Chicago Snokeh

Snokeh – freezing snow in its place

I crave winter snowstorms. And one of the ways I like to add variety to my winterscapes is by capturing ‘snokeh.’

Snokeh is a mash-up of ‘snow’ and ‘bokeh’ and it’s is a technique I started experimenting with last winter. This in-camera special effect can be a little gimmicky but it can also yield unique, dream-like images. The secret is simple. Fire your camera’s flash to  illuminate the snow falling in front of your lens. In practice though, there are a few variables that dictate the final product: The snow, the lens, and the flash.

These shots were taken seconds apart. The only difference is that the on-camera flash fired.

The Snow:
This is a variable you obviously can’t control. Heavier, fluffier snow will yield more numerous, bigger snokeh orbs than a light flurry of fine snow. This isn’t a tip so much as a reminder that your results will vary. You’re at the mercy of nature.

The Lens:
My go-to lens for this technique is the 24-70 f/2.8. For a couple reasons. First, the zoom range is perfect. The size of the snokeh is not only determined by the snow itself, but by lens characteristics, too. If you shoot wide <24 mm, the snokeh orbs get somewhat small. Conversely, when your focal length is greater than 70mm, you effectively zoom through the nearby illuminated flakes. In other words, the flakes near your lens are so out-of-focus and ill-defined you can’t tell they’re snow flakes.

This shot was taken at 68mm. To me, the snokeh is too soft and big to be read as falling snow.

The other reason I love a fast 25-70 is its wide aperture. If you’ve ever tried to get a nice bokeh-y background, you know the trick is a wide aperture. Really, all we’re doing is creating bokeh in the foreground of the photo as opposed to the background. At f/2.8 you can shoot quick, handheld, and it softens the flakes just right.

The Flash:
The on-camera flash works just fine for this technique. Especially in the 40+mm range. But it’s not perfect. When the on-camera flash fires, your lens will cut into the light creating a semi-circular shadow of un-illuminated snowflakes near the bottom of the frame.

This is a really drastic example taken at 19mm. The flash illuminating the snow already on the ground really makes this unfortunate side-effect quite apparent:

Here you can see the ‘cone of darkness’ in the comparison photo from earlier in the post:

So, how do you remedy this? There are a couple ways:

  1. Zoom.
  2. Crop out the dark area.
  3. Use a speed lite. This is the best option if you want to shoot wider. Because the flash is lifted up higher off the top of your camera, the lens doesn’t cut into the light beam near as much.

I snagged this photo from atop LondonHouse using my speed lite. Even At 18mm, there was no ‘cone of darkness’  to crop or edit out. The motion-blurred effect was a happy accident. The winds were swirling, and a particularly strong gust propelled a burst of snow quickly passed my lens.

 

I hope you have fun with this technique. One thing’s for sure, it’s not an exact science. Ambient light levels and snow amounts will yield a variety of results. The best thing to do is get out there and have some fun while the snow is falling. And bundle up.