Using a macro lens to photograph leaves
Photographer Natalie Kinnear goes leaf collecting with her macro kit
Looking closely at the detail within nature has always held an endless fascination for me. Little wonder then, to find me pondering how to capture the amazingly intricate designs within leaf structures. I quickly realised that they could be depicted beautifully utilising macro photography and a lightbox.
While macro photography may not demand the absolute patience required of a wildlife photographer, it certainly pays to take your time over each stage of the process. This is particularly true, if you’re considering turning the final image into a large print or canvas for home décor. The larger the image ends up, the greater the chance that dust, damage and blemishes will show. Post-capture editing is an option, but I find that getting as much right in-camera as possible ultimately saves time.
I took time and care over the choice of each and every leaf to be used. If leaves were too thick, they were rejected, as I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get the light to shine through sufficiently. If the patterns were too similar to ones previously used, they too, were rejected.
Once I found a tree with suitable leaves I then spent quite a while looking for the best possible example of the leaf. I was after a fresh new leaf with no visible damage or decay. Subsequent gentle washing of the leaf helped to rid it of any dust or dirt which, whilst not necessarily visible to the naked eye, would almost certainly show up once examined under a macro lens and extension tubes. Drying the leaf also had to be done with great care. Any excessive pressure during this process could easily have damaged it, creating dark patches which would ruin the design.
The final preparation involved placing the leaf between some sheets of kitchen roll and pressing it for a short time under a book or two. I am a great fan of differential focus, but for these images I was aiming for sharpness throughout. Having the subject as flat as possible, thus enabling the leaf to be photographed parallel to the plane of the lens, would help achieve this.
Minimising vibrations during exposure will also help to achieve the sharpest image possible. Pressing the shutter will inevitably cause a degree of vibration; to avoid this it is advisable to use either a remote switch or a self-timer. Also, utilising mirror lock-up, which locks the mirror up just prior to exposure, rather than during, further helps.
When I shoot macro I use a 100mm macro lens, and for closer, more detailed examination of the subject I will also use extension tubes. Focusing at such close distances is extremely precise so I find the use of a tripod essential.
To facilitate focusing even further, I also have a focusing rail attached to the tripod which enables me to manoeuvre the camera back and forth in minute amounts. The backlighting of the images was created by placing the leaves on the lightbox. This highlights the leaf’s structure beautifully and strongly distinguishes the veins, creating each leaf’s very distinctive design. One of the beauties of this type of photography is the amount of time available to get the composition right.
Not being the fastest of thinkers, I find it an absolute luxury that I can take my time making minute adjustments to the placement of the leaf in order to get the exact composition I’m after. When so much care has been taken to get to this stage, it would be a real shame to rush the final moment of image taking.
Once I have the image uploaded to the computer I carry out whatever editing is required. For some of the designs in the series, this included selecting areas of the leaf to be darkened in order to give it an additional edge compositionally.
Finally, for the images to be completely up to scratch, I examined each one at 100 per cent on screen. At this point any little specks and marks, sensor dust, or leaf defects, which would only have become apparent when viewed at this magnification, were cloned out.
As soon as I started learning about photography I was very much attracted to macro, so the Canon EF 100mm macro lens was something I started saving up for almost immediately. Of course, though, when it comes to camera gear, no sooner have you managed to acquire one piece of kit on your wish list, than you start to eye up yet another must-have item. So gradually over the years I have also added the Jessops extension tubes, Kirk focusing rail and Kaiser lightbox to my photography kit bag.
My camera is the full-frame sensor, 12.8-megapixel Canon EOS 5D. I also have a wide-angle and telephoto lens, a Velbon Tripod and two camera bags – a small Crumpler bag, for when I am very disciplined in deciding which bits of kit to carry with me, and a ‘take it all with you’ Lowepro rucksack for my less decisive days.
Achieving even backlighting for a horizontal, flat object, like a leaf, is challenging. Taking the DIY approach, you’ll need a perspex sheet, workbench and table lamp. The workbench is to secure the perspex in a safe, secure horizontal position. Once you’re happy with that, place the table lamp underneath it.
For this to work, you need to make sure the perspex is perfectly clean; the slightest smear can affect your image. The final hurdle is ensuring the light from the lamp is even. Experimenting with a few different lightbulbs is a good idea.
A simpler approach is to buy a lightbox. And they’re not as expensive as you might think.
To see more of Natalie's work please click here nataliekinnearphotography.co.uk or visit her Facebook page here.
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