How To Photograph Snowflakes

If you’re looking for a fun & challenging photo activity for your next snow day, photographing snowflakes is perfect. In this quick guide, we’ll cover the basics of extreme macro photography, what tools you’ll need, and how to capture these tiny ice crystals.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

To shoot snowflakes and capture as much detail as possible we’re going to need to go well beyond the capabilities of standard macro lenses. Normally standard macro lenses are fantastic at rendering small details of items that are a few inches in size with their 1:1 reproduction ratio.  For snowflake photography, we’re dealing with subjects that are much smaller. Because of their miniscule size, the best lens to start shooting snowflakes is the Canon 65mm f/2.8 MP-E Macro.

The Canon 65mm MP-E is unique because it is a pure macro machine. In fact, this lens is basically blind to anything further than 4” away from the lens. What you give up in infinity focusing you gain in the ability to go up to 5x life size with the seemingly infinite rotation of the focus collar. You can get even more magnification by adding the Kenko Extension Tubes to your setup.

Don’t shoot Canon? Neither does our customer Megan Sudden who provided some of her amazing snowflake captures. Megan uses stacked extension tubes, like our Kenko set, and her standard Nikon lenses for many of her shots. You can see more of her work below & on her sites here: meganphoto.com and Kittson County Skies.

Either way, the key is to get as much magnification as possible because snowflakes are pretty small, in the 0.1” to 0.2” inch range. Just to keep things in perspective, a full frame sensor is almost 1.4” across. Without the 5:1 reproduction ratio, your snowflakes would be very tiny and only take up a small portion of your frame like in this picture below taken at 1:1 ratio with the Nikon 105 f/2.8 VR.

SETTING THE STAGE

Beyond your camera and lens, you’ll want some basic supplies handy to act as your background. You don’t need anything fancy; you won’t see much of your background because your depth of field will be razor thin. Dark knit fabrics or wool work well, even a mitten or glove can do the trick!

Dealing with that narrow depth of field is going to be your biggest hurdle. Using a tripod can help isolate some movement but it makes composition much more tricky. Without getting into fancy macro focusing tools, the easiest thing to do is move your snowflakes, not the camera. All that really matters is your end result so if you want to shoot hand held and shoot a lot of frames, go for it!

Finally, since you’re working with frozen ice crystals, you’ll want to make sure they stay frozen. This means you’ll want to shoot outside or under some form of shelter. This will keep you and your gear happy.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LIGHT

Just like anything in photography, the secret to a great photograph is the light. If you’re shooting outside you can get away with natural light. Assuming you’re shooting while its snowing, you’ll likely have overcast skies which will act like a giant softbox.  That light will work for your basic photos, but to get a more dramatic look you’ll want to experiment with your light sources and placement.

This image was shot on the Canon 65mm MP-E Macro with a Canon 5D MKIV (below). Notice just how shallow the depth of field is at these extreme magnifications. Snowflake orientation will play a big role in just how much detail you hold across the flake. 

Here is an example of the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Macro VR with all three Kenko Extension Tubes (below).

Adding some off camera flashes to your setup will give you more control and let you stop down your aperture a bit more as well. You can even use a high powered LED flashlight, just be careful not to get too close as you may melt your subjects.

The key is to have fun (and stay warm). Getting amazing images of snowflakes is the perfect lesson in trial and error. You’ll have to really practice, and experiment with varied weather conditions, before you start making awesome images like Megan Sugden but the challenge is worth it! 

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