How to Photograph Snowflakes: A Step-By-Step Guide

by John Stapel

a guide to photographing snowflakes

Snowflake photos look absolutely gorgeous – but if you want to create stunning snowflake macro photography of your own, where do you start? How do you record a tiny snowflake with all its beautiful detail?

I’ve been photographing snowflakes for years. And in this article, I’m going to reveal everything you need to know to capture photos just like mine, including:

  • The perfect snowflake gear setup
  • How to get an entire snowflake sharp and in focus
  • The best time to do snowflake photography (this is critical!)
  • Tips and tricks for great results

By the time you’re finished, you’ll know how to photograph snowflakes like a pro – and you’ll know the perfect list of gear to get started.

Snowflake photography gear

Before you can photograph snowflakes, you’ll need to assemble a specialist setup.

The camera and lens

The average snowflake is around 2 mm to 5 mm across, so filling the frame – which I highly recommend! – will require powerful magnification.

Any camera can work, as long as it has interchangeable lens capabilities. But you’ll need to set up your lens to go beyond 1:1 magnification, so you must have at least one of the following items:

  • A specialized macro lens with 2:1 (or greater) focusing
  • A set of extension tubes
  • Close-up filters

Any of the above can work, but note that most macro lenses don’t reach 2:1 magnifications; before buying, you’ll need to check the specifications (otherwise, you won’t be able to fill the frame).

Personally, I’m a fan of the extension-tube option, which will often get you close to 2:1 magnification. Extension tubes are hollow and sit between the camera and the lens, like this:

snowflake photography camera setup

They don’t require any specialized knowledge, plus they don’t include glass, so you don’t have to worry about sharpness issues.

Close-up filters are another good buy; they act like reading glasses for your camera, and you can stack multiple together for increased effect. Unlike extension tubes, close-up filters may cause optical problems – I find that they cause the edges of the frame to get distorted – but they’re cheap, and when photographing snowflakes you’ll probably be cropping out the edges anyway.

Also, close-up filters do interfere with the autofocus capabilities of most cameras, but you’ll be doing your snowflake photography with manual focus, so this won’t be an issue.

two snowflakes together

Lighting

Lighting a snowflake may seem like a challenge, but it’s actually pretty simple: use a ring flash. Ring flashes mount to the front of your lens, so you won’t cast shadows on the subject, and they’re perfect for creating artistic snowflake illumination.

Most ring flashes (I use a Canon MR-14EX) let you control two banks of light and make one brighter than the other. I like to dim one bank, then use half the flash to light each snowflake. Note that the angle of the camera makes a huge difference, and getting the right angle can drastically alter the outcome.

Below, I’ve placed two snowflake photos side by side. See the difference? The camera angle was only a few degrees off, but one snowflake looks milky, while the other is transparent.

how to photograph snowflakes making angle adjustments

It takes lots of experimentation to find these perfect angles, and I sometimes even use a small paintbrush to nudge the snowflakes in the right direction. (I try to avoid this as much as possible, however, because the crystals often shatter when manipulated.)

The background

Technically, you can photograph snowflakes on many different backgrounds.

But every single one of my snowflake photos – including all the shots in this article! – are made on the same old black mitten. It’s an essential component of my setup, for a whole host of reasons.

black mitten for snowflake photo background

For one, the mitten creates a dark background for the snowflake, which produces some stunning contrast. Plus, the mitten offers insulation – the ice gets caught in the fibers and only makes contact at a few points, so minimal heat gets transmitted along and the snowflake remains solid.

Finally, the mitten helps isolate the snowflake on a sea of black. (Yes, every shot has a number of woolen fibers present, but these are far easier to edit out than a flat and detailed surface like felt!)

Bottom line: Get a mitten! It doesn’t need to be black, but I do recommend you stick to dark colors (so you can maintain the contrast I discussed above).

How to photograph snowflakes: the step-by-step process

In this section, I’ll explain the ins and outs of photographing snowflakes.

Step 1: Find the right flakes

First, wait until it starts to snow.

Then take your dark mitten and set it outside. (Don’t wear the mitten; you don’t want to facilitate heat transfer!)

Watch the mitten, and once a few snowflakes have landed, take a closer look. You want snowfalls of the “beautiful” variety, not balls of ice or crystals covered in frozen water droplets.

Different snowfalls will produce different types of snowflakes. You may need to set out your mitten for a few snowfalls before you find the best crystals for photography: big, clean snowflakes with lots of branches, as displayed below.

snowflake photo

It’s very important to photograph the snowflakes during a snowfall. So as soon as you find the right snowflakes, get shooting. If you wait even one hour, the crystals will begin to melt or sublimate (i.e., evaporate without melting first), and the sharp crystal edges will soon disappear.

If you’ve just missed the snowfall and you’re not sure whether you have time to shoot, try placing the mitten on freshly fallen snow, then pick it up again; the fibers will catch the fallen snowflakes and you’ll have a chance to photograph a few before they deteriorate too far.

Step 2: Capture a series of images for focus stacking

Once you find the right snowfall and the right snowflakes, you’ll need to shoot with the goal of focus stacking your shots.

What do I mean by this? Focus stacking is a technique where you take multiple frames of the same subject at many different focus points, then combine them in post-processing for a final, in-focus image.

So when photographing a snowflake, simply move the camera forward and backward while firing off a series of images. (Burst mode is helpful; the key is to take enough images that every part of the snowflake is in focus in at least one shot.)

You see, at such high magnifications, only a tiny sliver of your snowflake will be in focus at any one time. A single snowflake shot looks like this:

one of many snowflake images that go into a final focus-stacked shot

But then, with enough shooting and a bit of focus-stacking magic, you’ll end up with a shot like this:

focus-stacked snowflake image

The top image is one of 33 shots used in the final composition. The process of combining the frames is lengthy, in part because every image is done without a tripod – they’re all handheld. In fact, I take far more frames than I’ll actually use, and the 33 frames I stacked were selected out of 112 in total!

Why don’t I use a tripod? Well, getting a tripod set up to exactly the right angle and adjusting a focusing rail to get everything perfect takes a significant amount of time. I need to work quickly to be sure the snowflake won’t melt, blow away, or get smothered by more falling snow. And Photoshop does a pretty good job realigning the files, as long as the camera angle doesn’t deviate too much from shot to shot.

So instead of painstakingly setting up a tripod, I find the snowflake, I adjust the angle of the camera to get the desired reflection by taking test shots, then I get shooting.

Pro tip: Make sure you photograph at an angle; that way, you can bring out surface reflections, prismatic colors, and even vibrant center colors like this:

tiny snowflakes at 6:1 magnification Snowflakes measuring roughly 0.4 mm in diameter, photographed at 6:1 magnification and cropped significantly.

Step 3: Process the files

I’m not going to spend too much time discussing snowflake editing. It’s the most routine, unoriginal part of photographing snowflakes, and it’s pretty simple once you get down to it.

Start by stacking your images (you can use Photoshop, or you can try a dedicated stacking program, like Helicon Focus).

Next, take your stacked image and edit it like any other shot. Crop to emphasize the snowflake, remove distractions (such as wool from the glove), then adjust the exposure and contrast to make the snowflake pop.

Have fun, experiment, and you’ll end up with a great final result!

how to photograph snowflakes

How to photograph snowflakes: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some stunning snowflake shots!

So acquire the necessary equipment. Find a dark mitten. And then, the next time it snows, get ready to shoot!

Now over to you:

What setup do you plan to use for your snowflake photography? Have you had any successes? Share your thoughts (and images!) in the comments below.

How to Photograph Snowflakes: A Step-By-Step Guide