Alright -- I admit it! I've gotten hooked on photographing icicles! I've always loved the photographic opportunities that winter brings, but this year the weather conditions created some of the biggest icicles I've seen in many years --and a lot of them were hanging from my roof in front of my windows, just begging to be photographed.
And that led me to become semi-obsessed with catching every nuance of these fascinating but constantly changing, photographically challenging, objects. I want to call them creatures, because many of them have face-like features, as in my picture "Ice Queen" that accompanies this article. Other icicles have creature-like appendages that appear and disappear as the light in the sky and the temperatures change over the course of a day, making me feel that they are more like beings than objects. I photograph them whenever there is color in the sky, often in the late afternoon, when the ice takes on the fiery deep blue of the darkening sky. But also capture them sometimes early in the morning when rosy, warm morning light or the bright blue of the sky filters right through the ice, charging them with brilliant, contrasting colors.
I love the color shots, but today you'll see in my pictures that you can get wonderful icicle photographs when the sky is overcast and the outside world is covered with snow. Then the images, in tones of gray and black, become all about light, line, shape, form and contrast, the basic building blocks of good photography. If you can take pictures of icicles successfully, place yourself in advanced photography!
Even though I've been teaching photography for close to 30 years, I still learned some new things recently by shooting icicles several times a day. There is always something to learn about any subject when you study it closely. Since this winter promises to be one that will produce more icicles (I'm not letting the recent warm weather fool me!!!), I thought I'd pass along some tips about photographing them so that you might also become captivated by these amazing creations of nature.
All you need is access to a window that is close to where icicles are hanging, a viewing angle that will allow you to see the light passing through the icicles, and a camera with low light/slow shutter speed capabilities and a long lens with fairly substantial magnification and/or a macro mode. You can photograph icicles with almost any camera and lens, as you can see in my picture "Icicles Against the Sky." It was taken with an ordinary point and shoot camera with only 3x magnification, but to make your pictures more unique, it helps to get close and be personal with each icicle you want to photograph.
Icicles, I've discovered, are like snowflakes -- no two seem to be exactly alike. Each is continually in the process of becoming bigger or smaller, and each has frozen into it, different patterns, swirls, stripes, bubbles, layers, gouges, cracks and levels of opacity that can only be best appreciated when captured by a camera, as you can see in my picture "Standing Icicles." In addition, the uneven patterns embedded in the icicles reflect and refract light in fascinating and unpredictable ways that the naked eye does not necessarily see, often tricking the camera's exposure meter into producing dramatic, contrasty results. That's what gets you hooked on photographing icicles -- the lure of the hidden and the unpredictable.
Here are a few pointers to get you started:
"¢ Look for large icicles and icicles which overlap, because these will be the most promising subjects. Small icicles have not yet developed many features and are difficult to focus on. Look instead for interesting relationships between icicles or intriguing shapes/patterns on individual icicles.
"¢ Set your camera on a low light setting, the nighttime/moonlight setting on automatic cameras, even if the light outside is bright, because you want to expose for the side of the icicle closest to you, where there really isn't much light after it's passed through the icicle. Try taking the same picture in the "Moonlight" mode and then the "Auto" mode, and you'll see how the "Moonlight" mode brings out the inside of the icicle and the "Auto," the outside. It's very important, however, to brace your camera in the "Moonlight" mode because the shutter speed will be very slow, and you will get blurring if you move the camera. You can see how a slow shutter speed blurs action within a picture in my image "Icicles Drip #1," where the dripping water is seen as streaks of light.
"¢ Look for the light and what it does to each icicle. Focus close up on one and then move yourself around, noticing carefully what colors and patterns change in the icicle as you move. Note that different backgrounds, such as trees, buildings and the sky, will influence how the icicle looks. You will want to control how much background you allow in the picture -- with a long lens the background will be very out of focus, as you'll see is several of my pictures -- and how those background colors and shapes will add to or detract from the subject.
"¢ Watch the focus carefully. Autofocus cameras need a hard edge, usually vertical, to grab onto to lock in the focus, but because icicles are not flat edged and small icicles do not fill up much area in the focal zone, an autofocus camera will have a hard time holding focus for you. Always focus first on the top of the icicle, depress your shutter _ way down to hold that focal zone, and then lower the camera down to the part of the icicle you want to photograph. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right. Be aware that if you are in macro mode, the focal zone is very narrow, and you may find that one part of your icicle is in focus and the rest may be out of focus. You can see this in some of my pictures. The reality of photographing icicles is that you will have to deal with focusing issues.
"¢ Get excited about the fact that nobody else in the whole world is going to be taking the pictures you are taking because the conditions you are photographing are unique to you and the moment in which you are taking the picture. In fact, you won't be able to exactly recreate your own photos, if you wanted to, because your subject is changing as you photograph it, and the winter light is short-lived, moving and changing from minute to minute.
"¢ Expect some "throwaway" pictures. Icicles are one of the trickiest subjects I've tried, mostly because of the focal problems. The pictures may look great on the camera's LCD screen as you take the picture, but when you look at it closely on the computer screen, you may not like the focus, the rough texture of the ice or the dominance of background shapes and forms that you didn't notice on the small LCD screen. Don't despair. Working with this particular subject will teach you a lot about your camera's capabilities, your macro and exposure modes, the reflection of light, and your own imagination and vision. Keep at it, learn and grow from it, and enjoy the opportunity to do something creative and wonderful inside on a cold winter's day!