Frozen Images

1997 Mike MacDonald

(First published in Outdoor Photographer Magazine, March 1997)

THE RIVER'S EDGE Ice provides a photographer with a wonderful opportunity to traverse frozen lakes and marshes to explore new places and perspectives that are often difficult or impossible to reach when the water is in its liquid state. But, most exciting of all, is photographing the ice and its infinitely diverse formations.

As a nature photographer living in the urban sprawl of Chicagoland, ice formations give me many extraordinary hours of photography in the nearby Cook and DuPage County forest preserves.

Chicago winters don't provide much snow, but this can be an advantage when it comes to finding ice. Frozen lakes, marshes, and streams are left snowless, exposing the ice for your exposures. Near the shoreline, look for fallen leaves imbedded in the ice. Marsh grasses and other aquatic plants frozen on or just beneath the surface can mold ice into interesting shapes and patterns.

COLD GOLD Weather can also cause ice to form in mysterious ways. For example, if it's windy as the water is freezing, frozen ripples and waves can form. When it's very, very cold and the wind is still, delicate feather-like frost sculptures can be found "growing" out of the ice as if there had been an enormous pillow fight.

An especially exciting time to shoot is when temperatures rise. Some of the best ice formations are created from melting and cracking ice. But remember, conditions are continuously changing. So, if you see something you like, shoot it! It isn't going to look the same later. If the melt lasts for a few days, you'll have plenty of opportunities to find new and unique subjects.

Because light dramatically effects how ice looks, try shooting ice under a variety of lighting conditions. Sunlight bouncing off of or passing through ice can make for stunning images, whereas, cloudy days provide nice even lighting that will reveal wonderfully fine detail in your subject.

Ice has many of the same optical properties as glass, being both transparent and reflective. Use these properties to add color to your compositions. For instance, find transparent subjects with colorful backgrounds or take shots of highly reflective ice at sunrise or sunset.


A sturdy tripod is mandatory since great depth of field and slow shutter speeds are frequently the case. A camera with a spot meter and depth of field preview is very handy.

You really don't need really fast lenses for close-ups of ice and, in fact, it may be a disadvantage. For example, when strong sunlight passes through icicles the light refracts, creating spectral highlights of every color. I sometimes like to include these colors as out of focus circles in the background. The problem is that, to get circles, you have to shoot with the lens aperture wide open or else you get polygons from the shape of the diaphragm. A fast lens of f2.8, shot wide open, probably will not give you the depth of field you need to keep your subject in focus. This is especially true for fast telephoto lenses in the 200 to 300mm range.

Often, a longer lens is necessary because it may not be prudent nor possible to get close to your enough to your subject. The ice may be too fragile or there might be five feet of cold rushing water between you your subject. Another advantage of a long lens is that it narrows your field of view and helps to keep distracting elements out of the shot.

To compensate for the darker image associated with extension tubes and slower lenses, I have replaced the standard focusing screens on my cameras with Beattie screens. This makes the viewfinder image an amazing two stops brighter.

As for film, experiment with different kinds. You may find that you prefer one over another. Some films are warmer, some are colder, it just depends on what you're trying to convey. A warming filter is makes great complement.


Sometimes metering ice can be quite straightforward, as in the case of ice on a lake that is reflecting the light of a sunset. Just, spot meter a color on the ice that you like and vary the exposure to lighten or darken the tone of that color to give you the mood that you wish to convey.

SURFACE ICE FORMATIONS AND GRASSES But most of the time, you often can't get a good meter reading off the ice itself. You'll have to meter off a gray card, substitute spot meter off something of known tonality, or use an incident light meter—all of which must be in the same light as your subject.

Difficulties with exposure also exist with close-up work. Icicles, for instance, are both transparent and reflective, and can be clear, white, or the color of the background. Nothing in the shot may be of a known tonality.

A gray card works as long as the card is in the same light as your subject and you have it angled squarely with the back of the camera to minimize glare bouncing off the card. You can also use an incident light meter. Again, you must take the reading in the same light as the subject. The big drawback, however, is that it can't automatically compensate for light lost due to filters or, in the case of close-up work, lens extension. You'll have to calculate these values yourself and open up accordingly.

Often, your frozen subject can have white in it, like snow or the bubbles found in icicles. If you shoot slide film, you'll need to underexpose by a about a stop to COYOTE CROSSING maintain detail in the whites. Using your camera built-in spot meter, meter the brightest white portion in the frame. Then, open up one to one and a third stops. This will automatically make the proper one-stop underexposure. If you don't have a spot meter or the area of white is too small or scattered to get a reading, then use your gray card or incident light meter, then close down one stop. When stopping down, you'll probably want to shorten the shutter speed instead of changing the aperture since, most of the time, depth of field is the main priority. Being able to precisely meter these dramatic subjects will give you the option of taking a few more shots with slight variations in exposure (say 1/3 stop under or over) to create different colors and moods.

Ice is to winter, as flowers are to spring. A single sparkling icicle is to a lone frail blossom as a field of flowers is to a frozen lake at sunset. Just as flowers fade, ice melts away. Make this winter your time to discover the magical world of ice.

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