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Winter Magic, Magnified

Enjoy snowflakes with fresh eyes through macro photography

Written by Angie Payne

Snowflake_Photography_Winter_Payne-Angie
Angie Payne

You don’t need vast landscapes or wilderness to appreciate the beauty of winter. You can explore its frozen magic on a microscopic scale through snowflake photography. Better yet, it will quite literally fall right at your feet, a perfectly-packaged dose of miraculously-miniature architecture in the form of a snowflake. Every year, one septillion — that’s 24 zeroes — perfect little packages of frozen joy are delivered to the world in the form of snowflakes. 

The best news is that when it comes to snowflakes, nature doesn’t discriminate between untouched wilderness and bustling cities. From the highest peaks of the Wasatch Mountains to the sidewalks of Salt Lake City, spectacular frozen works of art drop from the sky anywhere it snows. Snowflake photography offers all the elements of a great adventure, whether you are exploring winter many miles from the nearest trailhead or just steps outside your front door. (Read: “Plan Your Trip: Resorts Near Salt Lake City”)

Start with research and planning (check that forecast, then check it again), add a little anticipation (is that a snowflake I just saw?), throw in the thrill of the chase (hurry, HURRY, shoot a photo before...), a dash of frustration (it melts), and the pure magic of the moment when it all comes together. That’s when you capture a photo of a one-of-a-kind, fleeting work of art (how on earth did nature make that?). (Read: “Why Does Utah Have the Greatest Snow?”)

Best of all, snowflake photography is whatever you want it to be. 

Looking for a meditative exercise in impermanence and non-attachment? Go chase some flakes and you might just catch a dose of inner peace. More in the mood for a gleeful treasure hunt full of childlike joy and amazement? Step outside and crawl around in the snow with a camera in tow for a while. You’ll come back with a renewed sense of wonderment and a whole new appreciation of the natural world. Or at the very least, some beautiful photos. (Read: “A Photographer’s Guide to Mindful Travel”)

A snowflake on a plant at the Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City.

Photo: Angie Payne

Mobile Macro: Convenient Snowflake Close-Ups With a Camera Phone

If you’re curious to get a close-up look at winter’s frozen mini-masterpieces with minimal financial investment, use the camera you already have in your pocket. Contemporary phones take incredible photos, and with the addition of an inexpensive macro lens that fits your specific mobile device, you can gain the magnification you’ll need. What phones lack in built-in lens options, they make up for with convenience. The old adage says that the best camera is the one you have on you — and chances are high your phone will be within reach when the flakes start falling.  

You’ll quickly learn the portion of the photo that’s in focus (the “depth of field”) is very shallow when using phone lenses, so getting an entire snowflake in focus might be challenging. You can work around this limitation by using the razor-thin focus to draw attention to the most spectacular portion of a particular snowflake, or to highlight a tiny snowflake within a larger scene.

Snowflake on cold glass captured with a mobile phone – an example of using a flat surface to maximize the sharpness.

Photo: Angie Payne

Snowflakes on a glass jar captured with a mobile phone – an example of using the shallow depth of field to draw attention to one of the four snowflakes in the scene.

Photo: Angie Payne

If you aren’t satisfied with that look and want to maximize the sharpness of your snowflake shots, find flakes that have landed on a flat surface — like a cold piece of glass, metal or a frozen pond or puddle. Then once you have located a snowflake, position your phone camera parallel to the flake, hold steady, and shoot. 

Using two hands to hold the phone, steadying your hands on something, and shooting in burst mode (if available) are all tips that might help capture the sharpest photo possible. Once you have captured the photos you want, you can make your snowflakes really pop by editing your shots with a mobile editing app such as Snapseed.    

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Snowflake on a purple wool hat captured with an iPhone macro lens called the Olloclip.

Photo: Angie Payne

Elevate Control: Take Your Snowflake Photos to the Next Level

To take your snowflake photography further, a DSLR or mirrorless camera are both great tools. The added control of settings, higher resolution files and extensive lens options will help elevate your snowflake photo game.

A huge advantage that DSLR and mirrorless cameras have over phone cameras is the ability to easily control settings to adjust the shutter speed, f-stop (aperture) and ISO. By tinkering with these settings, you can work to eliminate blur in an image that might be caused by camera shake. These tools can also help you gain more artistic control over the depth of field of your image to create ambiance and evoke feeling by blurring or sharpening the background. 

Shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera gives you added control of settings, higher resolution files and extensive lens options.

Photo: Angie Payne

Snowflakes on a pine needle in Big Cottonwood Canyon, photographed using a specialized macro lens (Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens) and flash.

Photo: Angie Payne

Another important advantage that these cameras offer is the variety of lens options. Because snowflakes are small (really, really small), having a macro lens will give you a better view of the intricate details. A true macro lens offers a 1:1 magnification ratio, meaning that the size of the snowflake in real life is the same as the size of the image projected onto your camera’s sensor. 

In simple terms, a macro lens lets you get a close-up view of the flake and all its detailed beauty. If you don’t want to invest in a new lens, you can spend far less money to buy a reversing ring — a nifty little accessory that allows you to use a normal lens you already own as a magnification device. Another affordable option is an extension tube that works by moving a normal lens further away from the camera’s sensor, thus making the snowflakes appear larger in photos. 

You can expand your quiver of tools with some items you likely already have at home: some wool, glass and a colorful piece of cloth. Wool — in the form of a sweater, hat, sock or mitten — is a great medium for catching and photographing snowflakes. Not only do fuzzy wool fibers catch flakes and keep them elevated for easy viewing, the wool also acts as an insulator to keep the snowflake from melting immediately. 

Snowflake on the fibers of a wool sock shot with a DSLR camera.

Photo: Angie Payne

Glass offers another great shooting surface. A piece from a picture frame or an angular drinking glass will do the trick, if you cool it in the freezer or leave it outside overnight. Letting snowflakes fall on the cold glass will allow you to maximize the shallow depth of field by shooting with your lens parallel to the glass (and thus the snowflake). For an added element of color, place a cloth or paper behind the glass to create an interesting background.

As the magnification increases, you’ll notice that your image gets very dark, very quickly. This lack of light can be counteracted by the addition of a flash, and one inexpensive option that works for snowflake photography is a ring flash. This piece of equipment will illuminate the scene, and it will also allow you to increase your shutter speed (to a point) to more easily mitigate blur from camera shake or movement of the snowflake. 

Potential bonus tip: When it isn’t snowing, put your macro gear to use on other frozen microscopic beauty, such as ice crystals and hoar frost that forms on plants when the humidity is high and the temperature is low. 

A snowflake on hat fibers – an example of a final image that resulted from focus stacking.

Photo: Angie Payne

A melting snowflake cluster on the edge of a leaf – an example of using hand-held shooting to quickly capture snowflakes before they melt.

Photo: Angie Payne

Pro Tips for Macro Buffs

Ditch the Tripod

Maybe you’ve caught the snowflake photography bug and become hopelessly obsessed. If so, there are plenty of options to further elevate your snowflake photography (and spend your hard-earned cash). 

As magnification of a photographic subject increases, it seems intuitive that a tripod might be required to hold the camera steady. However, snowflakes don’t land where they are told to land and have an incredibly short lifespan.  

That’s why I suggest you ditch the tripod and adopt a hand-held method of shooting snowflakes. What you lose in stability, you’ll gain in freedom and quickness of movement. And since you have advanced to this level of dedication to your snowflake photography, you certainly have a flash by now, which will help freeze any motion blur that might result from the elimination of the tripod from your setup. 

Flash This Way

Speaking of flashes, this is a category of gear that can be upgraded to offer noticeable gains in your snowflake photos. Many flashes on the market are designed to be used specifically for macro photography. These offer a softer, more natural look, thanks to increased control over flash position and strength. 

In addition to upgrading your flash, consider upgrading your lens. Specialized lenses offer higher magnification ratios (think 5:1), allowing you to hone in on the teeniest of tiny details that snowflakes possess. While high magnification ratios can also be achieved through less expensive means (extension tubes, reversing rings and combinations of both), “ultra macro” lenses give you all of the magnification power you desire in a sleeker package. 

Consider Focus Stacking

High magnification ratios allow you to see snowflakes in astounding detail, but this enhanced view comes with trade-offs. Namely, depth of field becomes even thinner than razor-thin. Even with apertures in the f/11-16 range, you will be hard-pressed to shoot a tack-sharp photo of an entire flake. Enter the technique of focus stacking, in which you capture many photos of the same snowflake, each with a different “slice” in focus, and combine them in post-processing software for a final product in which the flake is in focus throughout its structure. 

Don’t Forget the Secret Sauce

The most important tool you will need is actually no secret at all. In fact, it will take you fewer than 4 minutes (or 4 seconds) of photographing snowflakes to realize that the most essential tool for creating successful photos of these enigmatic slices of nature can’t be purchased. 

The most critical thing you must bring on a snowflake photo shoot: patience. It will be tested, then tested again. You might even find yourself wondering at moments why you care so much about such a tiny little bit of frozen water. But in exchange for the bouts of frustration and all those snowflakes that got away, you’ll get something that you can’t quite put your (nearly numb) finger on.

There’s a unique feeling that comes when you view something that’s truly one-of-a-kind, something that exists for only a few moments in the vast continuum of time and space. A certain bit of enigmatic something can be encapsulated in that tiny little miracle of nature, and that something is the closest thing to magic that I’ve ever found.

Author Angie Payne exudes patience while on a shoot in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Southern Utah.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Author Angie Payne ditches the tripod in favor of freedom and quickness of movement while on a shoot in Moonshine Wash slot canyon.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Winter in Utah

It doesn’t matter if you are dedicated to downhill action or prefer snow tubing and ice skating, one thing everyone can agree on is spending less time in the car and more time relishing Utah’s legendary snow and winter experiences. With mountains rising over our urban centers, when you get on Mountain Time™, you have more time for these wintry things to do in Utah.

New Things To Do This Winter

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