How Alex Gordon captures the incredible abstract beauty of ice cubes
Even the seemingly mundane objects can be beautiful – if you know how to look and how to capture them. Photographer Alex Gordon certainly does, and his ice cube photos captivated me when I recently stumbled upon them. That’s right, Alex takes photos of ice cubes, which may sound totally ordinary. But with the right vision and gear, he captures the incredibly gorgeous micro-world inside of them. He told us more about his abstract macro photos, so sit back and enjoy this journey through the secret life of ice.
I loved Alex’s photos at first sight, as they bring together macro and abstract photography, both of which I admire. After staring at them and soaking up the colors and details, I wanted to know more about his work. Here is what Alex shared with DIYP.
DIYP: What initially drew you to using ice cubes as a photography subject?
Alex: The very first piece of ice that captured my attention was an ice sphere in my glass of whiskey. I was sitting in the backyard in the Summer one afternoon, sipping on a glass of whiskey, and for a moment I raised my glass up to the sun, which in turn illuminated the ice sphere from within. When I saw the natural slow-motion explosion happening from within the sphere, I was instantly hooked. I like many people don’t really give two thoughts to the formations within the ice in your drink. I took a few pictures of that sphere with my phone as it melted, and showed it to a few friends, and “wow” was the overall consensus. After that day, I knew I was onto something new and exciting.
DIYP: Do you incorporate other objects or elements besides ice cubes in your compositions?
Alex: For the most part, no. I have solely been shooting ice cubes/spheres in a glass of Coke thus far. I have on occasion shot the ice in my cocktails with some fun outcomes.
The only other larger object has been a large “Ice Globe” which was fun to experiment with. It was about 10″ wide, and so I had to figure out a way to get colors to show through it, as it’s too big to put into a glass. This led me to using an iPad with a bright colored background which sat behind the globe as I shot through it.
DIYP: How has your process evolved over time, and what techniques have you experimented with?
Alex: It’s evolved quite a bit. I have been practicing this craft for a few years now, every chance I get, I’m a little obsessed at this point. I started off with just lighting the side of the glass with my iPhone light, sometimes I still do if in a pinch! From there, I have gone from taking pics with my phone to investing in a mirrorless camera with a dedicated super sharp macro lens. That made the biggest difference (obviously). At that point, I didn’t really know anything about macro photography or how to do it – that’s when YouTube came in handy! I taught myself how to use the equipment and learned the macro photography technique of “focus stacking” through the many amazing tutorials available.
The first time I tried focus stacking an ice cube I knew this was going to be fun. It essentially captures in focus everything from the edge of the ice closest to the lens, all the way through until it can’t focus anymore. It then flattens that into an amazing, almost otherworldly scene. I have also been experimenting with different lighting setups ever since. I use 100% white light, as the Coke has so many different colors in it already, and colored light doesn’t penetrate the dark liquid quite as well. The angle of the light and the distance from the glass is what determines the colors that are going to show through in the final image.
I originally started out just using a speedlight on top of the camera for my flash, and my iPhone propped up against the side of the glass to illuminate the ice from within for my lighting. I was using this method for a few years until I started getting into insect macro. So I invested in a stand with clips and a bendable LED ring light, also a dedicated LED ring light that sits at the end of the lens. I have since stopped using the flash, as it reflects too much off of the surface of the ice. I now just use combinations of the LED ring light on the bendy arm, and the other ring light, which I have found to work extra well when the glass sits on top of it, and lights the glass up from within! Recently I purchased a twin macro bendy light setup that sits on top of the camera to further aid lighting from various angles.
What I didn’t expect when I started out, was how awesome of an effect focus stacking has once it captures all the light that is bouncing around the liquid and the cube, as the camera moves its focus through the cube, and it’s different every single time, which is what makes each one of these images take on a life of their own!
One of the most noticeable improvements was when I switched from shooting these stacks entirely handheld, to using a motorized macro slider/rail. Shooting handheld gives you the freedom of movement, but comes with the cost of blurry images. About a year ago I purchased a compact motorized slider to help me with shooting (deceased) insects. handheld is very hard unless you have great stabilization in the lens or camera, or both. The Laowa 100mm lens I use doesn’t have any VR and is fully manual. I have learned to hold my breath really well over the years, but I still shake no matter how hard I try. With the new motorized slider and lots of practice on insects over the Summers, I have now gone from 30-40 shots per stack (handheld), to 100-180 shots. This makes a huge difference in the clarity and amount of minute details the lens can pick up.
DIYP: What are your biggest technical challenges when capturing these ice cube photos?
Alex: The biggest one is the movement of the ice in the liquid. Any slight movement, and the shot is gone, and with time of the essence, and with each minute the ice changing form inside and out, you have to move quickly, because if you don’t, there’s no recreating any of them. I usually use 3 2″ cubes at a time in the glass so they stop each other from moving too much, and there are multiple shots you can take in one session. I have also found that chopsticks are a wonderful tool to keep the cubes from moving around.
Second, the interior is what counts most, if there’s nothing interesting on the surface or not enough air bubbles/structures in the interior, then you toss it. A lot get tossed. I have learned to add a dash of soda water to get more bubbles. But it’s a fine line between a great cube and a white block of frozen fizz. Experimenting is key.
DIYP: Can you share any tips or tricks for aspiring macro photographers interested in similar subjects?
- Practice, practice, practice. Macro is literally an art form and takes dedication and patience. I’d say 80% of the shots I take don’t turn out, and that’s ok. You have to be ok with that. I try, and I try again. Just have fun with it.
- Try different things. Everything in its macro form is mind-blowing! Macro isn’t just insects (although they are about as alien as you can get once you see them up close!).
- Learn focus stacking in its various forms. YouTube is an amazing resource of tutorials.
- Try different lighting. lighting is 90% of what makes my art take its different forms.
- Steadiness is key! Movement is your enemy in macro. If handheld in the field, you have to be able to hold your breath well and control your heartbeat as you are shooting. Otherwise, you’ll need a tripod, and/or a macro rail/slider that eradicates any unnecessary movements.
DIYP: How important is post-processing in achieving the final image? Does it take a lot of time in front of the computer, or you achieve most of what you want in-camera?
Alex: Very important. What’s often captured by the camera is dull, and often needs cropping down. The shots are also full of debris (both in the liquid and on the surface of the ice). Minute bits of hair and dust cannot be seen by the naked eye, so I spend hours on each image removing all these tiny unwanted specs that detract from the other important areas of the ice. It’s tedious, but the final outcome is so much cleaner. Aside from that, I also pump up the vibrance and saturation of the overall image to make them pop more, and bring out the beautiful rich hues/tones of the colors that Coke has hidden away.
DIYP: How do you feel about the unique and unrepeatable nature of each capture?
Alex: I think that is what makes doing this so exciting! Each one is completely unique, and can never be recreated. Every time I shoot a piece of ice it turns out completely different, especially when I change the lighting angles between shoots. It’s like each cube holds a window into another world for a short time, my aim is to capture that, and show how beautiful something as mundane as an ice cube can be. I’m a firm believer that it’s the small things in life that count! The only problem is that I can’t stop looking at the ice cubes in my drinks whenever I go out now. :)
Enjoy more of Alex’s fantastic photos below, and visit his website and Facebook page for even more of his work. And the next time you put ice cubes into your drink, remember that beauty truly is in small, ordinary things.
Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.