Still Life - Words and Pictures by Michael Jenkins
Still Life photography provides a fine opportunity to learn about composition
and lighting. Unlike landscapes you can control the light; and unlike portraits,
your subjects will not get bored and start fidgeting.
Most of the time, you will be working indoors. You will need good light, so
work near a window, preferably one that allows plenty of sunlight in.
To avoid colour casts, try to work with natural daylight if possible.
The reason for this can be seen in this set of three photographs. They are
all of the same clear glass chess piece. All of them were taken with the same
digital camera, against the same background.
The first was taken under a normal tungsten light, using the daylight setting
of the camera. As you can see, the subject has turned orange. This is because
tungsten light is cooler than daylight. We see blue as cold and red as hot but
it takes heat sources the other way around to produce those colours. As I sit
here looking at that same chess piece in the same tungsten light, it looks clear
to me. Interestingly, down the left hand side you can see a reflection of the
daylight from the window. This is the only part of the image that looks close
to being white.
The second picture was taken using the tungsten setting on the camera. This
is meant to mimic using special tungsten balanced film in a film camera. It
looks better, but there is still an orange cast to the piece. However, you can
see that the reflection of the window is now blue. Daylight is hotter (more
blue) than the tungsten light for which the camera (or film) was balanced.
The third photograph was taken in daylight using the daylight setting. This
is more like the colour you would expect. So you can see why it is good to work
with natural light if possible.
Of course, there are times when the "warmer" tones of tungsten light
enhance the picture. So, don't be afraid to use the effect if it suits your
If your camera has a built-in flash, you will need to be careful when using
it. Because of how close the flash is to the lens, the lighting will look flat,
with very small shadows, if any. Try using some thin tissue paper to diffuse
the light. This should help smooth out any bright spots.
If you are using window light, you will probably need to set slower exposure
times. Preferably, you will use a tripod and remote shutter release, although
this is not essential. Setting the camera on a solid surface and using the self-timer
will achieve the same result. Balance the light if necessary by using a sheet
of white paper on the opposite side from the light source to reflect some light
back into the shadow areas.
When building up still life photographs, start with one item and notice how
the light affects the modelling of the subject.
Still Life subjects are all around us. So it may be tempting to just grab a
handful of items, put them together on a table and snap away. However, you will
benefit from putting some thought into your work.
When you start taking still life pictures, always start small. Start with one
item. Look at the way the light affects the shadows and the shape of the item.
Then add something else and try different arrangements to get a good composition.
Keep building the arrangement up in this way until you are happy with the image
you have created.
As you build up your subject, think about contrasts; hard and soft, light and
dark, smooth and textured. There are all sorts of contrasts you will want to
try and each of them will produce a different effect.
Autumn colours can be captured without spending too much time out of doors.
If you want to take photographs of the autumn colours, try a fine art type
print of some autumn leaves and maybe add some autumn fruits.
One easy mistake to make is not thinking about the background. Backgrounds
are your main item of contrast. The right background will help to push the subject
forward towards the viewer. The wrong background will hide the subject.
A black velvet background will help to absorb unwanted light and reflections.
Black velvet will absorb the light so you don't get unwanted reflections and
bright spots. Alternatively, use a white or nearly white sheet, maybe of paper.
However, in this case you need to make sure that you remove all the creases
as any shadows from them will show up in the final print. Of course, you may
want this effect. For example, a draped cloth can work nicely as part of your
Where can you get ideas for subjects? We have already looked at contrasts such
as light and dark. It would be interesting to use a black and white film, looking
at the tones produced.
Think about illustrating song titles. Pick a song that makes you think of a
graphic image and try to create that image. You could do the same with book
titles and proverbs or sayings. The picture of the mannequin and the lamp was
inspired by an old song.
Ideas can be drawn from all manner of sources. This picture was inspired
by an old song.
If you want to learn about portrait photography but do not have anyone to model
for you, buy an artist's mannequin or a doll. You could then practice your lighting
and poses whenever you want to. You could even leave your model set up. The
mannequin will not have cramp when you come back two days later!
After taking your photographs, remember to spend some time in the other areas
of photography such as image manipulation. If you are using your computer for
image editing, there are all sorts of possibilities; changing the background,
adjusting the colours, brightness and contrast and so on. You could even combine
items from different images. With the dark nights and bad weather, there should
be plenty of time to experiment.
Spend some time manipulating your photographs to create interesting images.
So, don't put your camera away just because of the weather. Use the time to
learn more about composition and lighting. Don't worry if your pictures do not
turn out as well as you hoped. Learn from them. The lessons will be invaluable.