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Don Komarechka
Nature & Landscape Photographer, Teacher, gadget geek. :)
Nature & Landscape Photographer, Teacher, gadget geek. :)

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Branching Out
For those that might have missed the narrative in yesterday’s snowflake post, I figured this should be seen on its own: a 20:1 super close-up of just a single branch of a snowflake, shot handheld and focus stacked.

The resolution of details in this version of the snowflake is more than double when compared to my 12X setup, due in part to greater magnification and part because diffraction is playing less of a role here. Both of these help with the details, but it’s also the reason why most people don’t think shooting this kind of image handheld is even possible.

When you get closer to your subject, your depth of field becomes shallower. The difference would absolutely be noticeable here, pushing the number of focus “slices” up. Only a tiny sliver of the snowflake is viewable at a time, and the closer you get the smaller it becomes. This isn’t the only factor that affects depth of field, however. We also have to be concerned about aperture.

The way a microscope objective collects light doesn’t usually involve an aperture (also referred to as an iris or a diaphragm). One can be added just behind the lens in order to gain greater depth of field, but this causes diffraction to blur the resulting image slightly and you lose details. If you shoot without anything narrowing the path of light you’ll have the best details but an even thinner slice of focus to work with. While I built an aperture assembly into my microscope lens, I didn’t use it for this.

A snowflake usually takes around 40 or so shots to focus stack, but roughly the same number of shots to get just the tip of a branch in focus. I’ve missed a few pieces that you can see if you REALLY know where to look. All of the frames needed to be manually aligned which was incredibly time consuming and tedious, and more manual corrections that usual were needed in the focus stacking process.

I don’t think I’ll be handholding this lens for anything that doesn’t outright require it, but I now have 20X and 100X microscope objectives to play with. As soon as the spring flowers are here I know I’ll have an unending supply of interesting subjects from insects to pollen. For now, I’ll continue to embrace the snow!

If you’re fascinated with the details you can discover in a snowflake, you’ll absolutely enjoy reading my book Sky Crystals: - it provides an entire photographic tutorial alongside all of the beautiful and understandable science that makes snowflakes take the shapes they do!

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Snowflake-a-Day #56
By itself, this snowflake won’t necessarily win any awards. It has beautiful broad branches and a gem-like center, all seeming to cascade to different levels within the ice. It’s not the snowflake that really matters here however, it’s the technology used to record it. View large and read on!

The full image was shot with my “12x” macro setup, which includes the Canon MP-E 65mm lens @ 5x coupled to 68mm of extension tubes and the Canon Lifesize Converter EF, which all add up to roughly 12x. This has been the setup I’ve used for all very small snowflakes, but I’ve recently come into possession of a 20x microscope optic to push things farther. This snowflake was one of my first tests with that lens.

My 20x Mitutoyo M Plan Apo microscope objective was attached to my Canon 100-400L lens set to roughly 200mm, which is the required length for this series of lenses. With focus on the 100-400L set to infinity, the microscope lens “works”. Adapters to make it couple to the larger lens are needed, and the larger lens is set to its widest aperture. While I did built an aperture into the microscope object as part of this project, (and this next bit is important) it was shot wide open. Full resolution with no compromise to gain depth of field and sacrifice detail, focusing on just one arm of this snowflake.

If we narrow this down to just that branch and compare my “conventional” 12x:

To the 20x microscope:

Because each was shot handheld, the angle differs slightly and sublimation of the snowflake from one image to the next accounts for more changes, but I’m sure the results are clear: The 20x microscope object makes a stellar macro lens at this scale, gathering far more detail with less chromatic aberration than my “daily driver” lens.

It’s also impossible to use. Everyone I’ve talked to have said that handholding a 20x microscope objective for focusing stacking is impossible. It can’t be done. I’m not going to say I’ve done a perfect job here, but it’s definitely proof that it CAN be done and it might just be a world first. If everyone thinks it’s impossible, it’s likely because no one has successfully done it before. That has just changed.

I’ve said many times before that the detail in snowflakes is unending. This test helps illustrate that, providing far greater detail on bubbles, ridges, and contours of a snowflake that could never be seen by conventional means, photographed on an angle to reveal surface reflections and surface details you couldn’t see otherwise. New territory for snowflake photography and macro photography as a whole.

This was fun. :)

For photographic techniques you can use to create snowflakes images yourself, and to understand more about now snowflakes grow, you’d better pick up a copy of Sky Crystals: - explore the unseen world in every way you are able!

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Floral Chorus
All natural, straight out of camera effects allow for magical bokeh to accent these tiny floating flowers. View large!

This is a bit of a departure from my usual work, but it has a certain softness that still appeals to me. The secret to the crazy bokeh is one you’ll want to read about in this description as well!

I had a bowl of water set in my studio for a different water droplet refraction experiment, and that went well, but I had more ideas floating around – pun intended. This one involves a few small flowers (unsure the name) floating on the surface of water to achieve an interesting reflection, with a backdrop of brilliant abstract patterns caused by “soap bubble bokeh”.

The lens used here is my Trioplan 100, known for its spectacular bokeh in the right conditions, especially when shooting wide open. At F/2.8 this lets is difficult to use, especially when I stack extension tubes on it to get even closer to my subject. Focus is achieved by moving the camera forward and back, not by adjusting the focus on the lens. This keeps me at my best magnification, and also allows me to hold the camera more steadily for a better chance at getting the right slice of focus.

Because these flowers are freely floating, there is a huge element of randomness and chance. If they rotate slightly, then I need to change my position quickly to compensate or nudge the flowers slightly to be more cooperative. Expect to take MANY images that you’ll eventually throw away in this process.

So, where does that crazy bokeh come from? About an inch behind the flowers I have placed a large chunk of “titanium quartz”, which is basically a quartz crystal cluster that has been coated with titanium oxide. The titanium oxide coating brings about the properties of thin film interference, the same physics that puts colours into snowflakes and soap bubbles. In this scenario, different crystal facets will pick up different colours, and those facets create specular highlights from my flash. Pushed out of focus, we get a colourful array of bokeh to fill in the background.

The optical characteristics that allow for the Trioplan “soap bubble bokeh” combined with a bit of inventive subject matter results in this image. It’s not perfect, but I feel like it was an experiment worth sharing!

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Snowflake-a-Day #55
Symmetry is all around us in nature. Look closely at something and the more symmetry you will see, and the more chaos you will encounter. The two seem to run hand-in-hand, but sometimes the symmetry shines through. View large!

All snowflakes show symmetry in some shape or form, but it’s rare for full six-fold symmetry to exist on a large dendrite crystal like this. I might see a handful of them in a season while pouring over MANY thousands of snowflakes. You’ll see predominantly symmetrical crystals in this series because they are the most beautiful kind, but it shouldn’t be considered a proper sampling of what falls from the sky.

The purpose of this series is to showcase the beauty as well as the enigmatic nature of snowflakes. Only the most interesting or beautiful make the cut!

Of special interest here is the side-branches that have very little features. The common feature among them is that they appear to be split from their main branch onto a different plane, where a cavity in the ice formed across the majority of the branch tip. This happens often, especially on smaller snowflakes, but here the scenario is slightly different. Since all of these side branches have less access to water vapour (they all appear to be branches internal to the overall footprint), the growth is slower and more stable. This kind of growth on a thin plate can yield a mirror-like finish, even when photographed on an angle intended to reveal surface texture! An uncommon accent to an uncommonly symmetrical snowflake!

We live in a world that is full of turmoil. Political unrest, economic uncertainty and clashing ideals. I personally find it freeing to know that a snowflake like this can be created in the sky and fall to earth, and is often never seen. Beauty happens in silence all around us, and it has happened for millions of years before mankind. While a single snowflake disappears quickly, they illustrate that there has always been and will always be beauty around us.

For more snowflake musings and to learn all of the techniques I use to create images like this, take a look at my book Sky Crystals: - flipping through the pages, you’ll definitely appreciate the natural beauty all around us and gain a greater understanding of it!

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Daisy Dreams

(Register for my water droplet refraction workshops to learn how to make images like this! )

This weekend I had photography workshops with students doing water droplet refractions. After seeing so many interesting setups and watching people make inspired creations, I had to make a small attempt at it myself! View large!

This is the seed of a Gebera Daisy placed in a bowl of water with a fresh Gerbera Daisy placed in the background. The seed is just floating on the surface of the water, which makes it quite difficult to get the droplets in place and the seed in the right spot.

To cover this seed in droplets, I’m aiming high above the scene and letting tiny water droplets fall down to the seed with very little directional momentum except down. This allows for the seed to stay relatively in the same position while the droplets slowly grow all over it. If it does move too close to the edge of the bowl or the half-submerged flower, I very gently tap it back into place with my finger. You get a lot of water everywhere when doing these experiments, so that just enough of it ends up in the right place!

I shot this with a longer lens, the Canon 180mm F/3.5L Macro which worked wonders. The longer distance was helpful to get the camera right to the edge of the water to see a strong reflection, something that would be made more difficult with a shorter lens – though I’ve done similar shots with 100m, I have less risk of getting the lens waterlogged when working at 180mm!

The seed itself is in shadow, with a piece of cardboard positioned just out of the frame. This allows the background to be brighter than the foreground, and for the droplets to glow brighter than the surface they are attached to. There are a lot of puzzle pieces here, but when they all come together you can make a magical image! This is a single shot, no focus stacking required.

Want to know how all these pieces fit together? I’ve got two workshop dates in April with spots still available. It’s a three hour session where we dive as deep as we can into this subject and you’ll walk away with some magical images of your own. Moreover, you’ll leave with the technical knowledge to push forward with new creative ideas, and a few extra tools to make it all come together. Register for a workshop here:


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Snowflake-a-Day #54
This tiny gem holds plenty of mystery, looking like a cell about to divide in the very center and carrying almost organic qualities through the inner hexagon. View large!

From the very beginning, this snowflake has had a 2-fold symmetric feeling, with an elongated center that offers up a similar shaped bubble, back to solid ice, back to a bubble, and after a crazy period of indecisiveness that lasted mere seconds, it returned a hexagonal shape and later grew branches. This is the magic of this snowflake, in two parts.

The elongated center is most certainly due to aerodynamics. How the snowflake was falling could easily describe the slightly deviation from perfect symmetry. Falling more in one direct or a combination of two directions more than others can create these initial shapes at random, but that growth echoes through the overall design. Something that happens on a molecular levels ends up being extrapolated into the macro world for us to observe! Fun physics at work!

The same can be said for the indecisiveness of this snowflake. When such a crystal splits in two because a cavity in the ice expands to the corners, it usually shifts growth patterns and one side grows faster than the other. This didn’t happen, instead the snowflake continue to grow in a stable fashion and closed back up. The two bright areas in the center are bubbles trapped in the ice based on this physics, where the bubble exists are multiple layers of ice on either side and thereby more reflective surfaces, so they appear brighter.

The “splash” pattern on the outer edge of the larger bubble is a mystery. If you imagine that the cavity is entirely open, and then roughly 50 percent of it closes in even steps, then the alternating 50 perfect closes off a few seconds later… I can’t imagine why this happens. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this, but it’s very hard to explain. There has to be another force at work. I haven’t studied the effects of electron charge or electricity of snowflakes heavily, and I know there is some measurable impact. Could that be the clue?

There’s more to explore in a snowflake like this, like the outer edges growing back inward creating a new cavity in the branch tips through inward growth, but let’s save that for another day. There’s enough to ponder on already!

For more scientific musings that describe how snowflakes form, and all the photographic techniques you could ever hope to know, pick up a copy of Sky Crystals: - you’ll be impressed by the details and how timeless the content is! Makes a great coffee-table book if you’re not a naturalist or a photographer, and a purchase supports this project. :)

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Snowflake-a-Day #53
This brilliantly blue snowflake isn’t malformed, it has strong edges in the lower left that illustrate a small mystery unfolding. View large!

There have been many colourful snowflakes in front of my camera lately, but blue is always a welcome and uncommon colour. Cyan/green is much more frequently seen, but that slight shift to blue based this snowflake a rarity among the rare. Hints of yellow and purple also present themselves, but how? To learn all about the effects of thin film interference in snowflakes, I’ll direct you to these pages of my book Sky Crystals: - for those that have seen and understand where these colours come from, we can move on to the next mystery!

This kind of growth isn’t common, but I’ve seen it a handful of times before. One corner of a snowflake has delayed growth, possibly due to interference from another snowflake that slowed down one corner. The neighbouring corners didn’t feel the same impact however, and branching growth has begun in these areas. This gives the visual impression that the bottom left corner is indented in some way because everything else has been growing faster around it. It’s not broken, it’s just building character!

There are ribs caused by deviations in outward growth, and circles caused by inward growth. Colour from thin film interference, and an over-arching designed based on the idea that whatever sticks out the farthest will grow the fastest. All this in a snowflake measuring less than a millimeter across. The world we live in is fascinating, and we almost never see the true beauty of it.

Just look at any snowflake and you’ll see the ignored and forgotten magic that nature presents to us every day. There is always more to appreciate when you take the time to look closer!

For more musings on snowflakes, check out my book Sky Crystals: - you’ll find a wealth of knowledge about how snowflakes grow into shapes even more interesting than this, and a full photographic tutorial describing the process I use to make these images – and you can use that to capture your own breathtaking snowflake images!

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Episode 7 of Inside the Lens is out!

Engineering photographic equipment isn’t easy, especially in mass quantities. This discussion with +Haje Jan Kamps of +Triggertrap details the entire saga from inception to the end of a company that had many successes and failures along the way. We chat about everything that made the company successful, how photographic engineering challenges are faced, and a behind the scenes look at what happens when those challenges cannot be overcome. It’s a great candid discussion that I’m all listeners will find insightful.

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Snowflake-a-Day #52
If this snowflake says anything, it’s symmetry. Nearly identical features on every branch, you’d have to dive incredibly deep into the details to find appreciable differences. View large!

These types of snowflakes are incredibly rare. Symmetry can be created easily in a laboratory when growing snowflakes, but conditions in nature don’t present themselves by significant measure. I pass over thousands of snowflakes looking for the most interesting, colourful, and symmetrical, and then a snowflake like this appears on the black mitten I use to collect and shoot my snowflakes.

Out of nowhere and completed unexpected, as all other snowflakes I saw from this same snowfall were roughly one third this size. Not a “giant” snowflake compared to the biggest I’ve seen, but a 3mm crystal surrounded by 1mm crystals gets your attention! I believe that the stable conditions responsible for its smaller sibling’s hexagonal shaped allowed for this to form. But how?

One clue lies in the ripples you see running along the center of each branch. This is the most elaborate display of inward crystal growth I have ever seen. Essentially, the snowflake is growing in thickness starting at the outer edges and working back towards the center of the snowflake. It’s commonly seen as circles in the center of snowflakes, or curved lines faintly echoing the outer edges. In the past I would have explained that multiple rings were caused by multiple “waves” if inward growth, as if an outer edge became thicker and allowed for an additional round of inward growth to echo back towards the center. That logic doesn’t hold up to this design.

I can’t explain this. It makes me very happy when I look at a snowflake and can’t explain it. :) If you’d like to see the pages in my book Sky Crystals that relate to this kind of growth for more background info, it’s here:

How can an unexplainable feature be considered a clue? It simply tells me something out of the ordinary was involved in the creation of this snowflake. Inward growth usually happens when a snowflake is growing very snowflake, and broad branches are also a sign of that. Could this be a sign of incredibly slow snowflake growth? Why was it able to hang out in the clouds considerably longer than all others around it? Just another mystery I’ve yet to unravel.

To discover how snowflakes form and to see many other mysteries investigated in the realm of snowflakes, check out my book Sky Crystals: - it also has a complete and exhaustive photographic tutorial to help you document the beautiful gems you discover for yourself!


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Snowflake-a-Day #51
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I thought this one by a fun pick for today’s snowflake. One of the most vibrant in terms of saturated colour I have ever seen, and incredibly fragile. View large!

This snowflake was one that fell yesterday, and one of the last crystals I was able to capture before the temperatures became too warm and the snow started to melt. You can see this one starting to fade away by looking at the textures underlying the pink area. There are two darker areas that intersect with the grey center that are clear indications of contact-point melting, where this snowflake was resting on two fibers from the black mitten it was photographed against. The other “scars” are from tossing the crystal around a little with my paint brush to get it at just the right angle to capture it.

There’s something magical when you have vibrant colours this bright. When moving the snowflake into a proper position, I was constantly seeing shimmers of pink when it faced certain angles. This has such a dynamic magic, but it puts the pressure on; I know the snowflake is incredibly special, but I’m working against the clock to try and capture it properly. If an extra minute goes by, how far gone will it be?

This is one of the reasons I work handheld with these subjects. It may take me 30 seconds to get the snowflake at the right angle, another 10 seconds to get the camera in position, and up to a minute to capture all of the necessary images. Less than two minutes on average for each snowflake, and when they’re falling in beautiful abundancy, I can capture many of them. Snowflakes like this might not be falling for long, and I’ve noticed many snowfalls that shift every 15 minutes or so to a new type of crystal formation. This storm quickly transitioned to “grauple”, which is little balls of ugly ice that have no discernible crystal structure. Get while the gettin’s good!

For those unfamiliar with how colour forms so vibrantly inside of a snowflake, here’s a page from my book on the subject with a great explanation:

There will be many more colourful snowflakes coming. Two recent storms gave me plenty of material, but I’ll try not to go into colour overload. I’ll throw in some more “traditional” snowflakes as well, and maybe break the mold a few times with some incredibly unusual types of snowflakes. There’s still a lot of winter left to enjoy!

Sky Crystals is the book you’ll need if you want to make images like this, or if you’d simply curious about the mysteries in the snow and want understandable answers that describe how all snowflakes grow: - makes a great coffee table book, as well as a great book to flip through if you’ve got a inquisitive mind.
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