Photo project: Photographing backlit abstracts

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

It’s not difficult to see why so many photographers are infatuated with capturing close-ups. Focusing on one small part of an everyday object allows you to see it in a whole new light, and possibly even gain an appreciation for its complexity and composition. The natural world offers no shortage of this, and there are incredible details, structures and patterns to be found all around us; from plants and flowers to tiny creatures and even our own bodies – they all reveal hidden detail when viewed close-up.

The good news about this quick-and-easy project is that you don’t even really need a macro lens to give it a whirl – any standard zoom lens will do, providing you can focus close enough to fill the frame with detail. Obviously, choosing a big leaf helps! The bigger the leaf, the easier it will be to compose the shot without including areas off the edge of the foliage.
Thankfully, large leaves found on common houseplants such as rubber plant (Ficus elastica), Swiss cheese plant (Monstera delicosa) and bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) also offer leaves with fantastic structures to photograph. They’re all available from IKEA for very little outlay, too, so you’ve no excuse!

1. Choose a good specimen

A pristine specimen is important. Look for leaves with strong midribs and veins, as these components aren’t as translucent as the lamina (the actual ‘leafy’ bit). Once you’ve picked your plant, then find a leaf with good form and without many blemishes.

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2. Backlighting

The angle of lighting is everything – you want to backlight the leaf to illuminate its structure. On a sunny day (if you can move the plant!) then shooting outdoors is the easiest approach – providing it’s not windy – as the light levels will be enough for a fast shutter speed. If there’s a slight breeze then stabilise the leaf using a support, Wimberley Plamp or similar. Alternatively, remove a leaf and attach it to the inside of a window, use a tripod and a slower shutter speed for similar results.

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3. Focus & exposure

Select aperture-priority or manual exposure mode, choose a low ISO rating if you’re using a tripod or bump it up if shooting handheld. A mid-aperture of f/5.6 to f/8 will give you good image quality, or you can open up the aperture a bit for more creative selective focus effects.

As you’re shooting towards the light, you may find your initial results underexposed. If so, use positive exposure compensation (or adjust the shutter speed in manual mode) to correct this.

If you want the whole leaf in focus, make sure that the lens and leaf are on the same focal plane. However, the effect of the leaf gently falling in and out of focus also looks appealing.

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