Photographing Window Ice Crystals

Sometimes it’s fun to just play with your toys.


If you’ve been following the weather lately, you’ve no doubt noticed that the weather here in Minnesota has been colder’n a well-digger’s backside. This morning, a beautiful morning with a glorious winter sun shining over a fresh dusting of snow, looked much warmer than it actually was, somewhere around 18 degrees below zero.

My wife and I live in an older home, built in the mid-fifties, with a couple of windows that are not as airtight as they should be. In weather like this the moisture between the panes create beautiful and intricate patterns of ice crystals. In temperatures like this morning’s, most homes will show ice crystals somewhere.

The window I would be using is in the kitchen and faces straight into the dawn at this time of year. There is a hill about 75’ from the window that keeps direct sunlight off the window for about half an hour after actual sunrise, so the first images would be without any highlights. 

I used the Daylight white balance preset so I could retain the color temperature changes I’d be sure to see over the course of the next hour or so. I also set the camera to its Aperture Priority setting, so the camera would react to the light, and set the aperture to f/4.5. Such an aperture would give me a little depth of field while keeping the background soft and out of focus.


Shooting into light, no matter how minimal, will result in underexposure because the function of the camera’s light meter is average for a perfect exposure of middle gray. I planned to use the camera’s Exposure Compensation function to adjust exposure, checking it against the LCD screen.

My first exposures were predictably dark and moody, just look at the featured image. Beautiful! 

When the first rays of sunlight hit the window it was like magic. The crystals refracted the light along the moisture lines that had formed them and helped define their shape. This image was also made without any EC. 

 I wanted to see what would happen if the EC was kicked up, effectively overexposing the image as the camera saw it. I dialed the EC up 2/3 stop, which meant, in Av Mode, that the shutter speed would slow down. This can be a problem in low light, because it’s tough to be steady enough to avoid motion blur in lower light and, whether the shutter is fast enough or not, hand-holding the camera is also iffy, as critical focus is obtainable over a really short distance of only a millimeter or so. Obviously, too much morning caffeine could pose a hazard on both ends. 

One way to compensate for the slower shutter speeds is to increase the ISO by 2/3 stop. Increasing it even more will result in faster shutter speeds if you need them. 

To my delight, dialing down the EC, to -2/3 stop below the original exposure, also produced beautiful images, leaving highlights more “normally” exposed and allowing the shadows to deepen. Very artsy and delicate. 

Like I said, sometimes it’s fun just to play with your toys.