Still as Life – Basics with Maggie Terlecki
Although I do all kinds of photography, I have a special place in my heart for Still Life Photography and people have asked me many times through the years about how I get my ideas, how I set up etc., For today’s article, I thought I go through some basics that have made making these type of images easier and more interesting for me. These do not include anything about how to light, what lens to use etc., but rather the really down to earth small things that most of us don’t think of and which can cause setting up more difficult and wary than it need be.
To start with, I think it is important to say that even though you don’t think that still life photography will be your thing, that’s alright, but it can be an excellent way to learn how to compose effectively, how to look for how the light is falling so that ordinary becomes incredible. If your images are lacking in these areas, it’s a great place to learn these skills. Also, you don’t need to have a studio to do your images. As long as you have enough space for the object/s you want to take photos of, it can be in your living room, your kitchen.. heck, if you can get enough light, even a workshop in a garage.
Remember the old saying ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’? Well, in the case of Still Life images, the rule is a great one. When you set up, be it a violin, a vase, a glass, whatever the subject, make sure it is immaculate. Sometimes it looks like it is, but once the light hits those spots they stick out like sore thumbs. Sure, you can clean it up in Photoshop or whatever software you are using, but sometimes it is not always easy to make it look good and it takes a lot of precious time to do. Okay, now that I have that point across.. maybe you would like to take pictures of items that are old and dusty… of course, don’t clean those, but be careful, you want the entire scene to make sense.. you don’t want your fingerprints ruining it. Always consider the final story!
Working with food, drink or liquid etc. ? Have something on hand to wipe your hands. We don’t think of these things, but when you are handling your camera and you need to tear apart that orange etc., once you go back to your camera with sticky fingers, then, of course, you are bringing that stickiness to your camera too. It’s going to ruin your shoot.
Prepare your props beforehand. Okay, so let’s say you have decided that you are going to be taking pictures of some berries. It’s breaks your concentration and creativity to be getting up and looking around your home for things that would look great in your shoot. I find that oftentimes the first thing I thought of using doesn’t really work for my shot as the prop may be too big, too large, too small etc., but having several things all ready to go will make it that much easier. Choose several types of containers, bring along other items that might look good in the shot, perhaps you have a couple pieces of cloth that you can use underneath or as background. Line them up out of the shot but where you can see them and make choices on the fly. I often line mine on the piano.. which gives me a wide array of objects and I can easily switch as my mind changes or I get a new idea. Having them around also helps to come up with new ideas; it keeps the brain ticking.
I often see Still Life images that I don’t really like because the person has taken them from exactly the same vantage point as someone that is standing which gives the impression that you came upon the scene and puts the perspective a little too high. It’s better to be a little lower and closer to the plane where the articles are. To make this easier on your back and knees, consider using a chair to take your photos. I like to use a computer chair as it gives me the opportunity to glide back and forth especially since I like using a prime and the composition in the frame of my camera depends on how far away I am from the set-up.
Don’t be afraid to use props that are not necessarily made for the job at hand. Sure, you can put your flowers in a vase, but hey, maybe you can use that candy jar, or that cup? I use props that often have nothing to do with what they were originally intended for. I use canisters, cups, plates, jars, glasses, boxes etc., Here I wanted a pedestal type of platter but, of course, I didn’t have one.. but using a bit of ingenuity, I turned a small vase upside down and added a plate to the top, and voilà… a pedestal platter!
Being creative doesn’t always imply doing something out of this world, but just being a little bit different. Take that fruit or flower photo in Black and White so that the color is not the main event and instead it’s the shape and the texture. Take a picture of the flower from underneath or even suspend it upside down.
Often when doing still life image, we use either flowers and fruit and vegetables etc., Having a bit of water on these can help them look fresh. I have found that an empty Sriracha bottle makes beautiful drops of water on items and you can truly place them exactly where you want. Be careful though… remember to hold the eye where you want it to go, so placing them all over defeats the purpose.
Have small items on hand that help to prop things so they look as you want. A bit of string, some tape, some small stones etc., can make things look more even, can hold something limp up etc.,
Of course, doing still life images the classical way is fine but don’t be afraid to try things that are a bit different. Let’s take food. You can take images that show them as food or you can show off their texture or their personalities by pushing to show them in a different way such as some enoki mushrooms which look like they belong to a group or a family portrait of sorts!
Use items that are not typical in still life images. I like to use rocks and feathers, smoke and even soap bubbles. I tend to make pretty feminine images but you should shoot what satisfies you — be it rusty old tools or fancy chocolates, piles of books, boots, old cans, keys, bottles or whatever appeals to you.
Try to create not only a setup but a story. Now, I don’t mean that you have to write a novel with your setup but try to make the viewer to create something in his or her mind. Let them hear who you are in your images … not just a representation of an object but to allow them to see a bit of who you are. Maybe you are a grand romantic or perhaps you have a quirky sense of humor… let it shine!
Take your time composing your image. Think quality and not quantity. Remember… you are taking pictures of inanimate objects… they won’t move so that allows you to take your time with both the composition and the lighting. If you are anything like me, you don’t like to use a tripod unless you have to (and yes, sometimes you really have to !) but you can move your body around to find interesting compositions. You really don’t need to take 200 – 300 photos of the same thing. Look at your image, does it feel balanced? Does the composition bring your eye to the right place… or have you put too many things in your composition that lead your eye elsewhere. Is everything you want in the frame actually in the frame? Nothing is more of a bore than to look at your images and your best one has something cut out of it and you have already put everything away.
As much as you admire the work of others, don’t take images because you think it’s what the audience will want. Always make things that you would put on your own walls. If it’s not good enough for you, then is it really good enough for your audience? Does it share with them who you are as a person? Is it your voice and your vision? Be true to thine own self.
Color helps to set mood. Obviously, bright colors speak to joy, happiness and laughter and more sombre colors can create feelings of thoughtfulness, serenity, introspection. Always try to remember to get the emotion across, not only by the subject and the light but also the color.
And last but not least, remember that the composition of your still life images is extremely important but the light is what makes it interesting, exciting and special.
Remember be brave, be bold and be brilliant!
Maggie Terlecki is a Fine Art Photographer who lives in the town of Val-d’Or, Quebec, Canada. Although she takes pictures of several different things, she really loves to take photos of still life images as she is a bit of a control freak and this allows her to exercise these delicate muscles..
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Still as Life – Basics with Maggie Terlecki by Maggie Terlecki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.