Personal Essay: The Art of Taking Still Life Photographs

Thursday, January-09-14
Dave Hood

Still life is one of the popular genres of photography, and involves taking pictures of “inanimate objects,” including vegetables, toys, knick knacks, vintage things, like a pin-up calendar from the 50s. The photographer can take images in a studio or real world. When the artist uses a studio, he or she “makes the photograph” rather than “takes the photograph.” Irving Penn was one of the masters of still life photography in the studio, transforming ordinary objects into art. He once said, “Photographing a cake can be art.” He was able to create art with ordinary things, such as vegetables, cigarette butts, a skeleton of a fish on a plate. He chose objects for their shape, form, colour, texture, symbolism. He liked to contrast different objects, and was able to organize these objects into an appealing arrangement. He was able to use light in a creative way, both high-key lighting and low-key lighting. Penn’s photographs are appealing because they express amazing creativity—using ordinary objects, appealing arrangements, and artistic, yet simple lighting setup. Today, many aspiring photographers refer to Penn’s body of work for inspiration and to learn how to take creative and memorable images of still life with their cameras.

When I first took still life photography at Ryerson University, I was unaware of Irving Penn or his body of photography work. I thought it would be easy to arrange a few objects and snap a photograph in a studio setting, and so I began taking photographs using the approach of trial and error. After my first assignment, the instructor, a professional photographer, laughed at my work, implying that I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t given attention to background, lighting, arrangement, and point of view. His critique of my work was rather embarrassing—as I thought I was an expert—though I hadn’t worked in a studio. I decided to investigate still life photography. I began by Googling the term “still life photography” on the Internet, and then looked at the images generated from the search. I discovered that most still life photographs were ordinary, like my own. I then used a Google search to find “masters of still life.” The name of photographer, Irving Penn, came up in the list of search results. I sifted through all of his images—and became inspired. I purchased a few book on still life photography and lighting. Then I watched several very good videos about “how to shoot still life” on YouTube. Next, I took a myriad of still life images with window light and off-camera flash. This learning made me realize how little I knew about still life photography when I first started the course. Yet, in a short time, through self-study and practice, I transformed myself from a novice to a competent photographer of still life.

To take a memorable still life photograph in a studio, one that is worthy of sale to the public or part of a portfolio, is more difficult than it first seems. First, you must select a theme, and then an idea for that theme. Next, you must select “objects or things” for the theme, and then arrange these objects in an appealing way. An easy method is to create a pattern or arrange from small to large, placing the smaller objects in the front. Then you must select a surface to place the object on, and a background that is not distracting. I recommend wood, glass, fabric. You must also choose an appealing background, such as fabric or paper or bare wall. A distracting background, such as a patterned fabric, will usually result in an ordinary or unappealing image. The easiest method is to buy a backdrop stand and different colours of paper from a photography store. I purchased a rolls of black paper and white paper, so that I could create high-key and low-key still life images. Finally, you must determine how you are going to light the still life images in the studio. I learned that the wrong lighting will create amateur photograph, while the right lighting will often produce a memorable image, one that you can sell. The right light will reveal texture, shadows, contrast, and separate the object from the background, which gives it “pop” or “verse.”

Lighting still life photography was the most difficult challenge I had to master. First, I had to learn how to set up my digital camera to sync with an off-camera flash (speed light). Next, I had to learn how to use the off-camera flash. There are two methods of using the off-camera flash: Setting the camera in automatic mode, which means that the camera will determine the amount of flash power, or setting the camera in manually mode, which means that the photographer will determine the amount of flash power. You can select full or 1/1, high or 1/2, quarter or 1/4, 1/8, 1/32, 1/64, flash power. The less power you use, the dimmer the light. Next, I had to learn about lighting. Lighting that does not reveal texture or form (height, width, depth) or contrast will result in an ordinary image. Then I had to learn how to light different types of objects. Lighting glass on a white background or black background is one of the most challenging types of images a still life photographer can learn. Why? Glass reflects light. Secondly, if you use a flash, you run the risk of creating a hot spot in the image, which is distracting and can ruin a good photograph. And so, I had to learn how to shoot glass by diffusing light from an off-camera flash, as well as from a strobe lighting setup. For me, the learning curve was steep, like climbing the outside of a building with a rope and harness.

In 2012, I graduated from the course in still life photography with a B+, but I didn’t feel overly confident. I desired to learn more about lighting and setup of still life images. In the past year, I’ve spend many hours reading books, watching video tutorials, learning about lighting , taking still life photographs, especially on rainy or cold, snowy winter days. I know longer feel like someone stumbling through the woods without a flash light. In fact, I’ve sold several of my images on the stock photography websites, though I won’t become rich from it. Here is what I’ve learned about taking still life images in a studio:
1. Begin with a theme. For instance, you might select music, writing, art, or baseball. Once you have a theme, select an idea from that theme. Every object you select for the still life should support or complement your theme. Also, answer the question: What do I want to say about this idea with images? Consider what you desire to tell the viewer. Sometimes we create “art for art’s sake.”
2. Choose interesting objects or things. For instance, in recent still life photograph, I used music notes and an iPhone to represent music. To generate ideas, I suggest you look at the still life work of the masters, especially the photographs by Irving Penn.
3. Select a backdrop that is doesn’t distract. For a high-key image, “bright and white,” choose a white background. For a low-key image, “dark and dramatic,” choose a black background. I recommend you purchase a backdrop stand and rolls of black and white paper.
4. Select the right surface, one that compliments your image. Consider texture and reflection. Popular types of surfaces are wood, glass, fabric such as silk.
5. Select the right lighting. Lighting is paramount to a good still life photograph. Popular types of lighting are “window light” or “studio light, such as “umbrella” or “soft box” with a flash. If you don’t know anything about lighting, you must learn. It is an essential skill for taking great photographs. Read a few books and watch videos on YouTube. If you have the cash, enroll in a course. If you are serious about photography, purchase yourself an off-camera flash, reflector, soft box, and umbrella, and then learn how to use this equipment. I also recommend that you learn how to create “high-key” and “low-key” images.
6. Organize your object or things in an appealing arrangement. Some ways to organize are by pattern, front to back, left to right, right to left, small to large. As well, always have a point of focus. Each image should be part of your theme and contribute to your idea. Begin by taking your most important object, and then add other objects, one at a time.
7. Diagram your still life. When I first started taking still life images in a studio, I would take 40 or 50 shots, using the trial and error approach. I learned that this approach was a waste of time. Before you shoot, sketch out how you want your still life to look. Use a notebook or sketchpad. Always ask yourself: What am I trying to say?
8. Take photographs from different perspectives. Shoot from the top, on an angle, at eye level. As well, use both selective focus and full focus. Selective focus often works best—because you are able to create a novel and authentic image by focusing the camera on one object in the still life scene, rather than all objects. Selective focus draws attention to one object in the still life image.

You can also take still life outside of a studio, photographing things in your home, neighborhood, town, and city. I found it a lot easier to take still life images outdoors than in a studio. First, the objects are pre-arranged. I’ve taken still life images of many outdoor objects—including a mail box, fire hydrant, and stop sign. Secondly, for most photographs, I used ambient light or available light—the bright light from the sunshine or diffused light from a cloudy sky. I prefer taking images of found objects, like a discarded, empty beer bottle in the woods or a sea shell resting on the sandy beach. Some popular still life images are rocks, flowers, knick knacks, toys, vintage objects, such as a record player. Any inanimate object can be the subject of a still life photograph.

I’ve learned that best way to become a good still life photographer is to study the masters, such as Irving Penn, then learn and practise the techniques of taking still life photography in a studio, especially how to use lighting and how to choose and arrange objects. As well, for every still life image, begin with a theme and idea. Before using your camera, answer the question: What am I going to tell the viewer with my image? Next, sketch out the arrangement in a notebook or on a sketchpad. You can also pre-visualize the shot or work out an arrangement in the studio. Try to take less than 10 photographs from different perspectives. I’ve learned that the more photographs I take, the less comfortable I am with the arrangement of objects. Irving Penn said, “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it.” I believe that the best photographers are able to arrange and capture still life objects as art.


About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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