Snowflakes have become an obsession of mine as an extreme macro photographer, but I never thought I would be able to take it this far: 2,500 hours of work across 5 years, all presented as a single composite photo titled “The Snowflake”:
Depicted in the composite image above are over 400 unique snowflakes, all accurately measured and scaled to that they are all in relative size to one another.
On average, 40 separate images are combined for each individual snowflake. This is required to get the crystal in focus from tip to tip with a process called focus-stacking. Due to the nature of the subject and the hand-held approach to photographing each snowflake, 4-5 hours are spent on each image in post-processing. Why so long?
Each snowflake is photographed on an angle, which allows for reflected light to hit the surface of the crystal and bounce back into the camera lens brightly. If the snowflake was photographed straight-on, the angle would require the light source to be coming from inside the lens itself.
This angled shooting results in only a tiny slice of the subject being in focus, and the hand-held nature of shooting these sky crystals means vertical/horizontal/rotational shifts need to be corrected for. Photoshop can re-align the layers, but it can’t correct for perspective and it has trouble around certain edges when blending the layers; these problems need to be corrected manually.
Measuring snowflakes is a time-consuming task, and the right equipment is needed to get accurate results. Thankfully, a hidden piece of metadata recorded by the Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 1-5x Macro lens makes this possible: the magnification factor. Combined with the physical size of the sensor and the total number of pixels across the sensor, an algebraic equation allows us to calculate the number of pixels per millimeter and measure the crystals.
The process of measuring snowflakes is made more difficult by the removal of certain metadata when editing. The “magnification factor” value is stored in a special area of image metadata called “makernotes”, and can be extracted by tools such as ExifTool. This special section of metadata is removed from the file when processed through any Adobe software (and I’m sure others), requiring me to revisit the original raw files for each snowflake to obtain the proper value.
The largest snowflakes measure just over 11mm in diameter, and the smallest are 0.2mm across. Different storms create different kinds of crystals, some symmetrical but always unique. No two snowflakes falling from the sky will ever be identical. This poster shows the beauty in their variety.
This image not only shows the beauty of winter, but it’s an eye-opening experience when you dive into the details.
The working file on my computer is 12 gigapixels in size, so I could theoretically make 60×90-inch print at 480dpi if I wanted, losing no detail in the process. When working on the file, the computer utilizes over 100GB of RAM, so creating something like this required computer hardware up to the task.
“The Snowflake” is available as a poster print with artist’s proofs available as well.
About the author: Don Komarechka is a nature photographer specializing in macro photography. His work with the subject has been highlighted in international publications as well as being featured in an episode of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. Don is an author, educator, and adventurer with a passion for revealing “the unseen world”. A gallery of his individual snowflakes images can be seen here and his book on the subject here.