Digital SLR Photography

Leave it on the lightbox: Autumnal still-life

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

The changing leaves of autumn have to be one of the year’s biggest highlights for many photographers, whether they’ve a penchant for landscapes, portraits or still-lifes. The varied colour palette can be quite the spectacle, providing the perfect luminous backdrop for creative still-lifes. Whether backlit by the sun or artificially by a lightbox, the amber and auburn leaves glow and their details become visibly enriched. As lightboxes are a throwback to the days of film photography, unless you have one stashed away they can be tough to find. However, an LED light pad or even a table-top lamp under a sheet of glass, diffused by tracing paper, can work.

You’ll need a fair few leaves for this set-up, so ready a bag by gathering all shapes, sizes and colours before you begin. Think about the types of compositions you’ll be trying out, too: will you want to create contrast by combining different colours and shapes, or focus on repetitive patterns. You’ll need a macro lens or the equivalent to be able to focus close enough to fill the frame and a tripod to position the camera directly overhead. It’s a simple set-up but you’ll be surprised at what time you’ll kill trying different designs and combinations.

1 Collect the leaves
Spend some time gathering some leaves – local parks and gardens are a good starting point. Pick freshly fallen leaves with few marks or holes, of different colours, types and shapes to inject a strong tonal range and interest in your composition. Amber leaves are the least densely coloured and therefore work best backlit.

2 Set up your lightbox
If you have a lightbox already, skip this step. If you don’t, you can try an LED drawing pad (Amazon offer a few) that’s powered by USB, a desk lamp under a sheet glass or a glass-topped coffee table. Place a sheet of tracing paper over the top of the glass to soften and widen the spread of light.


3 Set your Exposure
Compose your leaves on the lightbox, set your camera to aperture-priority mode and dial in a mid-aperture of f/8-f/11. The backlight will trick your camera’s TTL metering into underexposing the image, so you’ll want to apply up to a stop of positive exposure compensation for instant brightening.

4 Control the depth-of-field
When taking overhead shots, optimise depth-of-field by keeping the camera’s sensor – which sits parallel to the rear LCD panel – square to the subject, so as to keep all objects in focus. If the camera is slanted at an angle to the subject, areas may drift out of focus if you’re also not using a sufficiently small aperture.

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5 Set your White Balance
As the leaves are already warm, Auto White Balance may attempt to correct what it thinks is a warm colour cast and neutralise the leaves’ natural warmth by cooling it down. If this happens, change the White Balance setting from Auto to Cloudy or shoot in Raw format so you can tweak it in post-production.

6 Adjust the arrangement
When overlaying leaves of similar colour, try to place darker tones underneath as they’ll be denser and need more backlighting. You may also find a focal point is needed to create contrast and an anchor. Having gaps where the lightbox shines through is distracting, too, so play with the arrangements.