How to: Rear Illuminated Foliage

Posted on August 9, 2016

I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. This has incredible advantages in the summertime if you are the outdoorsy type of person, which I just happen to be. During the fall, winter and spring, however, it tends to be both grey and drizzly along with darkness falling fairly early – the sun sets earlier than 4:30 pm in the middle of December. When I am actually at home during this time of year and not out roaming other parts of the world with better weather, I will often try to think of things to challenge my creative side and I’ll usually end up learning something about photography or lighting techniques while doing it.


Woody and Maplethorp are telling stories around the campfire.

I have an area in my house I can turn into a tabletop studio and this has been the breeding ground for all types of images during the dreary time of year in the PacNW. From elaborate scenes with wooden art manikins (that’s not playing with dolls, right?) where the entire landscape is made from edible components to neon backlit water droplets. When you look around a bit you can find quite a few creative people out there with cameras. Many of the ideas for these experiments were spawned from hours of perusing photo challenge sites. I am curious by nature so I would try to figure out how they created such an image, and then use these times as my testing grounds for new techniques. Combine that with items found around the house and the results can be fun, and often surprising.


A water droplet is frozen in mid-air by two flashes with different color gels.

Early on in my experimentation with landscape photography, I realized that foliage is much more eye-catching when it is backlit. If you photograph a tree or a field of flowers with the sun behind your subject, the leaves and petals glow. This is all well and good when you are taking a shot of cherry blossoms during the light of golden hour, but I grew interested in the intricacies that make up the leaf or the pedal. If you have ever tried to take a macro photo outside, you know that the slightest breeze will cause your painstaking efforts to achieve focus to be gone with the wind. The other obstacle you will likely run into is the curvature of the leaf or pedal. In macro photography, you have a fairly narrow depth of field, even at higher apertures. There are techniques such as focus stacking that can help you get around this for some purposes, but in my case, I am trying to take a single image that has the look I want. I had a couple pieces of broken glass from old frames, so I gaffers taped the edges for safety and clamped them together with the leaf in between. This held the leaf on a flat plane.


My leaf rig when the flash was still in a fixed location

At first I set up an elaborate rig to hold my flash behind the flattened foliage (pictured right), but in the long run, I found it more useful to just hold the flash. Every time I would move the flash, different highlights and shadows would totally change the look of the image. Logically speaking this makes sense; move the light source and the shadows will also move. When I saw it happen first hand, I was stunned at the variations playing out in front of my eyes. I ended up just hand holding the flash so I could easily change the angle of light from shot to shot. Below you can see a leaf photographed with the flash on the camera side and then three examples of the same leaf with rear illumination. The only thing that differs from shot to shot is where I held the flash to alter the angle and steepness of shadows and highlights.


Flash on the camera side


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Flash from the camera side

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Steeper angles, almost parallel to the leaf, yielded far more dark shadows which help give striking texture to the image. If I kept the steep angle but went from the left to the right or above with the flash, I would get incredibly different looking images. Some of these almost look like a map in a post-apocalyptic video game with toxic rivers and scorched hillsides or like dinosaur skin (at least the dinosaur skin I’ve seen).

The camera set up that you see in the picture above was a Nikon D300 with a 105mm 2.8 AF Micro Nikkor and 2 older extension tubes, a Nikon Pk-13, and Pk-11a, that I picked up used at a local camera store. These extension tubes shift back where a lens focuses. Let’s say your lens could focus from 2ft-infinity. Depending on the depth of the extension tube, this may change your close focus from 2 ft to 3 inches. Your ability to focus at infinity also changes though. Now you may only be able to focus out to a foot or so. If you don’t have a macro lens for close up pictures, this is a relatively inexpensive way to get a close perspective. When using these extension tubes with a macro lens that already has a very close focus, it will have a magnifying effect on the subject.

For the flash I am using a Nikon SB-800 that is being triggered by a pulse of light from my on-camera flash just before the picture is taken (Nikon’s CLS). I have it set manually so it doesn’t change the output from shot to shot. If your camera doesn’t have a wireless flash triggering ability, you can usually find a cable for about $20 that will connect your flash to your camera’s hot shoe and let you move it around while still allowing it to fire. If you don’t have a flash already and are just wanting to experiment a bit without spending a lot of money, any old flash that has an ability to manually change the power will let you have just as much fun. A Vivitar 283 or 285 is a good recommendation and are easy to find used. Take a few images at different settings until you find an exposure you like and then just start moving it around while your shooting and watch the magic unfold.


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