will be coming.
March is a funny month. The saying goes “in like a lion, out like a lamb” but in reality is more like “Surprise! It’s winter again!”
At least that is how it felt last week, when nearly a foots of sleety powdery snow fell on Good Friday. Followed, of course, by warmer weather, crocuses pushing up through the ground, and then more snow and sleet…
This was probably the last opportunity for snowflake photographs this season, so I gave it a whirl. Nothing but dusty bits of sleet and ice. Oh well – if you can’t be with what you want to photograph, you may as well photograph the thing you’re with (to mangle an old saying)…
Dusty bits of sleet and ice. In past years I’d have a shot of a bee or two by now. Well, that’ll come…
Despite record or near record snows here in west Michigan, this winter has been a poor one so far for snow flake photography. The bits of dust and sleet that have fallen by the foot is just not photogenic.
Monday night was typical. Another 3 to 4 inches of snow fell, but the temperatures rose to the mid thirties as it came down. It was far too warm for snow flake photos, and the flakes themselves were way too sleety.
So I was happily surprised Tuesday evening as the temperatures dropped and a gentle flurry of snow blew into the area. For almost an hour well formed flakes fell and the temperature hovered in the mid 20’s. I was able to snake what may be the only acceptable snow crystal photos of the this season – historically, after February the odds of getting some good shots drop off dramatically.
Photos from this session:
Let’s start 2008 off on the right foot – and here in Kalamazoo, that would be a foot of snow!
New Year’s eve brought the onset of a heavy, driving, wet snow. It looked great on the tree branches and power lines, but the temps hovered around the freezing point, too warm for snow flake photographs, even in the open and unheated garage.
A steady snow fell through New Year’s Day – but still it was too warm with the air temp just at the freezing point.
Finally, at about 10 p.m. the temps dropped just a few degrees. The wind picked up and a near white out snow started. The temps stayed down for a few hours, and while the snow wasn’t ideal – still too effervescent – but good enough to work out a few shots.
The day after Christmas finds me in an almost bare storefront. The 2007 Signature Gallery has come to an end, and my fellow co-op members have been diligent in moving their work out. Now it’s my turn as I start packing up the bins of matted prints and taking down the framed photos on the wall.
One of the best things about my end of year participation in both Signature and the Art Etc Art Fair is the great injection of feedback and input from people who stop, look, and (sometimes) buy prints. A few reflections on this year…
There were a lot of requests for and comments about B&W photography – I think more than in past years. Maybe it’s a backlash against the omnipresent digital color work out there. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw with regards to the people I chatted with. Either way, it gets me more fired up to get out and shoot some B&W film. Heck, I may even go back and look at the several hundred B&W exposures I shot last summer and fall, but so far have done nothing with…
I was also happy to see Imperfect Symmetry, my snow flake book, doing well in the gallery and at Art Etc. Between the two several dozen copies of the book were bought, and it was particularly heartening to see folks who bought it coming back to get additional copies to give as gifts. I guess there is something about a book that makes you want to hold it in your hands before it seems to be compelling.
Apparently, lots of people like dragonflies and other insects! As usual, I probably over did it on the dragonfly prints, but I was happy to see the number that went out the door.
So that’s it for another year – time to get busy working on some new images!
10:45 on a Saturday night. I’m resting on the couch, the dying embers of once hot fire glow nearby – the residual warmth of the fireplace filling the room. The Christmas tree is lit and the holiday decorations are up. The credits roll on the television… and I peek out the window…
The forecasters have been calling for this – and it is December after all. So I don a pair of flip flops and step out into the 20 degree winter air, throw open the garage door, and grab a piece of glass to test the snow crystals. They look good, so it’s time to get to work.
I’ve been preparing for this for a while. The tripod with macro rails, bellows, and extension tubes, has sat on the table in the garage all year. A few weeks ago I cleaned up the table, and just this day I washed up the glass squares, bought a bit of blue plastic (a report cover) and mounted the lens on the end of the extension setup. Not much to do now – I gather together the flash, ttl cords, and *ist-D camera, and head out into the cold.
Ultimately, the snow disappoints. In the course of a couple of hours the crystals range from small, well formed but irregular; to huge, half inch specimens; to puffy bits of sleety powder. But it was a good session still – though none of the shots are first rate, the system is in place. Come the next snow, I’m ready to just start shooting.
Here is a photo of the snow crystal photography rig that I use. Not high tech at all.
In a nutshell, you have a small tabletop tripod, a set of macro focusing rails mounted on that, and a bellows set mounted to the rails. Extension tubes snap onto the bellows. The setup in the photo was for the huge, half inch crystals, so the bellows are scrunched down and the unused tubes are on the table. For smaller crystals the bellows would be fully extended and more tubes (many times what is shown) would be added.
On one end of the tubes/bellows is the digital SLR – a Pentax *ist-D in this case. At the other end of the tube is the optic – a Pentax M Series 50mm f4 macro. It is a bit slow, but the lens is devilishly sharp.
A flash is hooked up to the camera via TTL cables. The flash lays on the table pointing up into the coffee can. The lid to the can is inside it, acting as a diffuser. A piece of blue plastic is repositioned to change the coloring of each shot. It’s not visible, but in the photo above it is just pressed against the side of the can. The two-by-fours hold the can up enough for the flash to be snuck under it.
The camera is just set to manual mode. Shutter speed is 1/125, aperture is manually stopped down to f11 to f22. TTL flash takes care of the exposure.
Snow crystals are caught on the glass plates (look closely, you can see them) – the cool fluorescent lights make everything bright enough to focus the images. On the table is the level that’s used to line things up – the glass plate and the film plane in the camera. You could spend a lot of time trying to find a level table, but it’s all relative so I let everything be tilted, just tilted in harmony.
While this is not a very high tech system, it is a far cry from my first snow crystal setup which was built around a Pentax Spotmatic and manual flash - with exposure controlled by adjusting the flash to subject distance. Some fun back in the film days, lo some 8 or 9 years ago. The snow is in the air, outside, far left of this image… And that’s it… let’s hope for more snow, and more snow crystal shots.
Additional Notes, February 2016:
I still refer people to this post when they ask about my snow crystal setup, so here’s an update regarding some advancements in the process.
Manual flash vs TTL: Newer Pentax bodies no longer support TTL flash when using a reverse mounted lens - the newer P-TTL system requires the lens to be mounted and communicating with the camera body. I now use manual mode and just do a few test exposures to determine the correct setting for the lens.
Aperture: These days I only stop down to f5.6 or sometimes f8 to avoid the effects of diffraction. Back in 2007 I was stopping down too much, chasing depth of field but also getting softness in the images.
Shutter Speed: Shutter speed is set to X-Sync, which is the fastest speed that will work with flash. This setup is gangley and prone to vibrations, so I prefer to work at night and drop a piece of black foam core in front of the two lights that are there to help with focusing. I use an IR remote on the 3 second delay to minimize vibrations. That plus lighting the subjec tonly with flash minimizes motion blur.
Focus stacking: With a more open aperture and less depth of field I sometimes use focus stacking but that is the exception - the crystals are pretty flat as it is.
Lighting: I no longer use a diffuser on the flash and now use one or more lenses from colored LED lights to add color to the images.
The camera, lens and flash unit have been continuously updated updated over the years, but otherwise, the basic setup shown above is still in use. I’m using the exact same tripod, bellows, extension tubes tubes and coffee can. This rig actually dates back to circa 2000, when I was shooting snowflakes on slide film.
The biggest challenge remains finding well formed snowflakes. That, and staying warm!
Click here for a gallery of my 100 best snowflake photos.