Monday 1 February 2021

Frozen Flower Photography

Here we are in a new year which should offer us hope of a new beginning and we're back in another Covid lockdown. Nowhere is open to photograph. We can't travel outside our immediate area and the border with beautiful Wales just four miles away is closed. This lock down in the dead of Winter is likely to last for several weeks making it doubly hard but there is truly hope on the horizon. The Covid vaccine roll out is offering us hope so it's important that we keep our minds busy until it's delivered and we get our freedom back.

I love photographing flowers because of their patience. In a garden they'll sit there and pose for you without complaint until you get the shot that you want. During the Winter months they'll do the same as still life subjects indoors. A form of still life that I've seen and have always wanted to try is photographing frozen flowers. The combination of Covid restrictions and the cold weather has put me into hibernation mode so this is another photography project to keep myself warm indoors and my brain ticking over until the Spring.

To practice, I collected a variety of leaves, grass heads and dead flower heads in order to create a composition to signify Autumn. Apart from the composition, the most important part of creating frozen flowers is the type of water used and its quality.  

"Autumn" - tap water boiled once

Common tap water when it freezes is cloudy white due to impurities which makes it almost impossible to make out any detail in the subject matter or the ice. The tap water above was boiled once to get rid of impurities and air and when cold a small amount of water (approx 1cm) was poured into a plastic sandwich tub. The leaves and seed heads were then arranged in the bottom of the tub and put in a freezer to glue the composition in place to prevent them from floating. Once solid, more water was added in 1cm stages to prevent the bottom layer from thawing. When you have your preferred thickness, give the ice a polish with a warm wet cloth and try to photograph it with a back light. As you can see there are so many tiny bubbles in the ice that the finished image is far "too busy" and there's no opacity.

Before making my second attempt I sought out advice from Youtube. The most common advice received was to use de-ionised water (used to top up car batteries) boiled twice. I tested this technique using de-ionised water from Halfords costing £3.90 for 5 lts against tap water. Both were boiled twice and frozen in identical plastic tubs. The tap water remained cloudy white and impossible to see through while the de-ionised water was much clearer. I was now ready for a second attempt. 

I realised that to make an impact I needed to buy flowers with a strong structural form and colour. These came in the form of some yellow Roses with a red edge and a mixture of Spray Chrysanthemums. 

Yellow Roses in de-ionised water boiled twice

The de-ionised water worked far better as there are fewer small bubbles of impurity in the ice. The strings of bubbles is air pushed out of the Roses as the water freezes. The opacity of the ice is far greater. 

To photograph this second session I placed the ice on a sheet of glass raised up on plastic flower pots with a sheet of white paper underneath the glass as a background. LED lights were shone beneath the glass from two sides. The photographs were taken with a macro lens on a tripod. You soon find out that melting water is your enemy so have a towel on standby to mop up.

Spray Chrysanthemum with added food dye

As an experiment I froze some blue and yellow Spray Chrysanthemums and added a few drops of blue food dye on top of the frozen base layer of water and placed it back into the freezer. To my surprise it didn't freeze so when I added the second layer of water it spread. On another block of flowers I added too much yellow dye and it spread throughout the whole block of ice making it unusable. If you're going to try this then use the neat food dye very sparingly.

Yellow Spray Chrysanthemum and blue food dye

Yellow Spray Chrysanthemum and blue food dye

Using a macro lens and getting in close to picking out detail can be fun and give you some creative results and those results can be very unpredictable. You don't have to use real flowers. My final creation used a pink plastic Dahlia flower frozen in a deep plastic tub of double boiled de-ionised water. The patterns of air in the ice block were the best of the batch. The block was photographed in the same way as before on a sheet of glass raised off the ground on plastic flower pots with blue paper underneath the glass as a background. LED lights were shone underneath from two sides. 

Pink plastic Dahlia flower in de-ionised water

Pink plastic Dahlia flower in de-ionised water

It can take a bit of effort creating the blocks of frozen flowers. Boiling a small pan of de-ionised water, letting it cool and boiling it again doesn't take long, but freezing the water in stages to the end result can take 48 hrs. My biggest problem was getting enough backlight to bring out the detail in the ice. Hold a block up to the sky and the detail can be wonderful but how do you do that and use a camera at the same time. Holding a melting ice block is like holding a bar of wet soap. I imagine a lightbox with a sheet of glass on top would be ideal. 

After a short break I'm planning another attempt at photographing frozen flowers. It's creative, unpredictable and can keep you photographing from the warmth of your home during the coldest weeks of Covid lock down.

12th February Update

After photographing the ice blocks I placed them back into the freezer until I had time to photograph them a second time under different lighting conditions. A few days ago in an attempt to get more backlight through the blocks I tried to use the fluorescent strip lighting underneath the kitchen wall cupboards as the light source and shot with a macro lens with the ice blocks stood up against a white and black cloth. The results below are dramatically different. I had to use an LED torch shone in front to balance the light in the bottom half of the blocks. The same ice blocks but with a different result.

Iced Roses

Plastic Chrysanthemum

Plastic Chrysanthemum

Ice Rose Detail

Ice Rose Detail

To conclude, to get the best result from any photograph the most important task is getting the lighting right. That's just as important whether it's a portrait or photographing frozen flowers.