The Great Indoors

Backlit sycamore leaf
A backlit leaf such as this typically needs an extra stop of exposure to look right.
Pulling back the curtains on a glorious morning there is nothing better than to be greeted by a display of natural splendour. Immediately my creative juices begin to flow and the urge to get out there with a camera is impossible to resist. And then it happens. First, I notice how fast the clouds seem to be going by, and then I begin to see that every leaf is moving in the gentle but persistent breeze. Gone in an instant are the hopes for pin-sharp pictures of nature’s glory, the frustration is immense and the disappointment tangible. As for any frustrated artist, the temptation to dress all in black and walk around with a pained expression is overwhelming, but all is not lost. I can still enjoy the wonder of exploring nature; all I need to do is change my perspective. By deciding to concentrate on detail rather than sweeping vistas my back-up master plan kicks into action. I will bring The Great Outdoors indoors.

Although what follows can be applied to just about any subject that allows light to pass through I will be using leaves as an example, because I find them to be a fascinating subject to photograph, particularly when they are backlit. Different shapes, textures and colours give photographers almost endless opportunities to be creative and experiment a bit. By selecting visually interesting specimens a fun time can be had on even the windiest of days. I bring my examples into a lean-to attached to my house but any indoor space near to a window will do. Here I can set up my shots in comfort and without the worry of wind-generated movement ruining my efforts. And the set-up required is very simple indeed.

I use two tripods, but one tripod and any form of stand will do. My camera is placed on the sturdiest tripod and I use a lightweight trekking style tripod to hold my subject. Both tripods are fitted with ball and socket heads that makes the arrangement incredibly versatile. The subject is clamped to the tripod head using clothes pegs; this is where the ball and socket head really helps as I can now move it into just about any position I need. Once I’ve got the subject positioned so that it is catching the light just the way I want, it’s time for step two - positioning the camera.

Backlit maple leaf.
A slightly different exposure is generally required for leaves of this colour.
With a macro lens attached I’ll hover around my subject while looking through the viewfinder for an arrangement that is worth photographing. This is a good time to experiment and I’ll look for shapes, patterns, colours, textures and details that look interesting. With a macro lens I can go in really close and pick out a minute detail on a leaf if I wish. Once I’ve seen something that I want to photograph I take a second or two to mentally note the camera position. This is when I move in the second tripod and carefully get the camera into place. Don’t rush this, as on more times that I’d like to admit I’ve accidentally clashed tripod legs, wrecking the arrangement I’d chosen and have had to start again.

Now it’s time to sort out the next challenge – the background. If you want a backlit glowing leaf against a dark background the simplest way to achieve this is with a board. By placing this behind the subject the side facing the camera will be in shadow and reproduce as black on film. In soft lighting a coloured background can be used to suit your composition. Use the depth of field preview function to see how sharp the background looks. The softer it is, the more adventurous you can be with the background material. Under the right conditions just about any item you can think of can be used as a background. It is also possible to shoot up through a clean window against a blue sky for a natural looking result.

One terrific advantage of being indoors is the ability to comfortably manipulate the available light. This can be done either for effect or out of necessity. Backlit subjects look good but do bring a couple of unique problems with them. Arrangements involving more than one leaf can create dark areas where leaves overlap. Sometimes this is not a problem, at other times it demands to be dealt with. This is where reflectors are very useful. Solid objects such as berries will be in complete silhouette and reflected light fills in the shadows nicely. I use a mixture of reflectors ranging from large collapsible reflectors to small pieces of aluminium foil for a spot effect.

Backlit leaves and fruit.
Unless you want silhouettes solid subjects need to be lit with reflected light.
Getting a glowing leaf to look right needs the right exposure and unfortunately the average camera meter will get it wrong. For this reason I take these sort of shots exclusively in manual mode on spot metering, taking care to meter the area that I want to get just right. Typically, a normally lit green leaf will be rendered as a mid tone and be just fine, but when backlit an adjustment needs to be made. A backlit green leaf rendered as mid tone looks dull. To restore its zing, a typical shot needs an additional stop of exposure, i.e. instead of an exposure of 1/15 @ f16 as indicated by your meter the actual exposure used would be 1/8 @ f16. I have found that red leaves usually need a little more (+1 1/3 stops) and yellow leaves a little less (+2/3 stops) than green leaves. Under such conditions it’s always worth bracketing until you know how your particular camera responds.

Now it’s time to take the shot. I always use mirror lock-up with a time delay or cable release to reduce the risk of camera shake. The wonderful thing about this sort of photography is that you can take all the time you want, and make the most of the opportunity to experiment and be creative. Despite the disappointing breeze it’s time to put the black outfit back in the wardrobe – a frustrated artist? Not me!