We don’t generally get much snow where I live on the South Coast of England, but this year has been quite fun with a few separate days of snow. Just enough to have fun, but not enough to bring everything to a standstill!
This Monday just passed saw the latest flurry, which lasted for about 2 hours. The flakes were huge falling from the sky, and it gave me the idea of trying to capture some macro shots of snowflakes.
It was pretty successful actually, as you can see from the pictures. I have quite a bit of experience of handheld macro shooting (I almost always shoot handheld), and it paid off today as I was having to get into some pretty awkward positions and work quickly as these delicate, tiny snowflakes only last seconds before they start to deform and lose their intricate beauty.
All of these photos were shot with a Canon 5D Mark III using the Canon MP-E 65mm Macro lens. This is a very specialised lens which starts where other macro lenses stop – at 1:1 magnification. It has no focus, but can zoom between 1:1 and 5:1 – at the largest magnification the object will appear 5 times life-size on the camera sensor!
There are 3 main issues with using this lens. Firstly, depending on the zoom position, the point in focus will be at some fixed distance in front of the lens. It takes some experience to get to know where the focus point is going to be and quickly move into place. The view you see through the camera viewfinder is typically of an area a few millimeters across, so you have to find your target by being pretty accurate in the first place!
The second issue is one of depth-of-field vs diffraction. At 5:1, images will be significantly softened by diffraction at f/8, and yet this will give you a depth of field of a fraction of a millimeter! So you have to compromise between magnification, depth-of-field and image softening caused by diffraction. I rarely use 5:1 for this reason, but often shoot at 3:1 – 4:1 without any significant issues. All of these snowflake shots are taken at between 2:1 and 4:1.
The third issue is light. You need a LOT of light to make images with this lens. I use a special mount I made from a right-hand bracket, a Gorillapod ball head and a Canon 430 EX II flash. Bare flash leads to bright highlights on the subject, so I made a diffuser from a small flowerpot, lots of Duck tape and “space blanket” as reflective material and tissue paper as the diffusing material, and it seems to work pretty well.
The 5D Mark III has a sensor which is 36mm x 24mm in size, and most of these shots were taken at 4:1 magnification – this means an object a quarter of the size of the sensor will completely fill it – so 9mm x 6mm! Add to this the ability to crop the images, and you can see that most of these images show object which are only 1 or 2 millimeters in size.
I hope you like the images. I find photography on this scale absolutely fascinating, and as I’m getting more experience with the MP-E 65 I’m capturing more and more of this microscopic universe and thoroughly enjoying it!