While the majority of photographs taken in the world are of people and
places, there is another branch of photography that you should try, and that
is Still Life photography.
This is one type of photography where
the result is totally under your control. You don’t have to wait until the
sun comes out again, you don’t have to wait until the model fixes her
lipstick (again), and you don’t have to ask someone’s permission to take the
shot. This is Still Life photography.
There are those who think Still Life
work is simple. Unfortunately, no! However, it can be one of the most
amazingly creative and satisfying aspects of photography. The ability to
position and light a subject to produce a pleasing result can fill up an
entire day. In fact, the pros can take a couple of days to get a still life
shot just right. That’s right. A couple of days!
You see, there are so many aspects to
be covered in still life photography. It is not just a case of placing the
subject on a sheet of paper and pushing the button. Still life photography
teaches you every important aspect of the artistic side of photography, as
well as honing up your basic photographic skills.
The first good thing about still life
shots is the subject doesn’t complain and tell you to hurry up and “Is my
mascara smudged?” You can also just pick up the subject and move it in any
direction to suit the shot. You don’t have to ask for permission. Oh yes,
there are many advantages in having a silent subject!
Let us begin with lighting. The secret
to many still life shots is to have two light sources. This can be daylight
plus flash, two flashes, electric lights, daylight and a mirror - but you
might need two. One to basically light the subject and the other to light
the background. However, many shots work merging into a dark background.
The next important item in still life
photography is your own eye. You will find there are even books on the
subject, but what you have to do is to look at your table-top and arrange
the items in a manner that is pleasing to your eye. Do you want them
overlapping, or at some distance from each other? Generally there is one
dominant item - bring it to the foreground and then arrange the supporting
items after that. Some overlap generally works well such as this cheese
Having got that far and you are now
pleased with the composition, you then have to look through your camera.
Help! It doesn’t look the same as it did with the naked eye! What’s gone
wrong? It is because of the differences between the camera lens and your
eye’s focal length. You now have to look through the camera and adjust the
table-top items to produce the pleasing composition you saw with your own
eye. Yes, this takes time, and now you can begin to see why the pros take
After you have the composition to your
satisfaction - you have to light it. This is where daylight or tungsten
light becomes easier than flash - at least with the sun’s (filtered) rays or
diffused tungsten you can see what you are going to get. (In the pro
studio, the flash units have tungsten “modeling” lights so that you can get
the idea of how the flash will illuminate the subject, before popping the
Generally, I light the background
first, then bring in the foreground (subject) lighting, carefully noting
“spill” of one light source into the area of the other. Again, this can
take hours! In fact, you can change the whole look of a table-top scene
just with the balance of lighting used.
Remember too, that the exposure
settings used in the camera depend upon the foreground lighting (not the
background), and for most situations (but not all) the background can be
brighter than the foreground, to “wash” it out a little. But again this is
No, Still Life photography is not easy,
even though it sounds straightforward. Perhaps it is easier to help the
model fix her mascara!
Photography is often called “painting with light”, and in many ways that is
true. However, “Light” comes in many different colors. This is well
understood by those in the optical world, and refraction through prisms will
produce the different colors. There is in fact a light scale, measured in
degrees Kelvin, that shows why the late afternoon shots are ‘warm’ and the
other shots are ‘cold’. The light scale also explains why a household light
bulb looks orange when photographed, and why objects lit by neon tubes look
green. This color shift is also true with digital cameras if you do not
reset the white balance for the prevailing light source. Note that this
holds true for video, as well as still photography.
Getting slightly technical, color “temperature” is a term that is borrowed
from physics. However, the photographic color temperature is not exactly the
same as the color temperature defined in physics, as photographic color
temperature is measured only on the relative intensity of blue to red.
However, we borrow the basic measurement scale from physics and we measure
the photographic color temperature in degrees Kelvin (K).
Here is a table to show the differences in light sources.
1000 K Candles; oil lamps
2000 K Low effect tungsten lamps
2500 K Household light bulbs
3000 K Studio lights, photo floods
4000 K Clear flashbulbs
5000 K Typical daylight; electronic flash
5500 K The sun at noon
6000 K Bright sunshine with clear sky
7000 K Slightly overcast sky
8000 K Hazy sky
9000 K Open shade on clear day
The next confusing aspect is that the photographic color rendition and the
human eye do not see the colors with the same intensity. The usual camera
colors are ‘balanced’ to around 5,000 K, so light sources lower in color
temperature will look orange, even though it does not look orange to the
naked eye. This is why tungsten light sources produce the orange hue.
However, when you balance the color, the light is balanced against tungsten
light by exposing it to a blue tinge, so this time the light bulb will look
You also do not have to know the degrees Kelvin table off by heart to get
some different photographs when you turn the flash off. The main thing to
remember is that the color you perceive via the naked eye, is not
necessarily the color you will get in your photograph.
Try doing the following this weekend and let’s get some spectacular
low-light photographs. Firstly, turn off the flash, but turn on the
automatic mode for your camera. In other words I am going to make this very
easy for you. No hard exposure calculations. If you have a tripod, dust it
off, but even if you haven’t, continue with this weekend project.
Go to your local markets at dusk and take some photographs of what goes on
there, using just the stall-holder’s naked bulb for illumination. Be
prepared to lean against a telephone pole to stop camera shake if you do not
have a tripod, but give it a go.
Another tip is to “bracket” the exposure, but you will have to take the
camera out of the ‘Auto’ mode. You take one shot at where you believe the
correct exposure to be (from the camera’s light meter), then one at half a
stop more and another half a stop less. One of those three will give you the
Now try photographing some of our hotels at night. Most are quite brightly
lit and once again, you may end up very surprised at what you get. Even try
some portraits lit by candles only. Use your imagination, and not the flash!
You should also try photographing the same scene at several times during the
day. Do not reset the color balance, but record the same scene at 6 a.m., 10
a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m. and even 8 p.m. You can mount these shots side by side
as wall art and they will show the differences in the Kelvin degrees of
“Paint” your shots with your own “colors” and see the differences.