Canadian nature and landscape photographer Don Komarechka has a passion for exposing the hidden aspects of the world around us—and clearly a real knack for it. Komarechka uses a suite of tricks to showcase everything nature, from the progression of a Lunar eclipse to the compound eye of a deer fly, but some of his most spectacular shots focus on one of the most common but fundamental elements on earth: water.
His images of water droplets are out of this world and a few years back he became fascinated by the molecule in its frozen, free-falling from. Studying the science of snowflakes and coming up with a technique to best capture the intricacy of these Mother-Earth-made miniature ice sculptures, in 2013 Komarechka released his first book, Sky Crystals: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Snowflakes, holding the entirety of his collection on the snowy-subjects thus far, alongside full explanations of how he got the shot, encouraging enthusiasts to try his methods for themselves. He also added a bit of the physics and science behind the cold beauties too.
Love Nature caught up with Komarechka to find out the backstory on his dive into the world of art, how he crafts his amazing images, and why we should all take a little more time to appreciate the more minute bits of nature.
What got you interested in photographing snowflakes?
My photography has always been guided towards the unseen world. Exploring the amazing things that we cannot see with our own eyes is one of the main reasons I am a photographer; snowflakes are the perfect subjects for this concept. Merely two feet from my back door I have countless winter wonders! I rediscovered the fascinating details of snowflakes during a particularly boring day when still working for an advertising agency with a bit of time on my hands. It was the first time since childhood that I rekindled that joyous sense of natural wonder.
How precisely do you get some of these incredible shots?
Snowflakes have been photographed for well over a century, but my technique differs from the ‘classic’ approach. I use an extremely high magnification camera lens with reflected light to showcase surface details and, if the proper angle is found, I can get the light to reflect off the surface of the crystal like glare on a window, making it glow and sparkle. Traditionally snowflakes were photographed on a plate of glass with the light coming from in behind. While beautiful, I always found something missing with these images. You can colourise the light to add some depth, but the natural beauty wouldn’t be completely revealed.
The problem with my approach is that for the snowflake surface to be reflecting light back to the camera, the snowflake must be photographed on an angle. This means that only a tiny sliver of focus is obtained in any one image, measuring a fraction of a millimetre. In order to get the entire snowflake in focus, you need to capture every individual slice of the crystal with sufficient overlap and combine these puzzle pieces together in post-processing. The technique is called focus stacking, and on average requires 40-50 separate images of the same snowflake and roughly four hours to make the final composite completely accurate to the subject. It’s no small task!
Can you tell me a bit about the different types of snowflakes you photograph? Do you have a favourite type/shape to photograph and if so, why?
Most snowflakes are not symmetrical, though most people can easily think otherwise. Symmetrical crystals are the ones we find most beautiful, and so photographers have been curating the types of snowflakes we see for generations. The ugly ones get ignored, and the ‘perfect’ designs are sought after. My favourites, however, are the snowflakes that surprise me.
Many snowflakes grow on different layers or have bubbles / cavities inside their structure. These multiple layers of ice and air can occasionally create thin film interference, the same phenomenon that puts rainbows in soap bubbles and oil spots. Inside a snowflake, these naturally formed colours always amaze me. Change the thickness of the bubble and you change the colours that result from optical interference. It’s scientific and geeky, and I love gaining a greater understanding of these things.
Some snowflakes grow into columnar shapes at temperatures just below the freezing point, and when conditions bounce back and forth between plate-like and column-like growth, you can find bizarre pedestal crystals falling from the sky. These are meteorologically quite rare, and I observe every snowfall to try and find these rare and beautiful gems.
Do you have a favourite photo series or particular picture amongst all the snowflake work? How did you decide to do a whole book on the topic?
I haven’t yet found the ‘perfect’ snowflake. I doubt I ever will, but that won’t stop me from looking. There is a ‘type’ of snowflake that I admire most, however: those with sprawling-but-balanced branches connected to a strong geometric centre. This happens when the snowflake begins to grow under very stable conditions, and it’s impossible to predict exactly when this will happen. The conditions change in a weather system very quickly, and the most beautiful snowflakes may only be falling for 10 minutes. Timing is everything!
In photographing snowflakes, I found the variations fascinating. I found it entertaining to dive into the physics to figure out exactly what was going on, and was surprised to find that a few simple ‘rules’ govern the growth of snowflakes. The most important rule is simple: whatever sticks out the furthest can collect the most water vapour. This is why branches grow from the corners of smaller hexagonal crystals to take on the shapes we normally associate with snowflakes, but the same rule also allows for pockets of air to form inside the ice.
With an easily understandable natural puzzle, and with a desire to share my exact photographic techniques for others to explore, I needed to write a book on the topic: 304 pages of natural science, fascinating structures and a full photographic tutorial, the title continues to be a huge success. It’s written for anyone with a love of nature and science, and also for those curious photographers!
Do you feel your pictures show people a different side of snowflakes by showcasing something we normally don’t get the chance to admire up close?
Most snowflakes measure in the millimeters, and even if you could casually admire some features with your own eyes, the moment soon passes and your temporary curiosity quickly passes. There are many beautiful things in the world around us that are of little consequence to us, so they are ignored and quickly forgotten. By capturing the fleeting beauty of a snowflake with such detail, I hope it makes people open their imaginations to the beauty of the world around them.
When standing outside with perfect snowflakes falling around me on a calm winter evening, knowing I’ve just captured a beautiful sky borne crystal, it’s hard not to be amazed. That beauty is multiplied by millions or more, created only to disappear without ever being appreciated. Such is nature.
Any tips for fellow photographers?
It may seem like a challenge, but all of my snowflake images are photographed without a tripod, entirely handheld. This is necessary because to find the right angle, you need to rotate the camera around the snowflake as the centre of rotation. If attached to a tripod, the centre of rotation is typically where the tripod mount is, making it very difficult to get the right lighting. I also use a ring flash to illuminate my snowflakes, it’s convenient and easy to use, allowing me to focus my efforts elsewhere.
It’s also incredibly important to find snowflakes as soon as they land. Even in very cold weather, snowflakes don’t last long. They begin to sublimate (evaporate from solid ice back into thin air) as soon as their leave the cloud that created them. By the time they reach the ground they are still mostly intact, but after an hour they will only be a ghost of their former self. Photograph snowflakes as quickly as you can!
Anything up and coming for yourself? Exhibits? Photo trips?
This past winter I revealed a print titled ‘The Snowflake‘, which took over 2500 hours to produce across five years. It contains over 400 snowflakes, all accurately measured and placed in relative size to one another. Something like this had never been done before, and I’m thrilled to be able to push the subject of snowflakes even further.
During the warmer months I explore nature in other ways, with an upcoming project to reveal the hidden patterns in flowers that attract pollinators. This has been ‘documented’ before, but I don’t believe the true beauty of it has been revealed. Plenty of experimentation will be required, and such challenges keep me passionate about my work.
Don writes for Outdoor Photography Canada, teaches at Georgian College and is a recurring co-host on podcasts such as This Week in Photo. To find out more about his work, please visit www.donkom.ca.