With the impending reality of white death rearing its ugly head upon the Ohio Valley, I gathered my gear, strapped on my boots and waited for the perfect photographic moment which would allow me to capture all that was magical about winter. Dancing snowflakes became the perfect photographic fodder for the dreary day.
Alright, enough with the dramatics! But I will say I was super excited about the snowfall that happened on Friday. Armed only with the Olympus TG-2, a flashlight, and a MeFoto tripod, I headed outside soon after the snow started to fall. "Seriously?" you ask, "You are only taking a little rugged camera with you do this intensely detailed work?" Yes and here's why: this small, $330 point and shoot camera has the most amazing macro functionality I have seen at this price point. Actually, it's some of the most amazing macro functionality I have seen on almost any standard camera. It's like macro mode on steroids!
Although this how-to article is not an advertisement for the Olympus TG-2, it pretty much sells itself as the best way to capture snowflakes with great detail, good clarity, maximum portability, and with less expense than any other photographic tool you could use. Plus, you never have to worry about snow, sleet and rain on your camera. It's waterproof to 50 ft!
Shown below are a few examples of what I was able to capture with the Olympus TG-2. These images have been retouched to add sharpness and clarity, reduce grain, and/or enhance color.
There are plenty of other cameras and lenses that can capture macro imagery. You don't have to have the Olympus TG-2 in order to capture these stunning images. However, since most other cameras and lenses don't have the same powerful super macro mode as the TG-2, you will probably have to spend some extra time in post production software cropping your images to enhance the detail and make the snowflake appear larger.
How to photograph snowflakes in macro mode:
- Use a camera and/or lens with the most powerful macro mode available. I highly recommend the Olympus TG-2 because it makes the job a gazillion times easier. While you are at it, grab a tripod, flashlight and gloves, too.
- Newly fallen snow is the best subject for shooting snowflakes in macro mode. Once a snowflake has begun to melt (even slightly) it loses its shape. Warmer temps or even the sun can dissolve the flake into an odd shape. I even started to melt a few flakes with my flashlight. These guys are fragile and they easily thaw.
- Individual flakes are much prettier to photograph than a mass of flakes. Try to find individual flakes. In the first two images, I was able to find individual flakes that had landed on a thin layer of ice on top of my grill cover. I also took a blue fleece blanket and held it outside to catch some flakes as they fell. It worked and my last two images came from this blanket.
- I was able to use my naked eye to spot some cool snowflakes, but this is not easy. The "live view" mode on the camera's LCD can help you locate snowflakes. A magnifying glass is also a good idea, but be careful not to use it in the sun. That's the fastest way to melt your muse. Magnification (or reading) glasses could be helpful, too. These will not melt your snowflake, but can be challenging to navigate if you are not used to them.
- If you are using the Olympus TG-2, set the camera to macro mode (flower image) on the mode dial. Then, "zoom in" by using the T (telephoto) button. You can either stop at 4x zoom or go all the way to 8x. I generally advise against using the extended zoom, but in this case I used it quite a bit. The 8x zoom makes traditional macro photography turn into microscopic photography. If you are using other cameras that have macro mode, the set-up is almost identical. Locate the macro mode and zoom in to its most telephoto setting if possible. You can also use a macro lens with a mirrorless camera or DSLR to capture these images.
- Patience is an important virtue with macro photography. If at first you don't succeed in capturing accurate focus, try again. I love shooting macro because it forces me to slow down and really think about each shot. Grabbing sharp focus can try one's patience, but the results are totally worth it. In darker environments the focus will take longer to acquire. Again, be patient with the camera. It's really hard work for the AF system to grab focus when the image is being magnified to this degree.
- After capturing a few traditional looking snowflake images, I decided to pull out the flashlight and play around with my lighting. I used sidelighting and backlighting to make the scene more dramatic and interesting.
- Post production was a necessity with these snowflake images. Because I used the 8x zoom on the Olympus TG-2, the snowflakes images were a bit softer out of camera than I like. Sharpening the images can be done in almost any post production software. I just sharpened the edges and added some contrast. On some of the images, I also removed some grain due to higher ISOs.
The best thing about photographing snowflakes is that each snowflake is different. I was blown away by the distinctive characteristics of the flakes and mesmerized by their patterns. Capturing the unique qualities of each snowflake is just as interesting as capturing the unique qualities of each person. Now, instead of dreading the impending snowfall, I see it as another opportunity to increase my macro portfolio!