January Newsletter: How to Photograph Boiling Water Turning into Snow

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This month, we’re going to talk about how to photograph boiling water turning into snow. If you live in the cold northland, you’ve probably tried this trick before. You boil water, head outside, throw it into the air and watch it turn to snow. It’s great fun for kids (and adults) on a freezing cold winter day. I’m middle aged and haven’t tired of this trick yet, so I’m doubtful it will ever get boring, but if it does get boring you can always try to photograph it. With a few tricks, you’ll get it right on the second or third throw.

Before I give away those hints, how about a little update about what happened in December?

Basically, December was cold. Below normal. Freezing cold. It was so awesome! The lake started forming lots of ice early on and it’s still going. I’ve already seen grease ice on it and it’s early to see square miles of grease ice. The recent winds broke it all up, but if this cold weather keeps up, it’s going to be a great year for ice formation on the big lake.

How to Photograph Boiling Water Turning into Snow

throwing boiling water to watch it turn to snow

You may have heard of the recent “Polar Vortex” that invaded the Midwest? It just felt like a normal winter day in Grand Marais. At sunset during the “Polar Vortex,” we hiked down to Devil Track Lake to do the old Minnesotan-throwing-boiling-water-into-the-air-and-watching-it-become-snow trick. We threw it and it became snow. But, this picture caught something special. You can actually see both snow and water droplets, which leads us into a little science…

When you throw boiling-hot water into the cold air, it freezes faster than throwing cold water into the air. Usually, the cold water just hits the snow, but the hot water turns to snow. It seems like a big mystery until you think about it this way: hot water is closer to steam has less viscosity (think thickness or stickiness) than cold water and because of this when thrown into the air, it breaks up into small water droplets whereas cold water stays together and drops as large droplets. A bunch of small droplets has more overall surface area compared to larger droplets of the same volume and more surface area means faster freezing. The small droplets of water from boiling water become snow because the heat is sucked out quickly, whereas the big droplets of water from cold water hold their heat and fall to the ground without freezing (The same reason that Lake Superior takes so long to freeze in the winter — its large volume of water holds its heat).

In this picture you can see the snow that has been created and you can also see several large drops of water flying through the air that had not frozen yet. Very cool (literally).

Gotta love winter in the northwoods.

So, how do you photograph boiling water turning into snow? It’s easy.

  1. Head out during the golden hours of the day, which is usually up to a couple of hours after sunrise and starts a couple of hours before sunset. Luckily, in the northland, we only have that many hours of sunlight during the day, so it’s all golden hour.
  2. Find an open field that looks towards the sun.
  3. Boil water on a camping stove (or bring it with you in a thermos — this will only work for short periods of time). Boil a bunch of water in the field and either dip out of the boil water or pour it into a thermo so you have multiple goes.
  4. Position your thrower so that you’re looking into the sun and the sun is off to one side in the frame, like in the shot above. The thrower should throw the water into the sun for the photo. Watch for wind drift and make sure you are far out of the range of the falling water.
  5. Put a wide angle lens on your camera and shoot wide.
  6. Set your camera to continuous shutter mode, so it can rapid fire one shot after another.
  7. Set your camera on manual. Aperture at about f/5.6 to f/8.
  8. Set your ISO to about 400.
  9. Adjust your exposure with your shutter speed until the exposure indicator centers on the zero. If your shutter speed is under 500, boost your ISO and redo the exposure.
  10. Shoot a sample shot and check your exposure. The sun will blow out, but you don’t want it to blow out too much. Your person should be silhouetted.
  11. Focus on the water thrower and lock your focus at that point or turn off your autofocus system after you get focus or manually focus.
  12. Have the water thrower get two to four cups of boiling water.
  13. Frame the thrower off to the side.
  14. Have the person throw on your command.
  15. Hold the shutter down and shoot until the water/snow is gone.
  16. Try again!

This is super fun and always a challenge. I hope this helps you capture this unique winter experience.

Upcoming Photography Workshops

Morning light glows in a snowy pine forest, George Washington Pine, on the Gunflint Trail. Minnesota.

These are the workshops that I have coming up in the next few months.

  • February 7 to 9, 2014 – Lake Superior Winter Photography Workshop – Full (maybe one opening)
  • February 21 to 23, 2014 – Lake Superior Winter Photography Workshop – Nearly full
  • April 5 to 6, 2014 — Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge Photography Workshop in Des Moines, Iowa – Registrations started — This is the bargain of the year. It’s $149 for the entire workshop, plus it’s with two photography instructors. John Gregor of ColdSnap Photography and I are co-teaching this workshop. We approach photography slightly differently, so this should be an outstanding learning experience. I’m looking so forward to shooting a Neal Smith in the early spring, too.
  • April 25 to 27, 2014 — Spring Waterfall Photography Workshop – Registrations started. This is year going to be a massive runoff year. We have a huge snowpack, so the waterfalls are going to rage. It’ll feel like the ground is shaking when we stand next to them. I’m going to guess this is one of the best runoff years since I moved up here 10 years ago. I’m running a $20 off on the April 25 to 27 Spring Waterfall Photography Workshop for people who register in January, so if that is one you have been looking at now is the time to register, because it’ll save you $20.
  • May 2-4, 2014 — Spring Waterfall Photography Workshop (second session if first fills)

Workshop Sale: I’m running a $20 off on the April 25 to 27 Spring Waterfall Photography Workshop for people who register in January, so if that is one you have been looking at, now is the time to register. It’ll save you $20.

Select December Images

Here are a few images from December that I love.


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