David Leaser was born in 1962 and grew up on a horse farm outside Hershey, Pennsylvania. He started taking pictures with a Polaroid Swinger on a first grade field trip, and he has been taking photographs ever since. The family raised and showed Arabian horses around the country, winning championships at the regional and national level. To earn money during summers, Leaser photographed horses for clients.
On a photographic assignment in the Amazon, Leaser was inspired by the intricate detail in the small flowers on the floor of the rainforest. He returned to his studio in Los Angeles to begin work on a new venture: highly detailed, close-up images of botanicals. Leaser is able to present to audiences botanical images as they’ve never been seen before: large format canvases that show flowers from a bees-eye view. After seeing his work, viewers have told the artist he has forever changed the way they look at flowers.
With his passion for still-lifes of botanical subjects, Leaser feels a kinship with botanical artists like Ambrosius Bosschaert and Rachel Ruysch. “My art is a way for me to capture the beauty of nature and bring it indoors to enjoy forever. Many of the subjects in my work have a lifespan of a day or two, so this is my way to immortalize these beautiful things.”
For a look at numerous examples of David's art, visit davidleaser.com.
There's focus, and then there's stack focus.
Stack focus, which is also often referred to as focus stacking, is a technique that produces close-up images of depth and detail beyond that seen in conventional close-ups.
What stack focus does is extend depth-of-field in macro photography, and if you're not familiar with the technique, you might wonder why you'd want to do that. You could set f/11, f/16 or f/22 and get a great deal of depth-of-field. Stack focus, though, is a totally different approach and a means to an end beyond familiar close-up images.
Stack focus results in the kind of striking photographs you see here. To create them, award-winning fine-art photographer David Leaser took multiple images of his floral subjects at different focus points. Then, using software, he layered the separate photographs to create a revealing, stunningly sharp, detailed composite image.
About ten years ago, while shooting landscapes in the Amazon, David found himself captivated by "the tiniest of living things on the rainforest floor," including the smallest of flowers. Realizing that even the best close-up lenses couldn't get the depth-of-field he could see in these flowers, not to mention the details even the eye often misses, he started experimenting with stack focus photography. What he wanted to capture and share was "a bee's-eye view of nature," and focus stacking was the way to do it.
When he first used the technique, he'd mount his D3X and 60mm Micro NIKKOR lens on a motorized rail device that would move the camera and lens toward his subject at preset intervals. The system did the job: the rail moved the camera and lens, in precise increments, closer and closer to the subject, taking pictures at each interval, with each image capturing a different area of focus.
Today, David uses the D850 because whether you call it stack focus or focus stacking, the capability is built into the camera. (it's also in Nikon's full-frame mirrorless cameras. With the new Z 6 and Z 7 mirrorless cameras, focus shift shooting adds a new feature called “Peaking Stack Images”. This feature, when turned on, will employ focus peaking to create a black-and-white preview stack that can be used to check focus after shooting.) The D850's stack focus feature moves the elements in the lens; the camera itself does not move. The advantages over the rail system are fewer moving parts, fewer settings, less gear to carry when shooting on location and no need for power cords or batteries for the rail.
"The results I get with the D850, considering my concern for the art of the process and the ability to communicate what I see, are equal to the rail system results," David says. In fact, in one respect the results are better because turning lens elements rather than moving a camera reduces or often eliminates a parallax problem the stacking software had to contend with. (Parallax, in photography, is the difference between a subject seen through the lens and the way it’s captured by the sensor. The difference occurs most often as the lens moves closer to the subject.)
Using the D850 means the process of taking the individual pictures that will comprise the composite is pretty much automatic. But it's not push-button automatic—there's equipment to set up, menu selections to make and test shots to take. But in David's view, that's where the creative part of the process comes into play.
If you're interested in creating your own focus stacking photos, or if you've been doing it using the motorized rail system and would like to simplify the process, here's how David gets it done.
David's gear for stack focus photographs includes an AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED lens on his D850; a super-sturdy tripod (it's a Manfrotto 3251); a small, clip-on LED light; a background surface (he used black velvet for the photos here); and stacking software (his choice among available programs is Zerene Stacker).
And one more thing. If you've seen the pictures accompanying this article, you've probably realized that the most important factor in their creation is light. More precisely, the control of light.
We've got that covered with Nikon’s wireless close-up Speedlight system. It's available in two configurations—the R1, with two SB-R200 Speedlights, a Speedlight attachment ring and a selection of lens adapters to fit the ring onto; and the R1C1, which includes two SB-R200 Speedlights, the SU-800 Commander unit, the attachment ring and lens adapters. You can add additional SB-R200 Speedlights, which is what David did; his flash setup most often features five SB-R200s. "The number of Speedlights I use is dictated by the size and the closeness [to the lens] of the subject," he says. "I want light on all sides of the subject, and if it's really close to the lens, it's important to get light to the bottom of the subject."
© David Leaser | Paphiopedilum hookerae, commonly known as a slipper orchid, is a species endemic to Borneo. "I particularly wanted to see how the D850 would capture and display details, but since it was the first time using the camera, I didn't expect to produce images I would add to my portfolio. But I realized I'd been able to do both: show the detail the D850’s stack focus technology can achieve and capture images of nature which move me—and may move others."
Everything is controlled from the camera, and getting the camera into stack focus mode is pretty straightforward, though you'll want to check the D850's manual, too.
First, access the camera's Focus Shift Shooting menu, which will offer settings for step width, the number of shots and the time interval between shots. Step width controls how far the lens elements will move to photographically get closer to the subject; David selects 3 from the scroll menu. Next, you'll select the number of shots the camera will take for your composite; David typically chooses from 50 to 125 depending on the size and depth of his subject. Selecting the time interval will determine how much time will elapse between shots. "That's important because the flash units recycle very quickly, but you do have to allow for that," David says. He sets that menu to 00, which is the default for five-frames-per-second.
Your choices might be different depending on your subjects, their size and the Micro NIKKOR lens you're using. Nikon's NPS site offers a wealth of helpful tips for your decision making. You can start here, then check out the charts for number-of-shots suggestions here. You can also read more about focus stacking with the D850 here.
© David Leaser | A Goldfinger pincushion protea flower, a genus of South African flowering plants, sometimes also called sugar bushes. David didn't use the entire stack of images here because the green leaves behind them looked so distracting he deleted the last images in the stack—the sharp frames—leaving the early blurry ones to soften the leaves' overall effect in the photo.
Here are some of the things David's learned along the way: