Back alleys are great for candid still life pictures.
A walk through the backlanes of Little India, Singapore presented some surprisingly rich colors and textures, plus a few quaint objects for still life photography.
The walk is peaceful and quiet, even though the main streets just metres away may be bustling with people and activity.
The photographer is thus left very much on his own, to do his art undisturbed.
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Candid still life photography is the term I use to describe photography of still life obects as they are, without any effort to "pose" them by arranging them on a table, and using only available natural light, without studio lighting equipment.
In a sense, taking candid still life pictures is easier than conventional still life photography because you do not need to spend a long time – sometimes hours – setting things up in the studio.
However, it has its own set of challenges...
One challenge of taking candid still life pictures is that, as a photographer, you do not have access to all possible views and angles of the object.
In concentional still life, you can arrange the object on a table in the middle of the studio, such that you can photograph it from the front, back and all the sides. You can place the object high or low, to suit your needs. And, of course, you can adjust the lighting to suit your needs – although this is not exactly easy.
The control of studio lighting equipment is a highly specialised skill that I have not learnt – and this is the main reason why I adopt the candid approach to still life pictures.
In any case, I don't own a studio! Not many photographers have this luxury, but that should not prevent us from exploring the art of still life photography. We just need to adapt.
So instead of adjusting the object, we need to adjust ourselves – not just to find the best angle for composition, but also for lighting.
More restrictive, however, is the lighting. If the sun is at a particular angle and the image looks best from a particular position, you just have to shoot from there. You come back at another time when the sun has moved. But then the quality of the light would also have changed. It may become better, it may become worse!
Unless the object is really very special, I would not make another trip just to photograph it. So far, I have yet to find an object worth that return trip.
A good example is this picture of leaves that caught my eye during my walkabout around the back alleys of Little India.
Some might call this a “nature photograph”. To me, it is still life – a still, lifeless object presented in a way that enhances its beauty. Anyway, when I saw this dried up plant out of a wall crack, I immediately saw the potential for a high-key photograph, with the main part of the picture bright white.
A bit of Photoshop adjustment, to further brighten the background, was all it took to achieve the high-key effect.
Another example of a nature / still life picture from my Little India walkabout is this vine almost mirroring a bent wire. Little India walkabout is this vine almost mirroring a bent wire.
The symmetry of the vine and the wire was obviously what caught my eye yet the main part of the picture is occupied by the rusty, rotten iron bar and by the blurred background.
These are very ordinary objects that normally would not be featured in still life pictures. To me, this is the challenge and the reward of walking around back alleys in search of candid still life pictures.
Another very ordinary object that caught my eye was this old, rusty hook, and the circular path it traced. It was only after I took the picture that I noticed there was nothing for the hook to hook on to. The hook was, literally, in the middle of nowhere!
While still life pictures such as this depict very ordinary objects, often it is the colors and textures of the background that make the pictures special. And, it is usually in back alleys that one usually finds such rich colors and textures. While on this subject, let me tell you about "the one that got away…”
I have a friend whose office faces a back alley (at Bali Lane, near Beach Road) and everytime I used his toilet, I would look out at this really beautiful old wall, green, black and shades of grey. And I kept telling myself that I must go back one day with a camera to take a picture of the wall.
Before I could do so, the wall was hacked off and a new coat of plaster and paint was applied over it. Oh well… The next time you see a nice scene, don't wait too long to take a picture of it.
Back to taking still life pictures of Little India... I had gone there one Sunday in October 2004. It took me a while to recall why I did it, apart from the fact that I was free that morning. Then I remembered it was because I had seen some of my friend's photographs during the week, and I felt inspired.
Because I had not done this in a very long time, I ended up trying too hard and wasted a lot of shots. I shot four rolls of film – that's nearly 150 pictures – out of which one entire roll did not produce a single picture worthy of showing.Apart from the few still life pictures presented here, another is that of a used trunk, at the bottom of my other page on still life pictures / photography.
That picture, although not immediately striking, is interesting because it tells a story – of migrants from India coming to Singapore. To me, that is very much a picture of Little India.
I also took some abstract art photographs during that Little India walkabout.
So despite the waste of film, I was glad I did it. Walking around with an open mind – and open eyes – produced a few pictures of subjects that I would not have thought of.
I hope this inspires you to go wandering around some back alleys. Just do it in broad daylight ;-)