The scale of these scenes ranges from an entire window pane (30" wide) to less than one inch, depending on how much detail I want to capture or how well the entire pattern works as a single composition. I photograph the full gamut of sizes, but I always tend to gravitate toward compositions that replicate macroscopic scenes on a microscopic scale, such as a Christmas tree, or holly leaves, or a bird in flight over a forest.
To capture shots of that size, I use one of my two old, manual-focus macro lenses: a Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AIS or a Tamron 52B 90mm f/2.5 (M42 screw mount). Both of these are mated to my Canon 7D body. Both of those lenses will focus down to 0.5X natively, so I keep some short extension tubes handy in case I need a really tight shot with the Tamron.
|Holly leaves on Christmas morning
To retain maximum sharpness and a decent depth of field across the frame, I typically shoot at around f/8. I sometimes go wider if I need to blur the background outside the window. I might go narrower with the Micro-Nikkor if I know that the camera is a bit off-axis and I need some extra DoF. Unfortunately, the Tamron's ugly blue spot shows up if I shoot a backlit image at smaller than f/8.
|This window produces more great
frost than any other in the house.
Since most autofocus systems simply aren't precise enough for macro work, most macro photographers focus manually even when using AF lenses. My macro lenses pre-date the AF era, so I don't have a choice. I originally started photographing this frost with my Canon Rebel XTi (400D), but even with my split-image focusing screen, the small viewfinder made it difficult to achieve critical focus on such tiny scenes. The LiveView feature that all modern bodies have, with its 10x magnification, was a true godsend. I no longer have to worry about accurate focus, and can concentrate on composition and exposure.
If the light outside the window is a heavily overcast sky, the frost patterns won't really stand out, and the color will usually be fairly monochromatic. In these situations, I expose so that the histogram hump peaks about 1/3 or 1/2 way down from the bright end, then plan on using a curves tool to play with the contrast in post.
|Bird flying over a forest?
If the frost is backlit by direct sunlight through a clear sky, every single ice crystal will reflect the light straight at your lens. It's impossible to get tight, detailed shots of small scenes, but you can still get decent pull-back shots of a larger pattern. The reflected sunlight will add a distinct yellow/orange tint to the entire scene, which is a dramatic change from the blue tint that everything had just moments before the sun broke into the clear. I generally don't care for this type of lighting.
I usually try to keep my frost shots as natural as possible with only slight enhancements to show off the detail. That usually means that I start out with a daylight white balance and expose such that the histogram is near the middle of the range. This gives me the most flexibility when adjusting the exposure to my liking in post.
I almost always use the curves tool to enhance the contrast somewhat. Sometimes it's just a tiny bit, but if the original back light was pretty bland, I might go farther. Applying a touch of the clarity tool (an unsharp mask with a large radius and low power) will also improve contrast an enhance details without blowing out your highlights or shadows.
If the background light was both dark and light in different parts of the frame, I'll sometimes use a layer mask to adjust the exposure in just part of the image to even things out and let the viewer concentrate on the frost detail rather than the background variations.
Some scenes, especially those with lots of hard edges and sharp detail, will become a high contrast, black & white image resembling an engraving or pencil sketch.
On very rare occasion, if I'm looking for something a little different than what the daylight white balance gave me, I'll sometimes play with the white balance setting to give the image a blue or orange cast. However, a daylight WB often gives a blue cast to these pre-dawn images already.
|Natural color, saturation turned up to 11
And finally, as is usually the case regardless of subject matter, every single frost image I make has benefited from some degree of small-radius sharpening, regardless of whether it's for printing or online use.
I do most of my editing in Corel AfterShot Pro, digiKam, or the GIMP, but these are simple procedures that can be handled easily by virtually any image editing package, such as Photoshop, Aperture, or Lightroom.
Replicating my environment
That would likely produce the frost, but unless I have interesting back lighting, the resulting images will be worthless. The sun will rise at the acreage just as it does at the old house, which is a good start. Replicating the city lights at night could take some more creativity, perhaps involving gelled speedlights or light painting with flashlights.
On a related note, if you'd like to learn more about macro photography in general, there is no better book than John Shaw's "Closeups in Nature." I borrowed a copy from my local library and loved it so much that I bought my own copy.
So there you have it--all the dirty little secrets of my prized frost photos. Hopefully, this will inspire you to take a closer look at the world around you before you rush off to work or school this winter. There's beauty to be found everywhere! What's been your favorite macro discovery in your everyday world? Please share in the comments below.