Winter is often regarded as the doldrums for nature and wildlife photographers here in Michigan. Despite the unusually warm weather this year, opportunities for outdoor photography have been quite limited, often resulting in gloomy two-hour long outings in the wild yielding little more than a few images of withered brown leaves, and maybe a squirrel or two.
Fortunately, if the weather conditions are just right, it is possible to capture fascinating photographs of ice crystals. Not the tiny, feathery hoar-frost crystals one commonly finds growing on blades of grass, but larger crystals that sometimes form on the surface of motionless ponds.
Ice is considered a mineral within the hexagonal crystal family, which contains two crystal systems: hexagonal and trigonal. The prismatic, six-sided crystals of clear quartz commonly seen in rock and mineral shops are hexagonal system minerals. (Trigonal system minerals are less common; however, you will see some photos of it momentarily – a three-sided pyramid of ice.)
Unlike frost crystals that tend to grow upward and outward from an anchor point (dendritic crystals), the crystals formed on pond water grow laterally across the water’s surface. These structures are best seen when the ice is very thin, around 2-3 millimeters thick. Once the ice gets thicker, the surface loses definition and becomes featureless, just like the ice cubes in your freezer.
I took the following photographs of beautifully exotic and ephemeral ice crystal structures over two consecutive days at a local pond.
Let’s start with some photos of trigonal ice crystals appearing as pyramids. Shooting obliquely across the ice surface into the light, and helped by the low 25° sun angle at this time of year, I was able to accentuate the three-dimensional aspects of the ice structures. The overcast sky turned the ice into silvery, monochromatic sheets which separated the tiny pyramids from the background.
The complexity in these pyramidal structures is impressive. Bear in mind the pyramid apices are only a few millimeters in height.
The bright white circles are bubbles of methane gas trapped under the ice; the light brown-yellow tones are underwater leaves and reeds.
In the image above, we see an exquisitely formed pyramid on the right, with an incipient pyramid on the left. The chevrons cause wonderfully complex interactions of light and shadow.
Here is a crop of the large pyramid – note the gas bubble trapped at the pyramid’s apex:
Later, a brief interval of blue sky brought some color, adding striking contrast to the pyramid shapes.
Crystals with a hexagonal form were rarer than the pyramids you see above. Of course, I didn’t expect to see any “quartz crystal-like” prismatic forms; instead, what appeared on the lake were essentially “hexagonal plates.”
The large hexagonal plate in the upper center of this photo is the best example I came across. Bounded by four pyramids, it shows a depressed center. I wonder what it would have looked like had it continued crystallizing until all six sides met? This is a fascinating structure, and quite large – probably six by six inches. Cropping into different sections of this picture could yield an additional four or five separate photographs.
It’s hard to tell whether the two following images show trigonal structures, or incipient or modified hexagonal structures. Nonetheless, they make for very photogenic compositions.
A few more trigonal structures…
The next two images show the effect of changing my shooting position – resulting in two completely different compositions!
Finally, to close this long treatise, here are a few abstract compositions.
Observations on equipment and technique:
I used a Panasonic G9 with the Lumix 100-300mm II f/4.0-5.6 lens and a Panasonic G95 with the Lumix 45-175mm f/4.0-5.6 lens; hand-held; dual IBIS on.
The G9 was in Manual mode, center-weighted metering, auto ISO (maximum at 6400), f/7.1 or f/8.0, shutter speed 1/800-1/1250. ISO ranged from 200-3200.
The G95 was in Aperture Priority mode, multi-segment metering, auto ISO (maximum at 6400), f/8.0, and shutter speed at 1/400 (minimum setting linked to the ISO limit). ISO ranged from 200-1000.
Shooting obliquely across the pond surface at maximum 300mm telephoto and with subjects at 20-30 yards distance, the depth of field was shallow, even at f/8.0. I placed the AF box on the mid-point of the subject and trusted that the depth of field generated would be sufficient to cover the main area of interest.
Photos were cropped, lightly adjusted for tone and contrast with Radiant Photo. Then noise removal and minor sharpening were applied with Topaz Sharpen AI.
Outdoor photography during the long winter months always presents a challenge to enthusiasts searching for inspiration. I hope that my ice crystal photographs will help others in finding unconventional subjects to banish the dreary doldrums until spring arrives!
About Carl F. Brink
A career in gemology, geology, and metallurgical engineering enabled Carl to develop his photography skills documenting various geological exposures and outcrops. He excelled at macro and photomicrography of rock and mineral specimens.
His image-making efforts over the years in his photographic niche were rewarded by selection for industry-related publications; he has a number of magazine cover photos to his credit.
Presently residing in Michigan, he now concentrates his photography on the nature and wildlife opportunities so abundant in the state. You can contact him here.