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SNAP SHOTS by Harry Flashman


Keeping the subject “still”


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 shot.

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 so long!

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 shutter.)

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 experimentation.

No, Still Life photography is not easy, even though it sounds straightforward.  Perhaps it is easier to help the model fix her mascara!

All the colors of the rainbow

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 white.

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 best shot.

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 light colors.

“Paint” your shots with your own “colors” and see the differences.