by Harry Flashman
Catching the action in Still Life
Still life food - flash and
Still Life photography must be easy as you don’t have to direct
models or supervise make-up. Everything is just sitting there,
waiting for the photographer to push the button. Oh if it were
only that easy!
One of the most amazingly creative and satisfying aspects of
photography can be Still Life shooting. 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
There are so many aspects to be covered in still life
photography. 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 asking “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
Let us begin with lighting. The secret to all 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
need two. One to basically light the subject and the other to
light the background.
Lighting the background isolates the subject from the background
and makes your subject the “hero” in the shot.
The other secret in the lighting is to produce a diffused light
source. With un-diffused light, you will get far too many
distracting shadows, which with small table-top objects can ruin
the overall effect. You can diffuse your lighting by shining it
through some scrim cloth, transparent net curtain material or
through some frosted plexi-glass - the sort of material they
have over fluoro lights, for example.
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
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 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 “modelling” 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
No, Still Life photography is not easy, even though it sounds
straightforward. Perhaps it is easier to help the model fix her
mascara after all!
WYSIWYG – learn that first!
Modern digital cameras, both SLR and point and shoot (and I put
smartphones in that category) are all very clever with zoom
lenses and modes to cover everything. But they don’t cover
So, exactly what is WYSIWYG (pronounced “wizziwig”)? It is the
acronym for “What You See Is What You Get”! WYSIWYG works with
photography. It just needs one thing – you have to train your
eye to see critically what is really there, through the
We all tend to ‘imagine’ what is in front of us, rather than
‘seeing’ what is really there. Look at drawings of houses done
by young children. Inevitably, there will be more than two
walls. Children ‘know’ that houses have more than two walls, so
draw houses accordingly. However, when you look at any house,
from any angle, you can only see a maximum of two walls at one
time. Small children do not use WYSIWYG.
Unfortunately, neither do many photographers. Hands up all
readers who have reviewed their images from the memory card and
been disappointed? All of you, if you are telling the truth –
and that includes me!
What was wrong with those photos? Were there trees growing out
of people’s heads, giving them strange reindeer ‘antlers’? Did
some have such harsh shadows across the person’s face that you
could not see the eyes, and in fact, the face looked grotesque?
Did some have the person so small in the picture that you cannot
tell who they are? Shall I continue, or since you have probably
ticked the box for “all of the above”, let’s not prolong the
agony, but get down to what we have to do to fix the problem.
The answer is very simply WYSIWYG, but you have to train
yourself to ‘really’ see. We all know what we want to see in
this once in a lifetime photo, but ignore the fact that what we
are seeing in the viewfinder is not actually what we want. It’s
the child and the house with three sides again.
You have to train yourself to look critically at what is in the
viewfinder before going ‘click’. This is actually harder than it
seems. You have to scan the small viewfinder to see if there are
trees growing out of people’s heads. You have to squint at the
faces and see if shadows are ugly. You have to be prepared to
put the camera down and recompose the shot before clicking that
shutter, remembering at all times that what the camera ‘sees’ is
not necessarily the proportions you are seeing with the naked
That may sound a little weird, but it isn’t really. What the
camera sees depends upon the lens you are using. The “standard”
(50-55 mm) lens gives a field of view coverage approximately the
same as the human eye, but the “wide angle” lenses (24 mm and 28
mm, are the common ones) give a distorted viewpoint compared to
that seen by you. Likewise, the “long” lenses give a very narrow
viewpoint compared to what you see with your own eyes.
This is probably one of the best arguments for the use of SLR
cameras, because when you look through the viewfinder, in most
DSLR’s you are actually looking through the lens. The compact
cameras where you are not looking through the camera’s lens have
a compensation for this, but it is a poor substitute. Who
remembers which set of lines you are supposed to use as the edge
of the shot when you are taking it? Nobody.
99 percent of serious photographers use SLR’s, and the main
reason is WYSIWYG. Which brings me to the next important item.
The Preview Button. Do you use it? Do you actually know where it
is and how to use it? This is ‘real’ WYSIWYG. Did you realize
that when you look through the viewfinder, you are looking
through the lens with the aperture wide open? But your shot may
be recorded at f16. The preview button allows you to see at f16
exactly what will be on the final print. Use it! What you see is
really going to be what you get!
The Future is L16?
There is a company called “Light” which might have the start of the new
camera revolution. Called the L16, it is unlike any camera that has gone
before. Looking like a thick smartphone it has 16 lenses with an optical
zoom range of 35 mm to 150 mm and an end result of 52 MP images.
One feature we have seen before is the ability to alter the depth of
field after the shot has been taken though there are other cameras that
allow you to refocus after the fact, like the Lytro Illum, but the L16
will have actual video capabilities as well. The user can then change
the image’s depth, focus and exposure and even share it on social media
via built-in Wi-Fi. It also excels in low-light situations with its 16
sensors working together.
It takes advantage of what the company has described as a “silent
revolution” in photography.
Simplifying the process, according to an in-depth report just released,
the need to put better quality cameras in smartphones has miniaturized
camera components and created high-quality plastic lenses. For the L16
five of the lenses are 35 mm, five 70 mm lenses with mirrors, and six
150 mm lenses. It uses these to take different details from a scene and
then merges the data into a 52 megapixel picture.
The L16 includes 35-150 mm optical zooms and claims to have advanced
low-light performance, low image noise and precise depth of field
control. These are turned sideways, so the zoom function remains inside
the camera itself.
Claims by the Light company include “The L16 is the first multi-aperture
computational camera that packs DSLR quality and capability into a
device that fits in your pocket,” says Light. It is also “smaller,
lighter, less expensive, and provides better image quality than any
camera in its price class.” (The last part of that claim my be open for
discussion as the L16 costs $1,700, and is due to be released in late
Out of the 16 individual camera units inside the L16, 10 of them fire
simultaneously to capture the detail of an image at different fixed
The device runs on Android and has a 5 inch touchscreen on the back for
editing and sharing photos using its built-in Wi-Fi. Light also say that
Foxconn had licensed its technology to build a similar camera into
Much of the technical data has yet to be released by Light, but the
128GB of onboard storage
Minimum focus:10 cm at wide angle (35 mm); 1 m at telephoto (150 mm)
Multi-aperture computational camera
Shoots video up to 4K with optical zoom from 35-150 mm equivalent focal
Standard 1/4"-20 tripod socket
GPS and accelerometer
Outputs JPEG, TIFF, and raw DNG
Built-in dual-tone LED flash
That price isn’t for the faint of heart - or the amateur weekend
photographer. And even though the technology the L16 utilizes is really
exciting, I believe customers are going to need to know a little bit
more before they feel comfortable queuing up to be the first on the
block with one. Seeing as this camera is built with photographers in
mind, filmmakers will no doubt need to know more about its video
features before considering it an option for their projects as well.
“We have a team of 11 PhDs in computational optics,” Light says. “They
know what they’re doing. And it’s an ongoing effort, it’ll go on for the
next 20 years.”
“The great thing is the depth map we have great 3D information, and some
developer could write the indoor mapping app that leverages that
information. Another one is facial recognition, because we get such
precise information, or a 3D-printing app.”
My feeling is that this particular electronic camera is just the start
of the revolution, reminding me of the original XT PCs, which did most
everything in its day, but the new computers do it just so much better
and faster. It will be the same with electronic cameras.