Hawaiian photographer Leslie Gleim is relatively new to the world of macro photography, yet her eye for botanical beauty and technical know-how have helped her create a powerful aesthetic. Focusing more on a fine art perspective, her close up shots, captured somewhat unconventionally with the Leica Q and X Vario, reveal the wonders of nature often hidden in the minutest detail. We spoke with Leslie about how her journey began, her hand-held set-up and her plans to move into aerial photography.
Could you start by telling us a little about your background and route into photography?
I’m originally from southern Ohio and moved to Honolulu in 2007 to take up a teaching position here. I am an early childhood educator and currently work in the role of pedagogista (pedagogy specialist) in the Mid-Pacific Reggio-inspired preschool. In my role as a Reggio-inspired pedagogista, I spend a considerable amount of time photographing to document the children’s learning processes, stories, and natural environments. It is not unusual for me to photograph 500 images a day of children’s work. I have been doing this type of documentary photography work for over 21 years.
In 2012, after several years of living in Hawaii, my passion for photography began to emerge beyond the classroom. I became interested in documentary, street and macro photography. In wanting to learn more about the camera, in particular the photographic process, I began attending Pacific New Media’s photography classes. As my knowledge of the camera as a tool began to deepen, my vision for seeing photography as a “language” for my self-expression awakened. Photography has become my second passion.
How long have you been interested in macro photography and what was it that inspired you to take up this passion?
I have been shooting macro photography extensively for about four years. What inspired me to take up this passion was a combination of things. While taking a photography class about five years ago, I discovered a botanical garden less than a mile from where I lived. During a photography class, I was impressed by other photographers’ macro work. At that time, I was using a heavy Canon DSLR and soon purchased a Canon 100 mm L lens to take to the botanical garden. However, that combination of equipment made photographing burdensome rather than enjoyable. Another fleeting genre that interested me was street photography, and that’s where I discovered Leica and its reputation within street photography. The Leica X2 had just been released, which I thought would be ideal for beginning that genre of work. I was hooked with the X2’s simplicity and quality as a walk-around camera.
3 months after I purchased the X2, it fell to the ground with the lens taking the blunt force. I was heartsick. By this time, photography had taken a strong foothold in my life and I could not imagine being unable to photograph. Not wanting to return to my DSLR and all its weight, yet wanting to stay within the Leica family, I began to research into the X Vario and its telephoto lens. I purchased the X Vario while I sent the X2 off for repair. From the moment I placed the X Vario in my hands, I fell in love! This was a good thing since the X2 was damaged beyond repair. I then began experimenting with macro photography using the X Vario, and I’ve never looked back!
Which camera and equipment do you shoot with when capturing these extreme close-up shots?
I use what many would consider unconventional cameras for macro photography – the Leica X Vario and Leica Q. I add 52 mm +5 and +3 Marumi macro lenses so that I can get closer to the subject. I use the larger size macro lenses to avoid or keep any vignetting to the outer edges. I have several +5 and +3 macro lenses so that I can create the unique magnification I want.
What do you consider the advantages of shooting with your particular set-up?
Joy! Pure photographic joy! With either set up, the key is that it is light, portable, offers incredible lenses and provides me with the vision that I want for my macro photography. I like to hold the camera in my hand and both set-ups free me from the tripod. The cameras are also lightweight, which allows me to photograph from creative points of view.
A lot of macro photography tends to focus on presenting a clean, almost scientific view of its subjects. You have taken a rather more artistic and abstract approach. What was it that led you in this direction?
In my journey with macro photography I came to a fork in the road, so to speak. One direction was to take the scientific path, and the other direction would lead to fine art. As I stood at that crossroad, I happened to capture an image of a “thinking orchid” and took it along with a few others to my photography class. The instructor spoke of the metaphor that this image captured, and that was all it took to point me in the direction of the fine art pathway.
A lot of the photos in this series have a dream-like feel to them thanks to the bokeh effects and contrasting tones of light and dark. How do you achieve this type of effect?
It’s in the DNA of the cameras that I use, knowing what aperture setting will produce what effect and adding macro lenses. I use the lowest ISO setting I can and try to keep it to ISO 100. Then it’s a matter of “seeing” the light while I’m photographing the subject. To help train my eyes to see the light, I kept the X Vario set on monochrome for over three years. What I saw through the camera was always black and white. This trained my eye to see the subtle nuances of tone, light and contrast.
How do you work with lighting and lenses in particular?
All my floral shots are taken in natural settings and with natural lighting, no flash or flash rings. I love to photograph subjects in the shade or on cloudy days as either condition creates a natural diffuser. This is particularly important for photographing here in Hawaii. The lenses become much like a paintbrush; I have come to learn where each lens’ sweet spot is and how each camera and lens produces its own unique look. I will adjust the aperture settings depending on how in-focus I want my subject.
Why did you choose to shoot this series in black and white?
It was through the influence of photographers such as Daido Moriyama, Minor White, Franco Salmoiraghi, Hengki Koentjoro, Imogen Cunningham and Harry Callahan, just to name a few. They influenced my vision for this work.
Early on I chose to photograph the metaphors that are held within the complex simplicity of the subjects. Each image has been stripped to the raw element of black and white, causing the mind’s eye to read the unique nuances of each subject. The dance between light, shape and form is used to capture an intrinsic understanding of the subject, as well as my own intentional metaphoric vision for the images, which dance along the edge of simplicity.
How much of a role does editing play in your photographic process?
In my photography, 90% of the work is done prior to downloading the image onto the computer. Through the post-editing, I am able to bring to life the reality of what I have captured and align it to what I have envisioned in my mind’s eye. I spend less than 5-8 minutes on each image, just long enough to bring that vision to life. The final important editing comes in what I select to share with others.
What advice would you offer to other photographers interested in macro photography?
To be present in the moment! Silence all your worries and cares and just allow your soul and eyes to be filled with wonder and the beauty that is all around us. Don’t rush the process. Photography is not a race. This creative process is about embracing the joy of the journey.
How long have you been shooting with Leica cameras and how has your relationship to the brand evolved over time?
I’m fairly “new” to the Leica journey and photography itself – only about four years. The Leica X Vario and Q have allowed me to grow as a photographer and artist. Both cameras are like good friends, who are with me on this journey.
You’ve also started shooting aerial shots of the Hawaiian Islands. How did this come about and what are the similarities/differences to shooting macro photography?
Several years ago I was able to fly a couple “tourist” flights around Oʻahu and loved that aerial perspective. This past year I became intrigued by the volcanic flow on Hawaii Island and wanted to see it first-hand from the air. In March, and again in June of 2017, I had the honor to ride as a photographer in the third seat of a charter flight with renowned Hawaii Island photographer Bruce Omori, who has been photographing and video recording the changes and flows of volcanic eruption on the Hawaii Island for 10 years, of which the past 3 years have been from the air.
While documenting the vast lava fields and the lava flow, I was taken aback as I observed an island literally giving birth (Kīlauea volcano) to new land. In the active lava fields, new life (vegetation) was flourishing. From the air I could see the stark contrasts of the natural, as well as the human element, encroaching on the natural landscapes and ‘aina (land). It was these two realities – the natural and man’s direct impact on the land, which touched my core being. At that moment, in the lava field of the Hawaii island, a photographic vision was born, which was the impetus for my current body of work ‘Aina: Threshold 4° F. Man’s impact on the Hawaii islands, if left unchecked, will lead to the next threat – global warming. After the flight in June, I chartered a July flight focused on documenting man’s impact on the Southern point of the Hawaii Island. I have another flight chartered for October. For this body of work I am again using the Leica Q and X Vario.
With aerial photography and macro photography, I am looking at light, composition, “macroscapes”, form and metaphor. With aerial photography, I have a much larger canvas of elements or subjects that I have to read rather quickly as I often have seconds to shoot. Aerial photography requires that I have to be constantly aware of the landscape and my camera settings at all times. With macro photography, I’m using my feet to move myself closer to the subject, whereas with aerial photography, the helicopter becomes my telephoto lens; having it move in closer, hover and turn in order for me to capture my subject. I feel that both genres complement each other in my growth as a photographer.