Here is a still life photography tip for those of you who, like me, don't own a photography studio with professional studio lighting, back drop paper and other equipment and accessories:
You don't need them!
Heck, you don't even need a table top!
All you need is an eye for arrangement and natural lighting. Plus, of course, your camera.
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Such photographs may be technically brilliant and impressive at first glance. They may be perfect for advertisements. But I find that they tend to lack life and soul; they have a certain aura of artificiality.
It's not that they aren't “artistic”. In fact, one has to be highly creative and skilled – a true master of the art of photography – to produce brilliant commercial photographs.
It is certainly not an easy task to make everyday objects look so attractive that people want to buy them.
That's not my style, however. If you are looking for still life photography tips on how to create that sort of images, then I am sorry that I have to disappoint you. I prefer a more natural approach to still life photography, taking pictures of objects as they are, in natural light.
Very seldom do I even arrange things. These still life photographs of old medicine bottles which I took for a doctor's website, along with my vegtetables still life (Carrots / Picture of Vegetables), are among the rare exceptions. The rest of the time, I prefer to take still life photographs of objects as they are, either arranged by nature or by someone else.
Still Life Photography Tip #1
Like the dead bird above, which I found on a rock sculpture, near the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Never would I have thought that a dead bird would make a nice photograph. Yet its “pose" and the leaves around it seemed like a perfect arrangement.
Or this sea shell by the sea shore:
It just so happened that some people were digging (perhaps for shells?) by a black sand beach at Jason's Bay, Johor, Malaysia. I thought the digging marks complemented the shell rather well. So did the black sand with the off-white shell.
Some people might call this a nature photograph. To me, it is still life – a still, lifeless, ordinary object presented in a way that enhances its beauty.
Another favourite “nature / still life" photograph of mine is this dried leaf, resting on moss covered rocks. I was hiking alone in Singapore's Bukit Timah forest when I came across it. Good thing I had my camera with me.
What's the difference, you might ask, if someone else “arranged“ the objects?
Well, the big difference is that the person did not arrange them with any intention of taking a still life photograph. He or she did not purposedly place them at an angle with the “correct" lighting.
The arrangement is totally natural. I call this "candid still life". The challenge for the photographer, then, is the art of seeing rather than the art of arrangement and of setting up lighting equipment.
Both the above pictures illustrate the importance of the background in the presentation of the subject.
This brings us to Still Life Photography Tip #2 – Look out for interesting backgrounds – and in the case of this dried leaf, the foreground as well.
Look out, especially, for nice textures. Lots more examples of this second still life photography tip can be seen in my vegetables series, where I used the background to enhance ordinary subjects like carrot, leek and garlic.
I especially like this mushroom still life photograph, where I used the back of oyster mushrooms as background to photograph a button mushroom.
If, however, you want an absolutely black background, here's Still Life Photography Tip #3 – use black velvet cloth. Even artificial velvet will do. The thicker the cloth, the better. Other cloth material may still reflect light – even though they are black – and may show creases, folds, etc.
However, I took this picture of corn against my black T-shirt because I did not know about velvet at that time. It still came out ok. Don't be afraid to experiment when you don't have the “correct” materials at hand.
Still Life Photography Tip #3a. still on black backgrounds, is this: Try black glass.
Buy a piece of glass, use a can of black spray paint and spray two or three coats on one side. I have not tried this. But I have seen some nice pictures with a black background plus reflection.
This is cardboard paper that is stiff yet flexible enough to be bent without creating any folds or creases. So you can bend it in a curved L-shape to produce a seamless background.
Make sure you take the reading from the subject itself, and not from the background. To be extra sure, take another few shots over-exposed by, say, 1/2 to 2 stops.
How many shots to take and how much over-exposure to use depends on your experience – but even experienced photographers sometimes bracket (ie, over- and under-expose) their shots just to be sure.
I am very particular about backgrounds. Incidentally, I pay great attention to the background of my website designs as well. They are never a flat even colour, but neither do they distract from the text.
The same principle applies in still life photography. Sometimes, a slight variation in the background will take away the monotony. Just don't let the background distract.
In this next picture, the background takes up most of the space. It is an unusual composition with the subject near the edge of the picture and the rest of it empty.
This brings us to Still life photography tip #5 – experiment with the composition.
In traditional still life, the subject is always in the middle, or more or less middle. This need not always be the case.
Lighting is, of course, the other important element in still life photography – in fact, for all forms of photography. It can transform an ordinary object – like this note book and pen – into something special.
Still life photography tip #6 is to look out for interesting lighting – and that means interesting shadows as well.
Early morning and late evenings are obviously times when the light and shadows are most interesting. But again, dare to break rules. like in this picture taken at mid-day. The effect is totally different from that of the picture of the book and pen above. But it worked perfectly for this situation with the shadow directly below, yet separated from, the clothes.
I like this picture also because it tells a story.
It shows the complete set of clothing of one man. The fact that it is hung up this way, without other clothing, suggests that the man lives alone. In fact, this picture was taken amidst old, abandoned, half-demolished warehouses, in Clarke Quay, Singapore before the place was re-developed. The whole area was quiet and deserted, except for this single sign of life. A vagrant had set up home there.
Still life photography tip #7: Look out for arrangements of objects that tell a story.
Another still life photograph that I like is this, of a disused trunk.
It is not a photograph that is immediately striking. At first glance you may not even know what it is. But look a while longer and you will see a story in it, a story about a journey from India to Singapore. You might even guess where the photograph was taken – at a backlane in Singapore's Little India.
Backlanes are, in fact, great places for still life photography. I will talk more about this at another time, with a series of backlane pictures.
For now, I leave you with this thought:
A still life photograph should show not only stillness, but also life!