Isn’t it cool how answers show up in the most unusual ways…when we have burning questions, problems that need solving, or lessons to learn? Allow me to share a story with you…
Call me crazy, but I love freezing my arse off to photograph snowflakes.
In that way, nothing’s changed since the 1980s, when I first started photographing “sky flowers.” I was shooting film back then, and I faced one obstacle after another. For example, Canon hadn’t released the queen of macro lenses, the MPE-65mm yet, so I used a reversing ring to marry a 50mm lens onto the front of a 200mm lens. (To my non-photographer readers, stay with me on this). Though I achieved an impressive 4x magnification (200/50=4), it was not always with impressive results.
They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?
~ Jeanette Winterson
I also dabbled with preserving snowflakes in liquid Formvar resin, which crawls on the surface of the flakes to make a kind of plastic shell, a permanent replica. Later I’d photograph the specimens under a microscope.
Then there were lighting issues. Snowflakes are clear ice. Without decent light, there’s not much to see. Trouble is, if I tried to light up snowflakes with incandescent flashlights, the crystal structure melted like warm Jell-O. High-powered–and cool–LED flashlights didn’t come on the scene until 1999, so I was limited to daylight hours. Even then, beautiful snowflakes didn’t always cooperate (fall on cue) between the hours of 10 AM and 3 PM. Remember, we’re talking short, winter days in Alaska.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
And trying to get everything in focus? Depth of field was an enormous challenge, especially for triple-decker snowflakes, and obstinate ones that landed cockeyed on the glass slide, as if propped up on an elbow. Focus-stacking software such as Helicon Focus hadn’t been developed.
A near-perfect symmetrical snowflake; actually, this is a stellar dendrite (classic-shaped) snowflake. Dendrite means “tree like”, so stellar dendrite snow crystals have branches and side branches. This is the most popular and recognized snow crystal type, sometimes growing to large and extravagant crystals in conditions of high humidity.Then digital cameras came along, and thankfully, many obstacles melted away.
[For those of you dreaming of photographing snowflakes, here’s my current setup: A Canon 5D MarkIII mounted on one end of an extension tube, with a microscope objective (lens) on the other. These days I use LED flashlights to highlight the crystal facets without worrying about melting my subjects.]
I was very excited, thrilled, actually, at the prospect of finally being able to single out, and photograph with confidence, the most perfect and beautiful snowflakes in the world.
Yet, something didn’t feel quite right.
- Were only perfect snowflakes worthy of attention?
- Am I limiting myself?
- Will I overlook something in the process?
- And am I judging nature?
- What does perfect mean, anyway?
Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.
~ Henry David Thoreau
If you’re like me, you grew up believing that all snowflakes were 6-sided symmetrical shapes; like something created by clipping triangles and diamonds from folded paper. So I carried that belief into the field, as I scrutinized a fresh batch of newly fallen snowflakes. I discarded ones that didn’t measure up and photographed just the perfect flakes.
Not any more.
I’ve learned to let go of the myth (and all the expectations) and accept that there is perfection in imperfection. I needed to relax and practice Slow Photography.
It makes me think of a wonderful little book, What the Road Passes By, with photographs by Dewitt Jones, a top professional photographer whose thoughtful columns in Outdoor Photographer kept me renewing my subscription for years.
There are times in my life, sometimes with a camera, sometimes without, when the world is so achingly beautiful, when everything holds such meaning, that I am incapable of any expression except tears of joy. The boundaries of my being begin to blur, whatever separates one thing from another begins to dissolve, and in that confluence of light and line and law, lies an experience for which I have no words.
Sometimes photographers set the bar pretty high in a quest to produce the perfect shot, the Pulitzer prize-winning image. As a result, I think we pass by, not just a lot of great images, but meaningful experiences that are meant to be the rule, not the exception.
The snowflake below is far from symmetrical, but for me, time seemed to stop as I brought this regal beauty into focus.
And this snowflake (pictured below), with its warts, pimples and funny arms…
What do you think, is it any less beautiful in its own imperfect way?
Look, mom, lots or arms! This snowflake is unusual in many ways. For one thing, it’s born of at least two plates, visible at the center, and grew at different rates.Thanks for visiting.
P.S. If you’d like to discover the beautiful, overlooked world of snowflakes, take a look at this article in the Alaska Dispatch News which features my photographs and some tips for snowflake watching.