Art photography is like jazz music. A strict understanding of the rules and elements of the craft which are then subjugated while jamming with Nature. As an example of how these come together for me let me tell you why I am sitting here with sore muscles, chilled to the bone and yet excited too.
For weeks now I have been spending hours on end at the computer, editing, key wording, uploading, filling orders and printing. And during all that time I had not gone out shooting. Then the weather forecaster said that snow was on the way. Our house is on the edge of the Chugach State Park and nearby there are small game trails, water seeps, a small creek, spruce and birch trees and all the little things that make up a mountain woods. Every time I walked our dog Charlie I would see these delicate unusual formations of hoar frost clinging to the grass and bushes. My panic mounted, this was all about to disappear if the TV was right. That threat was what I needed to blast me out of the house.
So what's entailed in making these frost photos? I often hear, “How did you do that? Or where was that at?” As if I could tell them in a couple of sentences and then they could just go out and get the same shot. For me, it means the night before cameras are charged and packed, I pick the lens and put it on so I don't have to expose the sensor to the cold and frost while I fumble around in the dark. I get together a collection of flashlights and their spare batteries. Hint: to make your batteries last keep the spare inside your coat and switch it out before it gets depleted. It means peeling open my eyelids and climbing out of a warm cozy bed at 6 a.m. when the sun will not show up until 10 a.m. Then I am too excited to eat more than a quick breakfast and put on all my winter layers, fingerless gloves, over mittens, face mask and bunny boots. A last check to make sure all the gear is ready, kiss the wife, pat the dog and head out the door.
A walking stick helps me to keep my balance while navigating the steep slopes, stepping over dead falls and sliding across ice sheets. I might wear a headlamp with a red lens to save my night vision and make the battery last longer, or if it's cloudy the reflected light pollution from the nearby town lights up the snow. It helps to have checked out potential sites in the daylight because the moonlight and flashlights will make things look very different.
Lighting is the key. Yes, you could go out in the daylight and shoot frost but it all looks washed out with no drama or path for the eye to follow through the image. So for added control I prefer shooting in the dark. I find a likely area and then I set my gear down nearby but out of the way. I then get down on my knees or better yet lay down on my elbows and look around. When I find my interesting object to shoot, I start moving my head back and forth, up and down, checking the composition for elements that I do or don't want. With the lighting I may be able to keep some elements hidden and bring out others. With frost it's important to think before setting into the scene for a closeup. The smallest act will set off a shower of frost and destroy what Nature has built up over days of freezing weather and moist air. So I usually take a wider angled shot first and then move in for the close ups. I carry two camera bodies so I don't have to change lens. It is helpful to have a tripod that will get down to a few inches off the ground or wad up an old towel and put the camera on that.
Using flashlights to paint the scene is both luck and art. I usually shoot at least a dozen shots for each separate camera setting. The macro lens I have is a Tamron 90mm which will go to f/32. Of course at that setting every speck of dust on your sensor will show up, so shoot a variety of f/ stops so you can pick your favorite later on. Check your depth of field before you finalize your camera position otherwise you'll get home and find the image does n't look like you even focused. If you have live view fine tune your manual focus. The newer cameras can even be calibrated for an adjustment to be factored in, dependent on which lens is on the body. There are many phone apps for easy computing of the depth of field for each lens. My 90 mm has to be two feet away to get 3 inches DOF. Shooting branches and grasses all bent over with frost will require all the depth of field I can get, or maybe I will isolate one interesting piece. This is where thinking ahead can come in and save me from wasting my time and battery life. With the cold seeping into my clothes now wet from laying on the ice it becomes essential to cut my work time.
I don't know about you but I usually have to go back to a scene several times before I really get a feel for what it is that I'm trying to say with my image. So for the last three days, early morning and late nights I have been crawling around with numb fingers, frosted up reading glasses, dying batteries and sore knees. Was it worth it? I think so. The hunt, the collaboration with Nature, the unexpected jewels, this is why I love photography.
For more macro photography of frost, follow this link.