Looking for a great winter photography project? How about snowflakes? If you live in the Northern tier of states I promise you will have plenty of subjects to shoot.
My snowflake photography setup is based on a system initially designed by Professor Ken Libberecht, a great snowflake photographer — from California, of all places.
The setup is basically a homemade microscope with a camera mount at one end. I use three different microscope objectives depending on the size of the crystals: a 2X, 4X, and a 10X. The 10X is used only rarely for the crazy small crystals.
This whole rig is mounted to a heavy post with a stage to hold the microscope slides on which I capture the snow crystals. This heavy post is necessary not only to stabilize the whole setup, but more importantly, so that I can ensure that the stage holding the snow crystal and the lens are absolutely parallel to each other.
This is very important because, at the magnifications involved with this type of photography, the depth of field (the zone of sharpness in a photograph) is very narrow, about the thickness of a piece of paper. Therefore, if things are not lined up just right, all of the arms of the crystal will not be sharp.
While technically speaking, everything about this type of photography is a huge challenge, I have found the lighting to be one of the toughest hurdles. Because I am trying to photograph an exceedingly tiny, virtually clear sliver of ice, the lighting is critical. It must not only give the image some depth but also highlight the different facets of the individual crystals.
In addition, the lighting cannot give off any heat or it would instantly melt my chosen subject, an obvious problem.
After many failed ideas, I came across a lighting system that uses fiber optic light pipes to focus an intense beam of light. These lights transmit very little heat and have the added benefit of being flexible as well.
I use two of these fiber optic lights (four arms). One set shines up from below through a diffuser and then through two colored filters. These colored filters become the background of the final image as well as putting some colored highlights in the final image. The second set of light pipes shine down from above and have colored filters as well as tissue paper diffusers on each of the light heads. These two lights are individually fine tuned to highlight each snow crystal’s particular facets and help give the image some added depth.
One of the things I love about what I do is that I never know where things will lead. During the course of this project I built a microscope, learned about optics, light diffraction, and fiber optics, not to mention learning more than any normal person should know about snow crystals and how and why they form.
All of this happened because one day I woke up and decided I wanted to make a pretty picture of a snowflake.
About the author: Steve Gettle is a nature photographer based in Brighton, Michigan. He has won multiple awards in the BBC’s prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.