“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.”
-WILSON BENTLEY, Vermont farmer and the first person to photograph an individual snow crystal in 1885.
As anyone with allergies knows, the atmosphere is full of particles of dust, salt, ash. Clouds contain moisture, so when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, water vapor freezes onto the particles. The ice builds up, creating six-sided crystals, their shape determined by cloud temperatures and humidity levels. Eventually, the particles become heavy enough that they fall to earth.
Some land on a bath mat that sits outside Massachusetts photographer Jonathan McElvery’s home – you can see some examples in the pages that follow. McElvery said that his work was inspired by Russian snowflake photographer Alexey Kljatov. “I was very impressed by his images,” he said. “The seed was planted in my brain.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of photographing a snowflake is obtaining a nicely formed specimen; this is easier in some snowfalls than in others. At first, McElvery tried Plexiglas and mirrors, but he eventually found that a frozen plastic bath mat worked best as a collection surface. Once the subject snowflake is found, he photographs it “in situ” as the snow keeps falling around it. He began photographing snowflakes with macro lenses and extension tubes, but now primarily uses one lens back-mounted on another for greater macro effect. Most of the time, it takes a while to find a good snowflake to shoot. “There are a variety of different shapes, some with fine form, and the majority without fine form,” said McElvery.
McElvery uses a digital SLR camera with a zoom or telephoto lens. “I then reverse-mount, using an inexpensive thread adapter, a standard lens to the front of that zoom or telephoto lens,” he explained. “The ratio of the forward lens’s focal length to the reverse-mounted lens’s focal length gives me the approximate magnification of the snowflake I’m shooting. For example, if my forward lens is 200 millimeters, and the reverse lens is 50 millimeters, the magnification on the camera’s sensor is 4X. If the snowflake is one millimeter in size, I get a 4-millimeter-sized image on the sensor. I then often crop my images.”
The subject snowflake is usually one to two inches from the front of the lens, and McElvery, who usually shoots at night, uses small, colored LED flashlights to light and backlight the snowflakes. “I’m constantly jabbing the lens around,” he said, “resting the lens on the shooting surface or propping on a small elevated surface to reduce camera shake, looking and scanning for that perfect snowflake. I’m constantly shifting the flashlights and wiping away the accumulating snow. The depth of field [i.e., the area of focus] of the image is very small, and if I cannot get the angle of the lens to be exactly flat with the snowflake, meaning that only a small section of the snowflake is in focus, I often shoot a few shots, shifting the lens ever so slightly to get other sections of the snowflake in focus.”
Then, using photo-editing software, he is able to extract the focused section of the snowflake from several different images; the composite forms a single, completely focused image.