The art of still lives is not dead
I randomly picked a
book from my shelves this week. It was 35 years old, and every item was
still applicable today. The main thrust was that still life is the only
style of photography where the photographer has total control over the final
image. A good still life is the result of application of many photographic
principles and good composition. A poor still life is the fault of no one
but the photographer.
The camera used for
still life photography ranges all the way from 35 mm DSLR’s through to 5x4
view cameras. Lighting also ranges from electronic flash, tungsten and
window lights. Since most of these are too bright, producing dark shadows,
the still life photographer will also need diffusing equipment, with
umbrella reflectors de rigeur for flash heads and home made soft boxes quite
easy to make and very suitable for tungsten light sources. Buy a 1 meter
square sheet of white foam core as well.
There’s still more,
with seamless background paper high on the list, and a good sturdy tripod is
mandatory, and a locking type cable release will make life easier for you.
If you are starting off
trying still life I would not begin with buying all the bits and pieces that
go with still lives, but keep it simple till you get more used to the
discipline. Let’s begin with window lights and a tripod and your DSLR, with
the Manual mode selected. Also disable the on-camera flash. For a subject,
let’s use a fruit bowl with some vegetables.
At this stage you must
come up with the composition you might think suitable. This is also the
stage where you select the “hero”. With a bowl of fruit and some garden
vegetables, this can be difficult, but for the exercise let’s select the
tomatoes. Recognizable and colorful and for a still life, the tomatoes must
be perfect. No bruises or cuts or marks. Having done that, carefully polish
them so they are looking very delectable.
Now start to arrange
all the items in the photo with the bowl of fruit central and the tomatoes
at the intersection of thirds and partly in front of the bowl. Look through
the viewfinder to get the composition. What you see with the naked eye, is
not necessarily what the camera sees, with differing apertures producing
different views. It is a case of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), and
that is what you see through the camera.
Having decided on the
composition, you must now decide on the lighting. Again, your lighting
should identify the “hero”. I generally work with two lights and a
reflector. One is to light up the backdrop, which then splits the subject
matter away from the background. Now bring one light in from the front, but
off to one side. This produces shadow as well as illumination, and shadow in
still lives is crucially important. Without shadow, your tomatoes are flat,
with no 3D effect at all.
Now comes the third
item, the reflector. White foam board works well and you reflect a little
light back into the scene, to control the amount of shadow. Do not be afraid
of shadow! You need it. When you use the reflector, look at the difference
depending upon whether your reflector is close to the subject or further
away. As I mentioned at the start of this article, the photographer has
Now look through the
viewfinder again and double check all the variables of composition and
lighting. If something is not right, correct it. Don’t be lazy and think,
it’ll be OK in the end. It won’t.
With today’s SLRs it is
so easy for you to take the shot and get an instant review, but remember
that looking at the small LED screen does not show the entire picture. But
it does allow you to try different items in the quest for the award winner.
However, in your quest
for the award winning shot, go back and read last week’s column on
“stunning” still lives. If nothing else you will learn that glass and heat
do not go well together.
A Stunning Still Life
Recently I dealt with
Still Life photography, and if you think it isn’t an exciting branch of
photography, then think again. The following is a true story of how I took
an advertising shot of a bowl of strawberries with a bottle of vodka. It is
a tale of excitement and physical violence, and will hopefully remove any
thoughts of Still Life photography being boring.
The concept, as agreed with the art
director, was of a crystal bowl of strawberries with a bottle of vodka
slightly behind it. This was to indicate this was a new strawberry vodka.
Being glassware you cannot photograph
the items with lighting from the front, but generally from behind. In this
case I decided to shoot with the light coming from underneath.
So to the mechanics of it all. I placed
a sheet of glass over two stands, one at each end. Under the glass I placed
a flash head, as this would be the source of ‘bottom’ lighting. I then
unrolled a few meters of the two meters wide black background paper from the
roll holder on the wall. Now I had a seamless background in black, on which
to place the glass bowl and the vodka bottle.
The camera used was going to be a
Hasselblad 6x6 and this was mounted on a Manfrotto heavy duty tripod. By
about mid-day the set-up was pleasing and it was decided we would break for
lunch and spend the afternoon shooting.
Sounds easy, but in actual fact, to get
the best placement is a case of trial and error, taking Polaroids as we went
to check the attractiveness of the placings.
Now came the lighting, which was from
underneath the glass plate. Carefully cutting out two circles, one for the
bowl and the other for the bottle, as we had already decided where exactly
these two items would sit, the unrolled section with two holes was then
placed on the glass and the bowl and vodka bottle placed on the cut out
Now it was time for the strawberries.
For a shot like this, any punnet from the market will not do. These
strawberries have to be perfect, without any blemishes. Three punnets later
we had enough to fill the crystal bowl and then spray them with glycerin
before being arranged in the bowl, making them look as if they were just
picked with morning dew on them.
Now comes the lighting, obviously one
of the most important parts of the entire exercise. We had two lights and a
reflector. One flash head was positioned under the glass where the two
circular cut-outs were. The second flash head was directed at the background
paper behind the vodka and the reflector was in front to shine some light
back on to the bowl and bottle.
Now is the time to balance the strength
of the flash heads to each other, and to do this we used ‘modelling’ lights.
These are tungsten lights which are low power, compared to the flashes, but
can show where the shadows and highlights will fall. They also produce heat.
Now I began to look towards the final
images, taking some Polaroids with the Hasselblad. This is a very exacting
time with much study to see just how the relativity between the light
sources affects the final commercial image.
It was also at this time, while bending
over the Hasselblad on the tripod and making adjustments that I heard a loud
crack and something hit me across the back of my head, knocking me to the
floor half stunned.
When I opened my eyes, the flash heads
were on their sides and the crystal glass, previously full of strawberries,
was on the floor. And the glass plate was broken in two. I was clutching the
Hasselblad, while my assistant was clutching the vodka bottle!
We pieced together what had happened.
Prolonged use of the modelling light under the glass plate had made for a
reasonably high temperature and fractured the glass. As the glass sank into
a V shape it pulled the roll of background paper off the roll holder which
promptly came down on my head.
We ate the strawberries and drank the
Keep a notebook
Photography can be a very rewarding
pastime but, like golf, can be very frustrating. You know in your head what
the image should look like, and when the final result is nothing like the
imagination, factor in frustration.
What I am describing here is
the learning process, but fortunately for the new photographer in today’s
digital age, that process is shorter and the results are better than before.
However, you need something more than megapixels.
You need a small notebook
and a pen. Definitely late 1800’s technology!
The concept is
reproducibility. For example, taking a photo of a bottle of wine is actually
quite difficult, but once you get it right, next you want to do it again,
and that is not something the DSLR’s can do for you.
When you think about it,
there are not too many variables in photography as far as exposure is
concerned. Aperture and shutter speed are the main ones, but get those
factors wrong and you do not get the shot you want.
So now, with your trusty
notebook, you have a recording device which will tell you the aperture and
shutter speed any time you are tempted to photograph a bottle of wine,
instead of drinking it! Though I suppose you can always photograph it first
and drink it second.
Look at the wine bottle
photo again. Here is another variable – the lighting. The trick here is to
light the bottle from behind, so that the light shines through, and then
with a white card you reflect some light back on to the label. All this you
have jotted down in the notebook. The exposure values and a drawing of the
lighting. With the notebook to assist you, it will make photographing wine a
breeze in the future.
At times, the best exposure
values can be difficult to ascertain, especially with portraits, and it is
portraits that most photographers shoot. That photo of your child, wife,
grandma is in reality, a portrait. So let’s take better ones!
Dissect the portrait shot by
the window. The window is the light source and to get the correct exposure
can be difficult. This is where the instant gratification of today’s cameras
works so well. Keep changing the aperture until the shot has that air of
mystery you want. Note the exposure values. Note also that the subject is
not square on to the camera, but the body is at right angles, and the head
is turned. Note also the fact that the eyes are at the junction of thirds!
By keeping a notebook close
and handy, you have the starting point for some excellent portraits,
covering lighting and posing.
Another favorite place for
photography is the beach. Once again the lighting can be difficult to guess,
and you must experiment with different aperture and shutter speeds until you
get it right. Whip out the notebook and get the values down and you have
saved yourself a lot of time next beach shoot. Note too, that a polarizer
was used, and the palm tree is off to the side following the Rule of Thirds!