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Still Life Photography, Part 1

April 1st, 2014 · No Comments

Have the itch to get out and take some pictures but the Polar Vortex and knee deep snow has chased you inside? Why not try your hand at some naturally lit still life’s in the warmth and comfort of your home. They are a great way to learn about lighting and can challenge your creative and compositional abilities.

Your first creative challenge begins with prop selection and “styling” of your shot. In this set-up I visualized a high key (white on white) approach with the pears being the dominant visual element. I selected a fluted white bowl with a subtle crackling in the glazing. The fluting and crackle adds subtle visual interest and sophistication without taking attention away from the pears. I then explored various arrangements of the pears within the bowl. Arrange and then evaluate from the cameras position. Experiment with and give careful thought to how everything in the shot is arranged. Don’t settle for the first thing that comes to mind. This will develop your eye for composition and encourage the habit of looking critically at and thinking about what you are photographing. Here’s the lighting set-up (description of how I made the shot below).

5 Pears Lighting Set-up

(A) is a table or flat surface moved in close proximity to a window. The red arrows show natural light illuminating the set. (B) is a white “sweep” large enough to cover the foreground and background of the image. In this case it was a flat sheet of white foam core. It could have been a white mat board or white fabric. The bowl of pears was then positioned on the set and the camera was positioned based on my “pre-visualization” of the shot (looking down at a 3/4 angle). Here is a test shot made at this point without any further modification of the lighting.

Pears in Bowl, No Fill Light

It’s not quite the white on white high key effect I wanted. The shadows are fairly strong on the left hand side and the front of the bowl is in shadow. I would also like to see a little less contrast in the pears themselves. To me, this shot is about subtlety and a soft modeling of the pears, not drama. Rather than trying to achieve this in post processing, we can make these changes in camera by MODIFYING the lighting on the set. This will be accomplished by adding reflectors to fill in or soften the shadows.

Looking back to the setup above, (C) is a folded piece of white foam core placed to bounce the window light (pink arrows) back into the shot to fill in the shadows. The slight fold (score the surface with a knife and then bend) allows the reflector to be free-standing. (D) is a smaller piece of foam core (held in place with a small clamp–these clamps are really useful in studio photography) and it fills in the shadow on the front of the bowl. The size of this reflector is critical. It has to be high enough to brighten the front shadows but not so high that it shows in the shot. The closer the reflector is to your subject the more they will lighten the shadows. Experiment with different positions but ALWAYS check in the camera viewfinder to make sure they do not show in the finished shot. Here is the finished shot with a minimum of post processing.

Pears in Bowl, With Fill Light

This simple, one light source exercise can teach you a lot about the nature of light and how to modify it to suit your artistic vision. Consider these points.

*Soft, diffuse window light (cloudy days) favors less contrast with softer shadows and more shadow detail.

*Direct sunlight streaming through the window will be much more dramatic, very contrasty and will emphasize textures.

*Direct sunlight can be modified with sheer curtains or a “POPS” folding circular diffuser.

*Shadows can by brightened by careful use of reflectors

*Natural, diffuse window light is also great for indoor portraits.

There’s a lot you can learn in the comfort of your own home that will serve you well in the field when things warm up. Have fun!!!!

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