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Frost Ferns

Find complex patterns in a simple subject.

January 10, 2015 Close Ups

Frost forms in a fascinating way on our windows. On the coldest days of winter, moisture crystallizes in jagged patterns on the panes. This may be the only redeeming quality of the old aluminum combination storm windows on some of our original double-hung windows. And since my attempts to seal them have never worked, we're resigned, for now, to admiring the icy artwork that grows on the glass.

Winter arrived last week with sub-zero nights and snowy days. It wasn't long before window frost followed. The long crystalline fingers, called "frost ferns" when they grow like these, develop when water vapor condenses and freezes on the inside of the outer pane.

Frost ferns on window pane.

The longer and closer I stare at the frost, the more details I see in the icy landscape. Glassy rivers and streams stretch below and between serrated ridges and peaks. A frigid world advances across the window with each cold hour. Soon I'm lost in a paradise below zero. My attention is broken when the form of a passing bird darts across the crystallized plane. Then my thoughts return to the someday task of replacing the "new" storms with replicas of the wooden originals that will seal tightly and make this ice kingdom an extinct world.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Close Ups)

SUBJECT: Frost ferns on window.

We live in an old house. We're slowly restoring some parts to its 1926 past, renovating some things for modern living and removing stuff that was sadly added at the loss of vintage features. Though we have many of the original double-hung windows, some of the storm windows were cast aside for aluminum combination storms. They leak air like a sieve. The remaining original storms are snug fitting, so warm, dry air is held between the windows. The aluminum storm windows were a breezy convenience of Mid-Century life when energy costs weren't a consideration.

When the winter temperatures dropped way below zero, the frost in the photograph above formed on the inside of the outer glass pane. Moisture and cold air seeped into the air space between the two windows where the air must have been closer to the outside temperature than indoors. With its northern exposure, this window never caught direct sunlight. That kept the glass constantly cold and the frost would remain until the outdoor temperatures rose to above 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

CONDITIONS: Outdoors - Sunny, calm, -10 degrees F; Indoors (where I'm making this photograph) it's a comparatively toasty 67 degrees F.

EQUIPMENT: Nikon D3, 200mm f/4 microNikkor, tripod, ball head, electronic cable release.

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/45 sec at f/32 (the lens has a minimum aperture of f/45 at its closest focus setting) , ISO 400; Aperture Priority mode, Matrix meter, Manual focus.

TECHNIQUE: As a habit for making a good composition, I handheld the camera and lens as I looked through them for a pleasing section of frost on the window. That gave me the freedom to move up and down, in and out and side to side before I reached for the tripod. When I found a good spot, I set the tripod to the approximate height and locked the camera's quick-release plate to the ball head.

Now I began fine tuning the composition. I framed the section of frost I liked, adjusted the tripod height a bit and moved it in a few inches. It was important to make the camera level to the world and parallel to the window pane. This would make the plane of the camera's sensor parallel and plumb to my subject. And that would give me a sharper image side to side, top to bottom no matter the f-stop I chose. I used a special bubble level that slips into the flash hot shoe on top of the viewfinder. Now that the camera was level, I stepped to the side, placed my hand parallel to the camera's back and moved my open palm toward the window. Then I adjusted the camera and repeated the step until I was comfortable with a position of the sensor's plane that was parallel enough.

The subject area was about two inches high by three inches wide or roughly a magnification rate of half life size. At that rate, a shallow depth-of-field at a wide open aperture wouldn't give me the detail I wanted. I could see that when I used the depth-of-field preview function. So I stopped down more and more and engaged the preview each time. Luckily, the background was a hundred yards away, so even f/32 didn't reveal the details of my neighbor's house across the street. It became a soft gray back drop and the white snow and the blue sky filled in the colors on the frost ferns.

I focused on the center ferns, clicked the shutter, checked the histogram and dialed in some additional light with the exposure compensation function. The histogram looked good, so I added the cable release and engaged the mirror lock-up function. Both reduced the chance of vibrations which could cause a less-sharp image. Then I clicked several frames before I repeated the process on four or five other patches of frost on the window.

Each nature photograph is an adventure. But not every adventure has to be in the wild world. Sometimes good subjects are as close as a local park, your backyard, or in this case, inside my old house.

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