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Still life photography

Guest plesbit

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As part of my ongoing efforts to be creative (and frustrated by the bad weather and poor light outside) I am looking at what options I have to get my photography fix without leaving the house.

I've seen that many people can be quite creative setting up scenes with every day objects and shooting them from clever angles. You can get some quite interesting effects so I thought I might try my hand at that. Problem is.... I don't know where to begin!

Anyone? :|

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Simon, you have a way of raising very big subjects in a few pithy lines! :)

Still life photography is a lot of fun, and is also very helpful for practising and building up techniques in more general areas, such as composition and the effects of light. I highly recommend it.

A few key points - I see there are 10, so they must be my 10 golden rules:

1. You can use artificial light - tungsten bulbs, flash guns or studio flash - but I'd always recommended starting with natural light. A good way is to set up your composition on a table next to a window with the light coming from the side, and a piece of white card on the opposite side to reflect some light back onto the shadow side (or a proper reflector if you've got one).

2. You'll soon get used to some of the practical issues, such as improvising ways of holding a piece of white card in position as a reflector, holding things where you want them etc. - Blu Tack, wires, clamps etc. (studio photographers use incredibly sticky black stuff delightfully known as elephant s**t, and stuff to remove elephant s**t stains, known as "gorilla snot" - don't say I never give you useful information :oops:)

3. Backgrounds are a REAL pain, but going through that pain is a great way to learn about photography generally - it helps make you aware of what works in a photo and what doesn't. Try black or white card to start with, but you'll discover that the join where the back piece of white card meets the base will show, and you need to find inventive ways of disguising it (or clone it out in Photoshop of course).

4. It only works if you are painstaking about it - it's not a genre for snapshooting. This is great for progressing generally in photography, but there is a learning curve for those who prefer quick results.

5. Experiment with reflectors, and you will soon notice the way the lighting ratio changes as you move the reflector away from the light source and the subject, and back towards them - a great way of developing your understanding of light.

6. Don't even think about doing it without a tripod. Check every corner and edge of the composition

and fine tune until you get it right. Check the histogram after each shot and, if I dare hark back to a previous posting, expose to the right - you've got the time to get the exposure right, and your camera may well not get it the way you want it.

7. Normal compositional "rules" apply - rule of thirds especially. A subject stuck in the middle of the frame will look like pack shot in a product catalogue rather than aspiring fine art to go on the wall! Depth of field effects are far more pronounced at close distances, and often a shallow DOF is attractive rather than trying for front to back sharpness.

8. Look at the shots on the computer before you take down/undo the subject - if you find things that need tweaking it's not great if you've destroyed the set-up.

9. If you can, shoot with the camera tethered to a laptop so the image comes up full screen on the laptop straight after shooting. I do this with Lightroom, but you'll need to check whether your particular software can do it - unless designed for the pro market the answer may well be no, but it's worth a look.

10. Experiment a lot, and have fun a lot!

I've got a few of my still life images on my website at http://www.brucecairns.com/portfolio5355.html. The bread, Stilton and wine one was a particular challenge, and a lot of fun. It also produced a nice 40 inch canvas for our kitchen wall!

In addition, here's one I shot recently. As you'll guess, it was for a wedding rather than for personal artistic reasons :oops:, but it's probably a reasonable example as it shows how you can play around with unusual angles, shallow depth of field, composition and colour, making sure reflections in glass look the way you want them, etc. It was shot with window light on the left, and a reflector on a stand on the right. The red velvet was a sofa which made a nice background, but required careful positioning to avoid getting cushion edges etc. in the shot.


Enjoy your still life photography!


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Far, far more info than I had hoped for - thanks! You've not said much recently so I was assuming you were busy so I appreciate you taking the time on this one. It does sound like quite a lot of hard work so I'll enjoy getting my teeth into some of the (many) points you raise. Unfortunately I lack any kind of studio lighting and I do not think I am quite ready to go out and start buying any just yet, though I won't rule it out for the future. It sounds like the conservatory might be the place to get started with this if I want natural light.

Just out of interest - what lenses do you find most useful for this sort of thing? My lens set up is pretty minimal and just one prime (50mm) and that's a macro so super thin DoF.

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Guest chriscraft

hi ,also got fed up with the weather ,and having no time to pratice,so i thought what could i see from the bedroom window..which has a radiator infront of it!,this was sunday and bitter cold ,came up with this..post-1-136713455755_thumb.jpg. i did cheat a little with the lighting, for info the bird was 35 ft away and 20 ft off the ground.

shot with nikkon 70-300 af zoom on max zoom,photo shop spotlight effect from right,as iam praticing with the program aswell(still very dutch to me!!)

Double click for best viewing

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Hi Guys

I have done a bit of still life - least I think I would call it that.

Have a look at one of my web sites - not too everyones cup-of-tea I know - but I had to photograph these.


Some have been photographed for "speed" rather than display.

The quaility will show !

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I meant to say- If you are photographing items that can sit on a table then use a tripod and shutter release if possible, also if you can connect the camera up to the PC then I prefer to fix the camera normally and move the subject around.

Personal preference only, I,m sure others will have their own way of doing things.

Getting the depth of field right is another thing important especially if the subject is a bit on the long side and every thing needs to be in focus.

Or just the opposite for effects.

Some one did ask me about DOF - depth of field - and how you can work it out.

The way I remember it is by using the F number on aperture.

If you can imagine F4 will give you - say a focus length of say 4 foot were as a F16 will give you a focus length of say - 16 Foot.

Silly really but that's how I remember it.

Some cameras have a button - on my Canons it is just below the lens release button, and pressing it shuts down the aperture to the current F stop so you can see how it works within a bit.

Hope you can understand it as dont think I have explained it too well !!! :oops:

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I rather like those actually Paul - if you don't mind me saying that's towards the simpler end of still life which is where I am probably better starting off rather than trying to do fancy stuff straight off and making an @r$£ of it! You may even have given me some ideas. cheersbar

Terry - yes of course you can call me Simon. :)

Chriscraft - you could always start a garden bird thread for your blue tit and it's friends.

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Actually I've been giving your above pic some thought Paul - my Mrs is a fairly tame example of the species but even she would become murderous if I was to stick a pin in any of our sofas (which are all leather and barely 6 months old).

A safer option might be to use one of the car seats!

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A safer option might be to use one of the car seats!

Or the Mrs - no - forget I said that :norty:

Just catching up quickly on this thread. You're right Simon, I've been a bit manic recently. I started answering your question and decided it needed a reasonably long answer, and it just sort of grew!

Lenses - 50mm on APS sensor may be a bit longer than the ideal - little depth of field if you go in close, and if you don't you may have logistical problems with composition (you'll see what I mean when you start). Something a bit wider would be easier, but the trick is always to do the best you can with what you've got!

Paul, I like the idea of the needle exercise. I'm short of time, but may fit in a quick attempt at the weekend. I like yours - arty arrangement of the thread.

Simon, don't worry about "making an @r$£ of it" (as you so poetically put it) if you do "fancy stuff" - with digital, you've got nothing to lose but time, and it's a great learning experience. Just have fun! cheersbar (but don't stick needles in Susan - sorry I mentioned that :oops:)


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I too have leather sofas Simon so used the cushion instead.

Had to do it quick as Daphne was at work so got away with it........ Till someone drops me in it !

Bit of fun.

I just had to do this picture today.

Not happy with it, Silver is a sod to photograph, so have just ordered a tent and some lighting to see if that helps.


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so have just ordered a tent and some lighting to see if that helps.

Is that your appetite whetted for more of this then? ;)

You didn't mention what lens / focal length you used.

Bruce, unfortunately the 50mm is the only prime I have - and it's a macro so even less DoF. I'll have a play and see what happens, otherwise I'll be using my walkabout lenses which shouldn't be a problem as they are both extremely good.

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Guest chriscraft


in the spirit of make the best of what you,ve got,this is atemp no.1

no light so had to focus by hand(the auto focus couldn,t get a solution as too close, i think) used 50mm 1,8 fixed lensepost-1-136713456477_thumb.jpg

lost the cushion in foreground

double click to see better, i think i,ll wait untill daylight!! :oops:

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My lack of creativity is coming out I fear. I've had a good go at it but really couldn't come up with anything that was inspired in the least. Worse, there's no natural light and really nowhere in the house which is artificially lit well enough for photography so I had little choice but to use the onboard flash - hardly ideal when you're shooting less than 20cm from the subject. I then compounded it with my own stupidity - I thought I was in P mode but in fact was still in A mode (which I use more than anything) so the camera maintained f6.3 throughout and with a 50mm macro lens the DoF was therefore razor thin! A few times I attempted to actually use that to my advantage but in fact it so thin that even if one part of the needle was in focus the rest was well and truly out of it.

I then downloaded the pics onto the computer and only then read Paul's message again and realised how small an aperture he'd used. Without the time or inclination to set up a tripod this evening, I took just three more test shots - ramping up the ISO (to maintain a fast shutter speed) to a whopping 3200 (probably best not done unless you have a really expensive camera - which I don't) and tried a couple more at ISO1600 both with the aperture set to f22 to get a much better DoF. As soon as I got back to the computer it was obvious I had gone too far the other way and now had too much of the shot in focus. Oh well, you practice, you learn.

I'll post two examples - these are straight from the on camera JPEG's and are unedited full frames btw. I also have RAW versions but I haven't attempted to do anything with them yet. As I was just playing around I''m not sure it's worth the effort.

First - 50/2.8 MACRO, 1/80 @ f6.3, ISO200 - DoF too thin


Second - 50/2.8 MACRO, 1/80 @ f22, ISO3200 - DoF too deep


If you're wondering why the thread is different, btw, it is because the was 30 mins between the two pics and I'd put the needle and thread away in the meantime. I had to get it out again to take the second shot. And as Bruce will see, I didn't have the courage to stick the pin in Susan (a doll of her maybe.... ) [*] so had to make do with her scarf instead.

[*] That was a joke btw, I have no wish to hurt my wife :roll:

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Simon, interesting to catch up with your traumas from last night. If you think about it, most of the problems were caused by not using a tripod! With still life, your subject ain't going anywhere and is not waving in the breeze. You can make exposures as long as you like, which means you can use a table lamp or desk light as your source, for example (just set white balance accordingly if you're shooting JPEG). That kind of light is soft and flattering, whereas on-camera flash without any diffusion is about the worst you could think of! You may have a very long exposure, especially at small apertures, but it doesn't matter. Using the tripod you also have all the advantages of being able to fine-tune the composition and removing the risk of camera shake (as long as you either use a cable release or the self-timer, and don't kick the tripod or move around during the exposure if you're on floorboards). Give it a try - you'll love it!

I found a few minutes today, so here are some efforts from me. All were shot with a 105mm macro lens on a Nikon D300. The only needle I could find was tiny, and in any case my first thought was to go for a graphic composition with as few elements as possible - needle, thread and plain background. I also knew I wanted to play with depth of field in different compositions, some with parts of the needle and thread falling off in focus and others with sharp parallel focus. For the sharp ones I used a hot shoe spirit level to make sure the back of the camera was parallel to the subject. All were lit by daylight coming from the left, with no reflectors or fill in.

All were manual focus - I suggest you never try to use auto focus for still life, because the camera will always disagree with you as to where you want the point of focus! Because of the black and white backgrounds, which would have fooled the meter (it would have tried to make all the backgrounds 18% grey, so would have overexposed the black background one and underexposed the ones with white backgrounds - notice that the first and second shots have exactly the same exposure even though one has a black background and the other white - that's 'cos the light on the subject hadn't changed), I used a hand held incident light meter to measure the light falling on the subject. The perfectly viable alternative is to use the camera's meter and adjust the exposure compensation until it's right (starting point would be minus two stops with a black background and plus two stops with white), but with a separate meter I saved the messing around.

Best viewed large by clicking.





Not great photos, but fun!


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My bird feeders are set up now and I will be pointing the tripod at them which means it will be unavailable for use for this kind of thing. Maybe I need another.

I also used manual focus on some of my shots but the needle was positively microscopic and I really couldn't tell how accurately I was focussing - reasonably close, but the DoF was so shallow you only need to be a mm or two out for it to make quite a difference to the result. In the first of the two results I posted I did actually use the AF and merely selected the AF sensor that corresponded with the needle about mid way up - I think the camera did a better job than I did!

On the tripod front, are you using a remote trigger? I don't like triggering long exposures from the camera itself but I have not got around to buying a remote trigger yet. With the macro work I do at work I always use a remote trigger but unfortunately that won't work with my setup as I use a different system at work from home. Also, are those crops or are they the full frame? Questions, questions, so many questions! :)

I should add, as no-one has commented, that I liked what Chriscraft has done with the roll of thread. I think the DoF used makes it a more interesting shot than it would have been otherwise.

I don't know if I'm going to have time to have another go over the weekend but hopefully I will - and maybe I can even make use of daylight, not that there was much of that today.

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Yes, I used a remote release Simon - the plug-in cable variety. As I said above, the alternative is to use the self timer to give the camera a chance to settle down after you press the shutter.

They are cropped, but only removing the blank space at the top of the image by cropping down to 5x4 ratio - i.e the width is unaltered. Being used to a 5x4 camera I find FX sensors almost panoramic because of the long and thin aspect ratio, and so I often pre-visualise to a 5x4 crop, especially for still life.

I agree about Chriscraft - sorry we all went past without commenting. Hope to see you at the photography "walk" Chriscraft, and weather permitting we can photograph the Broads. Needles are fun, but the Broads is where it's at ... :-D


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