Shooting Snowflakes

Snowflakes are incredible. Perhaps when falling from the sky they might be an inconvenience at best and downright infuriating at worst, but when you take the time to stop and appreciate them individually you start to see the beauty in them. I could, at this point, go on about some metaphor about people but I’d rather continue to talk about the snowflakes.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about winter. I hate the bitter cold, but I love the snow. I especially love the snow when I don’t have anywhere to be, and can sit comfortably by a window and watch it fall, hot chocolate in hand. Snow just adds an element to the landscape that is uniquely northern - trees covered in the fine white powder, fields and streets made white and glittery, street lamps reflecting off the clumps of falling snow. Often I would find myself looking at the flakes that land on my gloves, and getting lost in my inspection of the tiny fractals, like some kind of mesmerized weirdo.

So imagine my excitement once I learned how to properly photograph them.

Photographing snowflakes is not easy, and it requires a high-powered and fairly expensive macro lens. And a lot of patience. And, most importantly, an understanding of the weather. But that’s actually the thing I have found the most fascinating about my time spent shooting snowflakes: I’ve been learning about them.

Snow doesn’t just fall as that picturesque six-pointed flake everyone typically imagines. While it is true that every one is different, there is most definitely a style that most people want to see. And admittedly, that’s what I went looking for when I first started. And one of the first things I learned is that that particular kind of snowflake falls in a very specific temperature range. Generally, it needs to be around -10C, and up to about -20C. It needs to be cold enough to keep the snowflake in its glass-like form all the way down from the clouds above, but not so cold that the moisture doesn’t spread out from the centre. When it gets really cold, the flakes remain much more compact and fairly geometric. But when it’s warmer, say anything from -10C to 0C, the snow becomes much more organic and almost fluffy. Sometimes it won’t even form as a flake but as something called a column or needle.

My point in boring you with types of snowflakes is mostly to illustrate that because of my desire to photograph them, I inadvertently found myself learning about them. I’ll sometimes catch myself studying the weather outside if it’s going to snow and determining if it’d be worth it to grab my camera. And it’s interesting because this is something that photography can do: it can be a gateway to learning new things. In wanting to photograph something like snow, I then had to learn just basic stuff about snow in order for me to even be able to get my first few images. From there, a lot of what I know just comes from what I noticed, and picked up over time. And snowflake photography isn’t the only thing that will do this.

Most people like to learn. And photography is interesting because even if it’s just an amateur with a camera, most people will want to really try and capture the thing they want to photograph as best as they can. And photography, because it revolves around the image, often forces people to have to look at how things work, how they are made, how they exist. I knew more or less how snowflakes work, but the best way I learned how they are formed and how they even exist was once I was looking at them through a camera. In just the fleeting moment I had with it before it melted, I could see all the fine details that were created as it fell from the heavens to land on my staging area. And after seeing that, I was only more encouraged to go looking for more information about them.

Sadly, the winter season is winding down and I likely won’t be able to photograph snowflakes for a while. As a student, I have access to the gear needed to take such close-up images, but I won’t be a student for much longer. The hope is to eventually be able to own the lens and flash unit for myself but until then, I likely won’t be able to do much in that field. But that won’t stop me from admiring the snowflakes that land on me while I wait for the bus, and appreciating all that I learned about them.

Macro Snowflake Cluster