“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things”, said Pam Beesly as the closing lines in the legendary NBC sitcom “The Office” finale. Still Life Photography, on its face value, may not seem as enticing and glamorous as sublime landscape photography, but this cannot diminish its unique importance. The aim of still life photography is to exalt the commonplace, the ordinary to the realm of extraordinary. This alone gives it the dimension of an artistic quest not covered by any other form of photography – a project that has its well-established counterpart in nineteenth-century neoclassical painting.
Even discounting this zest for artistic merit, still life photography has a wide application in practice. The very obvious and perfect market niche for it is the stock photos industry. A photographer could well make a living contributing to the libraries of the likes of Shutterstock, PhotoDune or Envato. Other than public domain libraries, there is product photography, which can raise you to an even higher pay scale if you find the right client.
Career opportunities and greater art narratives aside – still life photography looks deceivingly simplistic, while in reality, it is much harder to execute. In landscape photography, for example, ’s sake, a good terrain texture, natural thatch patterns in a hill village, or even a bunting wire can set up the structure of your photo for symmetry, and you can rely on the sunset tint and a dramatic cloud assortment to be the saving grace for an otherwise average photo. In still life photography – if done indoors, most of these parameters are eliminated, and you have to be a self-made man. On the flip side, though, this means you can exercise much more authority on your photo. You can use this lack of parameters as a scope to implement your very own signatures into the photo. Here are some tips to help you get into the school of still life photography, as well as some still life photography ideas to boost your brainstorming sessions.
(1) Set up your equipment:
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All your talents may fall flat if your primary tools are not up to snuff. So you must first get the building block checklist out of the way. A tripod is a must – its stability opens more avenues than we can list here – crank up the ISO, longer shutter speeds and ever lower apertures. Next in line, of course, is a remote shutter, for further stability and clarity. Don’t forget artificial lighting either. You don’t need studio-standard lights, but even a lamp or two with matboards to highlight controlling would help immensely.
(2) Think outside the box:
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The current wave of still photography, and frankly, most art concerning imagery of the commonplace, has invariably fixated upon capturing food. These are mostly structurally similar. They use soft light to somewhat defamiliarize it, and then use specular light – especially in case of fruits – to highlight an implied succulent nature. When done right, these almost overused tropes can still make for good photography. But the crux of the point we are trying to make is that you do not need to necessarily stick to capturing fruits and flower vases at all! Think outside the box when you choose an object. Ambition begins at the risk of experimentation, so don’t hesitate to focus on something so familiar and commonplace like a teddy bear, steel cutlery, while also including oddities like a strangely shaped rock. If you can follow an alternate line of thought, you can usually find something indoors. If not, there is the outside waiting for a collector’s adventure.
(3) ‘Still’ life does not mean you cannot capture motion.
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In fact, this can be a breakthrough that makes your usual photograph become unusual. To exemplify, instead of using a chalice of wine as the centerpiece, you can instead capture the process of wine being poured into a glass. For this, though, you will need to set up your equipment with extra care, or ideally get a helping hand from a partner. We have cited liquid motion, but even moving solid objects, i.e. components that register a motion blur, is viable. This will sound quite counterintuitive, but then you can and should think outside the norms. No rules are set in stone. When planned well, motion can emphasize the relative stillness of the rest of the photograph.
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If we go back in time before the modern slr or equivalent technologies, cameras used to have a limited dynamic range. Taking a shot in broad daylight in those days meant a contrast high enough to compromise detail. But thankfully, with today’s digital cameras, tone adjustment and dynamic range adaptation is a breeze, and if not, there are polarizing filters at hand. Because of these conveniences, it is quite trendy these days to claim yourself a ‘natural light photographer’. But here’s the catch: in still life photography, experimenting with light can result in very innovative shots. This is not just the position and intensity of the artificial lighting, but also its angle that can yield a huge difference. To cite the last example of the chalice, think how the glass would look with light that shoots up from below instead of the more natural and realistic angles. The same also goes for the nature of the light – in most cases, soft light with a spread-out radius is preferred, but don’t forget to also factor in the hard-hitting focused light. It might enhance a photo much more, depending on the theme. A nifty little tool in these cases are hand mirrors – with them you can redirect focused light more precisely.
(5) Take inspiration from the professionals:
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If you have run into a slump regarding your innovation, a good way to address it might be perusing over the techniques of the great professionals in the field. Take Harold Ross’ photo of a disheveled arrangement of pumpkins scattered on a field for example – it is innovative because instead of opting for any one kind of lighting, a hybrid of both studio-lite foreground and a landscape-worthy background is used. This creates a miasma – that is, the dark horizon at the skyline – between the foreground in the background that makes both of them feel surreal. As Aristotle himself admitted, remember, art is imitation. Emulating other photographer’s works – be it Kenji Aoki, Victor Schrager, or Lucas Blalock, can be a great way to improve your own photography!
(6) Mind the composition:
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The rule of thirds that is indispensible for landscape photography still applies to other schools, especially for still life photography. You usually have no horizon and, and the depth is about skin-deep with most of the indoor photos – but even so, the number of objects and the distribution of space can be a good base to start from. The basics of composition still apply here: use of negative space, directing the audience’s eye with straight lines, and the lot. Sometimes the rule of thirds pays off when you actually deviate from it, and focus on an asymmetry – take the almost chaotic Harold Ross photo we cited earlier as an example.
(7) The post-production:
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With the Photoshop actions feature, you can now even automate your usual photo cleanup, filtering, and optimization process in a jiffy to regulate your workflow and make it easier. Post-production can truly make an ordinary photo shine and stick out. It is a vast topic to completely cover within the expanse of this article, so we will underline only the essential parts for still life photography. Sharpening comes first, and you should adjust and see if you can improve it with every shot – even if you are satisfied with the clarity. Nine out of ten times, you will notice an improvement. The other major player is split-toning, also known as cross-processing, which can alter the vibe of your photo dramatically. Thirdly, it usually will not come to that if you did a good job taking the shot, but do not be reluctant to use dodging and other retouching and corrective methods to polish your final product.