How To » Photographing iceforms
When the leaves have fallen and the temperature plummets into the subfreezing range, my thoughts turn to ice. The delicate, abstract beauty of icicles is hard to describe. Along gurgling streams, large bouquets of icicles dangle from overhanging branches. The shapes they take are as different as snowflakes – no two are the same. They can form solitary, slender points or large, broad clusters like shark teeth. Waterfalls, hanging frozen in time, form rippled curtains of hard blue ice. The array of possible shapes is so varied that the term "iceforms" better describes them than "icicles." Responding to minute changes in air temperature, iceforms are continually changing. They bring new surprises every winter day.
Noisy, churning streams generally produce the biggest and most complex ice structures. As the near-freezing water tumbles over the rocks, small droplets of water freeze onto overhanging branches or rocky outcrops. Groups of miniature stalactite icicles form as a result of this constant dripping and freezing. Unlike limestone stalactites, which take many centuries to form, icicles five to six inches in length may form overnight if the temperature is cold enough. As the temperature fluctuates, the icicles respond by growing or shrinking. Once you have observed ice forming in a particular location, be sure to return to the spot frequently during the winter to capture the variety on film (or digital media).
When to go
The best time to photograph icicles varies depending on regional climate. Icicles begin to form anytime the temperature is below freezing. These icicles grow into intricate iceforms if the temperature remains below freezing for several days in a row. Obviously, Florida and Arizona are not icicle “hotspots”! In New England, the best time for iceform photography is in early winter (November/December). In the dead of winter, some streams may be completely snowed over, and iceforms will be hard to find. As the sun begins to melt some of the ice in early spring (March/April), you can also find some interesting frozen forms. It is important to not only pay close attention to weather conditions, but also consider how microclimates may modify the weather. For example, in the northern hemisphere, the north faces of mountains are typically colder than the south faces since they receive less sunlight. Thus, you might find icicles on a northern-facing valley stream earlier in the fall or later in the spring than southern-facing streams. I prefer to photograph iceforms on cloudy days, when the light is diffuse and there are no harsh shadows. The reduced light level also means you can use a slower shutter speed, thus increasing the “silkiness” of the stream's flowing water rendered on film.
Almost any mountain stream will yield interesting iceforms in winter, as long as the temperature is cold enough and you have the patience to look for them. Concentrate on swiftly flowing small streams in areas of steep topography the morning after an extremely cold night. Because hanging icicles are formed by frozen spray, the stream has to be rapid and steep enough to scatter droplets as the water cascades over the rocks. A large, broad river is a poor choice since it will simply ice over and accumulate snow, much like a pond. My favorite location in New England to photograph iceforms is the White Mountain National Forest in central New Hampshire and western Maine. A network of small flumes running down the Randolph Valley on the north face of the Presidential Range yields limitless photographic opportunities. Some of the larger cascades near the major roads, including Arethusa Falls and Glen Ellis Falls, also make fascinating subjects.
Photo gear & tips
You don't need a fancy camera or specialized lens to photograph iceforms. The most important item to bring along is a sturdy tripod. The light is typically weak on cloudy winter days, and most of your exposures at f/11-16 will be in the 8-15 second range (or more!) for ISO 50 film. Two tripod features are particularly helpful for winter icicle photography: the ability to go to ground level and padding on the tripod's upper legs. I use either a Bogen 3221W that has been modified for ground-level shooting by Kirk Enterprises or a Gitzo 1325 carbon fiber tripod. Since icicles typically form close to stream level, the ability to get low is critical. If your tripod legs don't allow for ground level shooting, check to see if your tripod's centerpost can be inverted. This will allow you to drop your camera almost right to eye level with these delicate subjects. Be extremely careful when doing this. If you forget to tighten the centerpost, you could wind up dunking your camera into an icy stream – always a surefire way to ruin your day.
The second important tripod feature for winter icicle photography is padding for the tripod's upper leg sections. When the temperature is subfreezing, aluminum tripod legs will conduct the heat right out of your fingers and make it hard to operate your camera controls. Padding will save your fingers a lot of numbing pain. Electrician's tape and tubular rubber insulation can be used to make your own padding. The latest carbon fiber tripods perform even better than aluminum ones in cold temperatures since carbon fiber is less conductive.
Metering an icy stream can also be very difficult because the water is typically very bright and the rocks can be dark. The easiest solution is to set your camera on manual and meter off a subject that is close in brightness to 18% gray, such as a mossy rock or light-colored tree bark. If those objects aren't available, you can always meter off the ice directly and set your exposure compensation to +1.0 to +2.0, depending on how bright you would like the ice to record on the film.
The two most important pieces of equipment you will need to photograph icicles are your imagination and proper clothing. Imagination will help you translate a complicated scene into a beautiful abstract composition, and appropriate winter garments will keep your brain and fingers warm and functional. Working in subfreezing temperatures can be pleasant or painful, depending on how prepared you are. I always check the latest weather report before heading out and assume that the temperature will be 15 degrees colder than the lowest temperature forecast. Keep in mind that while working on a particular composition, you may be stationary for 20 minutes or more. If you are comfortable, then you can take your time working those perfect compositions on the river's edge. A warm fleece or wool hat will prevent heat from escaping and do wonders for the warmth of your whole body. This should be the first item to put on when you start to feel cold and the first one to take off when you start to feel warm. Your next concern will be your fingers. I highly recommend thin liner gloves, which will allow you the dexterity to operate camera controls without placing bare flesh on the camera or tripod. The best liners have a wind blocking layer, such as Gore™ Windstopper. As you hike to the next location, you can slip on warmer mitts or shell gloves to warm up your hands. Another wise purchase is a pack of small, heat-producing hand warmers that you can stick in your pockets. If your hands get cold, you can slip them into your pockets and instantly thaw them out.
A final caveat when photographing in winter is to be wary near streams where you can't see the shoreline. Thin ice can form over the river edge, and if you put your full weight on it, you could get a rude surprise as the ice collapses and dumps you into the freezing water! Always use a stick or your tripod to test ice before putting your full weight on it. With proper preparation and the right conditions, you will be amazed at what photographic surprises the winter holds.