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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Magical Winterscapes: When Diamond Dust Becomes Sun Pillars

Hokkaido in the throes of winter is a treasure trove of photographic subjects. Even if all you wanted to shoot was winter landscapes, your options include a number of mystical but extremely awe-inspiring phenomena that occur only in the extreme cold. These include sun pillars. A landscape photographer shares some tips for shooting them, using examples shot in the Biei-Furano region of Hokkaido. (Reported by: Toshiki Nakanishi, Digital Camera Magazine)

Sun pillar behind white trees

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 188mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/11, 1/125 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight
Shot on 13 January, 8:00am

In this shot, it was very important to ensure that the sunlight reached the trees in the foreground so that the frost on them would be captured as sparkling white.

Shooting conditions

Camera: DSLR (EOS 5D Mark IV)
Lens: Telephoto lens (EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM)
Aperture setting: f/4 or narrower
Shutter speed: Moderate (between 1/30 to 1/250 sec)
Time of day: Morning
Lighting: Backlight
Tripod: Yes
Lens filter: None
Other equipment: Umbrella to block out excess sunlight
Weather conditions: Around -20°C or colder, no wind, moist air 


1. What are sun pillars and when are they likely to occur?
2. Equipment
3. Shooting position and composition
4. Exposure and white balance settings

1. What are sun pillars and when are they likely to occur?

Sun pillars occur when sunlight reflects off clouds of tiny ice crystals (called diamond dust) that are densely packed together. You will usually find them on clear, windless mornings where the temperature falls at least 20°C below freezing point. They materialise as the sun rises, glittering before your eyes, turning into a huge pillar of light in the blink of an eye.

However, they don’t occur often: Even in the Biei and Furano areas of Hokkaido, which are famous for their beautiful rural winter scenery, you usually don’t get to see them more than a few times a month although they might appear any time from mid-December to early March. 

But when you do see them, your heart swells and makes you feel so warm inside, you forget the cold and stay there, awestruck, watching as they silently shine in the twilight, just like tiny angels dancing suspended in the air.

The thicker, column-shaped sun pillars and the ones with rainbow-coloured diamond dust are even more rare—you would be lucky to see them once or twice in an entire winter season. In fact, there may even be some local residents who have never seen them before!

Colourful bokeh circles in the sun pillar

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 400mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/1,000 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 200/ WB: Daylight
Shot on 14 January, 8:15am

Diamond dust floats throughout the entire space around you. If you use a slightly wider aperture, the crystals near to your lens will be turned onto larger bokeh circles, which makes them stand out more. If the conditions are right, they might even appear rainbow coloured.


Frost on trees = higher chance of seeing sun pillars

High-angle shot of frosted trees

For a dense layer of diamond dust to form, the air needs to be moist. Frost is a good indicator: A thick, white layer of frost on nearby trees suggests a higher chance of seeing sun pillars.

Scout out suitable locations beforehand

The Biei-Furano region is huge, and the weather and moisture in the air depends on the area. In places like this, look for possible shoot locations (including shooting positions) whenever you can, so that when all the weather conditions are right, you can just head straight to one of them. After that, it all depends on how well you read the light and choose the best shooting position!


2. Equipment

Photographer shooting with umbrella

Sun pillars are highly likely to form right after daybreak when temperatures are at their coldest.  As you will be shooting into the sun, having an umbrella to block out excess sunlight will help to make your shots look sharper.


3. Shooting position and composition

Photographer shooting with camera tilted downwards

Your angle relative to the sun is very important if you want the sun pillars to be captured clearly. For the main image, I tilted the camera and lens slightly downward.

It is also important to have a dark background so that the sun pillars are more obvious. For the main image, I made use of the shadows cast by the many hills surrounding Biei.

Some people prefer to capture only the phenomena of sun pillars and diamond dust. However, to me, it is also about the natural landscape, and I aim to capture masterpieces that combine both the sun pillar and the nature around it.


4. Exposure and white balance settings

The aperture setting changes how the sun pillar looks

For the main image, I narrowed the aperture to f/11 so that the sun pillar would look like a column of light. But you can also achieve an interesting shot by shooting a few stops wider, which creates round bokeh circles.

Sun pillar bokeh circles

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 400mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/400 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 800/ WB: Daylight

Using a wider aperture turns the snow crystals into countless bokeh circles, which gives the shot a different feel.


Close-up of large sun pillar bokeh circles

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 400mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/3,200 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 200/ WB: Daylight
Shot on 21 January, 9:15am

For this shot, I placed the focus point on a nearby plant. The snow crystals near the camera were transformed into giant bokeh circles that resemble soap bubbles.

Make sure the background is dark

A dark background will probably cause your camera to overexpose the shot a little, so you might want to apply negative exposure compensation.

Golden sun pillar

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 124mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/11, 1/100 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 800/ WB: Daylight
Shot on 17 January, 7:45am

In this shot taken right after sunrise, the sun pillar is coloured by the golden hour light, but the light did not reach the background. Using negative exposure compensation helped to prevent overexposure.

Use WB “Daylight” to make shadows bluish

I usually choose to set the white balance to “Daylight” if I want my shadows to appear more bluish. Using WB “Auto” will result in a white balance that is closer to what your eyes see.


My shooting location

The images in this article were shot in the hills near Biei Town and Kami-furano, which are a 20-minute drive away from Asahikawa Airport. But you can see them anywhere as long as the weather conditions are right.

Conventionally, the optimum shooting position is from high ground, where you can look down and take a high-angle shot. However, the Biei-Furano area has many spots like this. You might want to choose somewhere that allows you to create something different from the norm.


Learn about other scenes you can shoot in Hokkaido in winter in:
2 Mesmerising Winter Photography Spots in Hokkaido

Visiting Biei Town in summer? Try shooting the Blue Pond:
Stunning Summer Landscapes: Scenic Spots in Japan & Pro Photography Tips (2)

For more winter photography tips and ideas, check out:
3 Ways to Capture Compelling Images of Monochromatic Winter Scenes
How to Protect Your Camera for Cold Weather Photography
Photographing Mount Fuji in Winter: Shooting Spots & Composition Tips


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Toshiki Nakanishi

Toshiki Nakanishi

Born in 1971 in Osaka. After learning photography on his own, Nakanishi moved the base for his photography activities to the town of Biei located in Kamikawa-gun of Hokkaido. While capturing landscapes that focus on light, he also produces works that bring out the figurative beauty of nature. Head of PHOTO OFFICE atelier nipek.