We wonder at the color of Autumn leaves, but it takes a photographer to show us how complex and beautiful the pigmentation process is. Look at these spectacular photos taken by Bruce Leander, then read how he achieved these effects. All of the leaves were collected on the Wildflower Center grounds.
Bruce Leander tells you how
One day recently I decided to take pictures of leaves. I was interested in the shapes and the change of color this fall. It is not difficult and you can do it many different ways with different kinds of equipment. This is how I chose to do it. I used an old Bogen copy stand and attached my Nikon D300 DSLR with a 105mm macro lens. I have a light box that has daylight balanced bulbs inside and two disk lights with daylight balanced bulbs attached to the copy stand with arm brackets.
With the copy stand on a table the camera ends up being quite high so I used a right angle view finder I have so I didn't have to stand on a chair and look straight down into the camera viewfinder. Even with the right angle view finder, I had to stand on a chair to get the exposure and focus right. Then I got a little fancier and a little lazier. I hooked my camera to a laptop computer and shot tethered. I used Adobe Lightroom to capture the tethered camera images as they came into the laptop. Even that was not perfect as you don't get a "live view" on the computer screen of what the camera sees so you still have to frame the picture and focus by using the viewfinder on the camera. So I researched it on the Internet and purchased a $10 program called "ControlMyNikon" and that allowed me to get a live view on my laptop of what my camera was seeing real time. So now I could turn the focus ring on my lens and check the focus of the subject on the computer screen. I didn't have to spend so much time standing on the chair – I could almost do this from the comfort of a Barcalounger.
It was then a pretty simple exercise of trial and error to get the exposure right. I knew I wanted a pure white background with no shadow so that's why I'm using a light box. If you shoot down on a leaf sitting on a white piece of paper and light it from above you will get a shadow around the leaf. If the light source is large and diffuse and comes from at least a couple of angles, the shadows are not bad, I just didn't want any. I also didn't want it so bright that it created a glowing light fringe around the leaf edges. I wanted to allow some light to shine through the leaves but not too much light to make the leaves look transparent. If you find the light to be a little too bright you can put a piece of regular copier paper below the leaves on top of the light box and that will reduce the intensity of the light enough to balance things out. Then I used my two photography lights with 12" reflectors to light from above. I wanted to get some light coming up through the leaves from the light box and I wanted some light from above to light the top of the leaves – balanced in a pleasing way. I was able to do that shooting at 1/20 sec at f16. Because I can trigger the camera from the laptop computer I don't have to worry about moving the camera and creating a fuzzy image by pushing my finger down on the camera shutter release. If I didn't use the tethering software, I would have just attached a cable release cable to the camera which I did for some of the early shots I took of the leaves.
Most of the leaves were flat so I didn't have to be concerned about getting the whole subject in focus as everything was pretty much flat and perpendicular to the camera sensor – a good thing if you want your picture to be sharp. Plus, I was shooting at f16 so that gave me enough focus zone to get everything sharp. If the leaves had a curl I would smother them with a heavy book for a few minutes and that seemed to relax and quiet them down. Then it was just a question of collecting some leaves and shooting them. After taking their picture I did a little post processing on them. Sharpening, some contrast boost and I whitened the background if it was graying out anywhere. There is a fine line between getting the background pure white and pumping up too much light that will leave blown out fringes around the leaves. I erred on the side of not too much light coming up from below because I knew I could always fix that in Lightroom or Photoshop in post processing.
This is the "going a little overboard" part. I wanted to take pictures of leaves that are curled or layered on each other so I used a technique called focus stacking. I use that a lot out in the field (when the wind is not blowing). Basically it's taking multiple pictures of the same thing moving the camera incrementally on a focus rail. Like shooting from the top to the bottom of a leaf in 5 or six steps moving the camera slightly each time. Using software, you can then stack everything that is in focus and ignore everything that is out of focus. You end up with a picture that has everything in focus that you want in focus…and you don't have to stop down to f22 or higher and deal with refraction problems. I have an automated focus rail called a StackShot by Cognisys. This allows you to control a focus rail using the supplied controller box or from your computer. I control it using my computer and software called Zerene Stacker. So now I really could sit in my Barcalounger and completely control the camera settings including focus.
After looking this explanation over, it seems a little complicated if you don't have all the pieces in front of you and work through the issues for a few hours. It really isn't that hard. You can do the same thing with a piece of translucent material. Use a light or a flash below and find some light to shine from above (it could even be window light). Or just shoot some leaves on a piece of white paper. It isolates the subject and I think makes for an interesting image. Leaves are very interesting and for most trees you get a new batch every year so if you missed out this year, there is always next year.