Getting Started With Snowflake Macro Photography

Photo of a snowflake - snowflake macro photography
One of the most beautiful hexagonal cores I’ve captured so far – snowflake macro photography | Purchase Print

Until recently, macro photography was very secondary to what I do behind the camera. I did it out of necessity, typically for my wildflower guide or my ongoing Water and Ice project. I’m starting to see it as art in itself rather than for purely documentation purposes.

I’ve taken the opportunity this winter to start photographing snowflakes. I’ve quickly learned how difficult snowflake macro photography can be without a proper setup. So far, I only have a handful of snowflake and frost photos, and I’m only “medium-happy” with the results. Each shot took well over an hour to take and process. There has been cursing—a lot of cursing.

It’s been such a difficult process that I’m beginning to plan a small “snowflake studio” that I’ll build at the house over the summer months to get ready for next winter. Luckily, I’ve accumulated so much camera gear over the last 11 years; the only thing I’ve needed to invest in so far is a dedicated macro lens. And as far as lenses go, macro lenses tend not to be very expensive, which is nice. After a few months of research, I settled on the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro, which goes for $399 new. Although I rented it first from Lens Rentals and then purchased my rental copy after deciding I liked it (ended up paying $332 total).

The first few snowflake photos I took were set up by placing a black dog food bag on a chair on the porch. The results were acceptable. Barely. I caught the snowflakes on the bag and then moved them onto the chair under the awning on our porch.

Snowflake with some pieces of other snowflakes attached
Snowflake with some pieces of other snowflakes attached

The issue was that the depth of field at f/5.8 and f/8 is on the order of a couple of millimeters. Even though the aperture goes down to f/22, diffraction is a bit too much beyond f/8 (no fault of the lens, that’s physics). Every bit of motion from adjusting the tripod or my breath on the bag would completely ruin the focus. As much as the setup moved, I had no hope of taking multiple photos to the focus stack. So I was reliant on getting a single shot. The one nice thing about the dog food bag is that it is flexible, making it easier to get the surface nearly on the same plane as the camera lens.

Snowflake melting and capturing water
Melting and capturing water

The air temperature was approaching freezing, so there was a fair amount of water content in the snow and the bag. Still, the entire process took over 3 hours. I brought the bag to the dump the next day so that I wouldn’t be tempted to use it again.

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Water droplets on crystal surface - snowflake macro photography
Water droplets on crystal surface

A few weeks went by before it snowed again. This time I used the car window as the surface, which proved much easier than the dog food bag. At least the subject was motionless. Now I realized how much motion I had with the tripod. Lining up the shot was more complicated when I couldn’t move the subject. Vertical alignment could only be done by adjusting all three tripod legs—cue cursing. Once aligned, focusing was still frustrating. The pressure of my hand on the camera caused quite a bit of movement, so while I could initially get the focus correct, as soon as I moved my hand off the lens, the focus changed. After a while, I could guess how much it would change and get the focus right.

My first snowflake picture on the car window showing stunning structure and symmetry
My first snowflake picture on the car window showing stunning structure and symmetry | Purchase Print

I only managed to get about three decent shots before my frustration got the best of me and my hands were too cold to continue. Because of my issues with focus, it wasn’t possible to get consistent enough shots to focus stack, although I did try with one.

Four images focus-stacked using Hugin to align and enfuse for the stacking
Four images focus-stacked using Hugin to align and enfuse for the stacking

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Realizing I had no good way to solve my focusing problem on hand, I ordered a macro focusing rail. Then it didn’t snow for a while. Once it did, I needed to brush off the vehicles before work and didn’t have time to take photos beforehand. Later, I noticed that there was a single snowflake sticking out of the mess in the snow on our railing. Using the focus rail was like a dream. It still took about 5 minutes to get the photo aligned (it was challenging finding the flake without a contrasting background).

Once set up, it was easy to focus. I held a black glove behind the banister to have a contrasting background. The snowflake was about two days old and showing signs of decomposing, but it still had gorgeous crystalline edges. I managed to get four decent shots and different focal points and stacked the images using Helicon Focus stacking software.

Decaying snowflake
Decaying snowflake
Gorgeous snowflake with large hexagonal core | Purchase Print

I finally feel like I’m moving in a positive direction in this process. Once I refine my technique, I’ll write more about my setup and process. Hopefully, I can help people avoid some of the annoyances I encountered.


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