While a lot of autumn images are best grabbed in the great outdoors, there’s nothing wrong with bringing a bit of autumn indoors and having some fun when the wind and rain is battering against the window, writes Andrew James. This way you can take your time to create a little still-life setup. There’s no rush, you don’t have to worry too much about the light – as you can control it, and there is a satisfaction about starting from scratch and finishing up with some interesting images.
I did exactly this earlier in the week, creating my own ‘water droplet on an autumn leaf’ set. First, I popped into the garden and foraged for a few possible autumn leaves. As my next-door-neighbour has a tree that’s currently shedding colourful leaves into my garden at a rate of knots, I’d collected a small group in a matter of seconds.
Now I needed somewhere to work. I wanted to use some natural window light supplemented with LED lighting, so the easiest place for me was the kitchen, and the worktop became my studio. As I was going to work with a macro lens, I didn’t need anything more sophisticated.
The only equipment I needed was my camera with the macro lens and a tripod. Plus, an LED light. Of course, you could also use flash, and a reflector if you wanted too. For the set of images you’ll see coming up, I just used my small Aputure M9 LED with natural light, or just natural light from a north-facing window. It often pays to keep things as simple as possible, so unnecessary stuff doesn’t just end up getting in the way. The only other thing that was really important was a fine-tipped artist’s brush – the same one I was using to clean dirt of the fungi in last week’s video on photographing fungi.
Here’s a picture of the setup, although I’ve not yet introduced any additional light, bar the window light which is behind the camera. It’s not very glamorous, but that doesn’t matter – it’s the end result that counts. From my point of view, the most important thing was that the kettle was close by.
The simple fact is, when you are shooting a still-life setup with a macro lens, you really don’t need very much space. The biggest issue you’ll face is composition, and you’ll find that it takes some trial and error to get that right. Let’s just take a closer look at what I was doing…
This is how I started. One leaf was selected as the main working area. I felt it was the one that had the best colour and fewest flaws. As the leaf was fresh, there wasn’t really any need to make it waxier so the water droplets would sit up nicely, but there are times when a bit of Vaseline (or similar) rubbed into the leaf can help. Using the artist’s paint brush is essential (see image below). This way I could easily put the water droplets exactly where I wanted. Just dip it in the water, then transfer to the leaf. I used Live View to check the build-up of the composition as I went.
This is my first image which doesn’t quite work. At f/2.8 it has very limited sharpness which I quite like but it wasn’t grabbing me…
I recomposed, stopped down to f/5.6 and did a little trick with the LED – wrapping another leaf around the light itself. As the M9 is so small this is easy to do. I had less light obviously which lengthened the exposure, but as I was shooting a static subject from a tripod, this didn’t matter. The ‘wrapped’ LED lighting intensified the red and f/5.6 offered a touch more depth of field. Now the droplets and the texture of the leaf underneath seemed to glow like little bits of lava. It just added something else to the shot. I took a few more like this before deciding to change my angle of shot.
For this frame I shot directly down from above. I actually wiped off the first set of droplets with a kitchen towel and repositioned the leaf. Using Live View again, I carefully placed each droplet where I wanted them to fill the frame but not overcrowd it. By the way, if you don’t get a big enough droplet on the first go just build it up bit-by-bit until it’s the size you want. This was going to be all about the texture on the leaf and contrast, so I moved the LED around (without the leaf wrapping) until I got the look I wanted, then I focused on the surface of the leaf in the centre and changed the aperture to f/8 to get a lot of fine detail. Bingo, it worked – and this one is my current seasonal Screen Saver on my iPhone.
Finally, I thought I’d change the composition completely so for this last shot, I had the tip of a leaf flipped over the edge of the kitchen work surface. This presented me with an issue though, as now the background was just the side of the kitchen cabinets underneath, so I had to adapt and overcome. I used some decorator’s masking tape to stick a couple of spare leaves behind the main subject, making sure that the entire frame was filled. Perfect! Now all I needed was a wide aperture to diffuse the background so it would look natural.
My next issue was the water droplet. I only wanted one this time but because the tip of the leaf is point-down, my first attempt ended in failure as the droplet immediately slid off! I reached for the Vaseline. A tiny bit rubbed gently into the tip worked a treat and the next droplet sat perfectly in place and didn’t move. I didn’t light this one with the LED – I just used the window in front of it (you can see it reflected in the droplet). I played around with apertures, using the depth of field preview button and Live View to review the effect each time. In the end I settled on f/4 for just enough sharpness in the droplet, but some interesting fall-off in sharpness elsewhere.
Autumn indoor still-life setups don’t get much simpler than this, but the vivid reds and the contrast created by the lighting have made for a great little set of seasonal images. Why not have a play this weekend if the weather lets us down?