Lessons from Still Lifes

angie_stilllife_by_meA Still Life can teach you a lot.

In case you’re thinking you’re not that kind of photographer, just play along.

From your kitchen, or garage and gather 4 related items.

I suggest those 2 rooms for no other reason than trying to be inclusive of the gender of my readers.

I posted a tongue-in-cheek list and got dinged for not accommodating the other gender.

And no, I’m not the smarting sort.

If it matters, I’m more comfortable in the kitchen cooking than messing with automotive repairs.

Class demo–My student Angie L was kind enough to bring in the props for her still life, so I tried to show her in 5 minutes how a slight change in lighting conditions can improve the image. As most of my students found out, you could play with the arrangement of the objects for hours. 35 mm lens ISO 100 24 secs @ f 22. If I had the use of my flash units, I wouldn’t have to keep the shutter open for 24 whole seconds. Compare with her original picture.

Background

Generally speaking you want to choose one that is uncluttered and matches your theme. So patterns and designs on fabrics are generally “no-no”s.

Angie was going for an antique/travel theme. She found a maroon-colored fabric that was big enough to give her a seamless background. That seam I’m referring to is where the vertical and horizontal planes come together. It’s usually distracting when you see it, so the backdrop conceals it.

Lens Selection

You’re working like an artist who is about to paint or draw with a blank sheet of paper or canvas.

So just as an artist would, you’ll have to decide on your canvas size.

The focal length of your lens determines your canvas size.

If your props are small like coins or flat like paper money,  then you’ll have to shoot tighter with a short telephoto. It also means you don’t need a background that is very big because you’re going to be shooting tight.

If you chose bigger objects then, a wide angle might be the answer especially if you want the front most object and the rear most object to be sharp. Wide angle lenses have more depth-of-field than telephotos.

The downside to using a wide angle is you need a larger seamless background because it takes in more of the scene.

Choice of props for your theme

Consider your items carefully. Flat items without depth are not terribly interesting because no matter how you light it, it won’t cast any shadows. Shadows suggest 3 dimensionality and that’s what makes your picture look more interesting.

What makes a still life interesting is often how well the individual objects work together as a whole.

Research is important and the wonderful thing about the internet is you can easily scour the net for ideas. One such site I found is digital photography challenge.

Lighting

In case you haven’t heard this. Lighting is to photography what highlight and shadow is to paintings and drawings.

A still image’s appeal is totally dependent on how it is lit. Without quality lighting to showcase your subject’s attributes, the object being photographed will appear like a line drawing.

Shadows and highlights provide the hint of depth.

Too often novice photographers equate quantity of light with quality. There can be such a thing as too much light.

Arrangement of the objects, lighting, camera angle, lens selection, point-of-focus, depth-of-field, choice of colors for your objects are just the few I can think of. A good sturdy tripod is also necessary. It will allow to frame your still life, make changes and make an exposure study your composition. If your framing changes between every shot, you will have a tough time with composition.

If your final image is a high-end mural size print where your require high resolution, with lots of depth-of-field, you will likely need a view camera. You sacrifice speed and ease of use there, but gain something far more important in that instance.

With a good wide angle lens and view camera you can get an unrivaled depth-of-field because of the Scheimpflug Principle. Most commercial photographers who need everything sharp in picture employ a view camera, a wide angle lens and the use flash to “paint” a still life.

In a completely darkened studio, they will focus their wide angle lens stop it down to the smallest aperture then, manually pop their flash to build up the exposure.

Every 2 pops of the flash increases the exposure by 1 f-stop. So if one pop of their flash gives them f16 and they require f128, (3 f-stops more) they need to fire their flash 6 times.

Related Still Life posts:

Next time, I’ll we’ll look at 2 more still lifes around the same theme but with different lighting.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from Still Lifes”

  1. Not to beat a dead horse, but that was my understanding, the blog (I think) says the reverse. In any case, I do understand your point and again thanks for confirming. All my best, Gary

  2. Paul,
    When I took the Photo Illustration class in college, everything had to be shot with a view camera.

    We had to photograph a Wheaties cereal box and get all the perspectives correct. Then we moved on to shooting a shiny soup timbal.

    If our camera showed up in the picture, we had to reshoot it. Mind you it was all 4 x 5 film.

    With digital and photoshop, a lot of important camera techniques have gone the wayside.

    I think it’s a good idea for photographers to go out and shoot with a view camera if they can. It’s a great exercise for composition as you said and to think since you can only carry 2 sheets of film on one film holder.

  3. Great article. I love assignments that require you to use a tripod and those that make you really think about the image.

    Using a tripod makes you think about the composition, lighting, and much more. You really need to be a photographer and think about the image.
    It brings back memories of my college classes.

  4. Hi Gary,
    Thanks for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment.

    Let me see if I can do a better job explaining. I think you are forgetting something when you say I thought that f/128 would be a very small aperture opening, so the process would be to build from f/128 up to f/16 with six flashes

    You’ve probably forgotten that f16 is a bigger aperture (3 f-stops to be precise) than f128, so to build up the exposure based on a smaller aperture opening f128, you are painting the scene cumulatively or slowly building the exposure, hence the 6 manually triggered flashes.

    It’s a lot easier to do these days with digital photography because of the instantaneous feedback.

    If it’s still confusing, it may be time for a video tutorial. My writing skills could be better. Sorry.

  5. Peter, I read all your posts from the LinkedIn Digital Photography discussion group and much of your blog. From you, I have learned several useful concepts, thank you.

    I have a question about a recent post re. Lessons From Still Lifes – In your blog in the section entitled “Lighting” the following is written: “With a good wide angle lens and view camera you can get an unrivaled depth-of-field because of the Scheimpflug Principle. Most commercial photographers who need everything sharp in picture employ a view camera, a wide angle lens and the use flash to “paint” a still life.

    In a completely darkened studio, they will focus their wide angle lens stop it down to the smallest aperture than manually pop their flash to build up the exposure. Every 2 pops of the flash increases the exposure by 1 f-stop. So if one pop of their flash gives them f16 and they require f128, (3 f-stops more) they need to fire their flash 6 times.”

    Can you help me understand. I thought that f/128 would be a very small aperture opening, so the process would be to build from f/128 up to f/16 with six flashes, or am I just not understanding your point. FYI, I don’t use a view camera or even a tilt lens, but I thought the concept for getting everything in focus with multiple flash firings was of interest.
    Thanks again for all your good guidance.

    All my best from NJ,
    Gary Martin

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