Learning from Still-Life

A tulip and three apples

A tulip and three apples

I think there is saying which goes something like this –

‘If something is easy, then make it difficult. It’s the only way to learn’.

I regard myself as a reasonably competent photographer but I am always keen to learn new skills and try new techniques. In the very short time I have been making still-life images, the above words sum up my current feelings rather well.

Having given myself the challenge of trying a new photographic genre, it is already clear to me that making a good still life image is far from easy. Naively I thought it would be relatively straight forward. I would choose the objects I wanted to photograph, place them how I liked in the frame, and finding a suitable background shouldn’t be a problem. Lighting might be more of an issue, but again I was of the view that having some control over the direction and intensity of light would quickly give me the result I imagined. And processing the final image should be a breeze – or so I thought!

This image, ‘A tulip and three apples’ is the result of my fourth still-life session. Whilst I am more than pleased with the outcome, getting there was far from easy. So what did I learn by making things difficult for myself?

  • Placement of the objects combined with how they are lit is critical to the overall result. Simple compositions are just difficult as complicated ones.
  • I didn’t want everything to be in focus, so placement of the objects front to back was important. In the above image the flower itself and the apple in the foreground had to be the same distance from the camera lens.
  • Aperture selection to control depth of field should be learnt and not be down to trial and error. This not only saves time but demonstrates knowledge and experience of good technique.
  • I had two coloured boards to use as back grounds, one blue and one red. I experimented with these as I knew I would be able to change the colour and or darken or lighten the background by using the Hue/Saturation/Luminance adjustments in Lightroom. I also had black and mid grey backgrounds but these would offer less flexibility in post processing. I need to learn which works best in different situations.
  • Lighting was from a side window, but as clouds came and went, the light changed from being quite harsh to reasonably soft. I was learning all the time how this changing light would affect the final image.
  • I also tried using a reflector with a choice of white, silver and gold coverings. I have to say that selecting the right cover and holding the reflector in the most favourable position to achieve the desired lighting affect wasn’t easy.
  • As I played with the light I was very aware that sometimes shadows would fall on the background. Did these add anything to the image or were they a distraction and to be avoided?
  • With so few elements in the frame,  I discovered I was noticing every little detail. The alignment and juxtaposition of the objects might not be quite right. The tulip stalk was not at the right angle. The position of the flower itself and how it appeared against the shape and dark outline of the goblet had to be considered. I didn’t want the folds and creases in the sack cloth I had used as a base to distract in any way. I could go on…….
A goblet and two apples

A goblet and two apples

In conclusion what I have learned so far?

Having control of so many elements is a great advantage but it also significantly increases the number of permutations. Every detail has to be considered, but with this comes a very high degree of creative choice, and my decision to do things in a certain way will not be replicated by the next person. Take 10 photographers to the same location to photograph a landscape and they will all return with 10 different set of pictures. We all interpret and visualise a scene in our own unique way. This becomes the photographer’s own style or signature.

It perhaps goes without saying but making a still-life image takes a great deal time. At the moment the end result is less important to me than the process itself, and what I learn along the way. I am finding it quite a challenge,  but with practice I hope it will get a little easier as I acquire new knowledge and skills.

This reminds me of a story about Gary Player the famous golfer from South Africa. He holed out from a green-side bunker and a person nearby shouted ‘That was a lucky shot!’ Gary retorted “Funny that, the more I practice, the luckier I seem to get!”

Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t tried still-life photography, why don’t you give it a try.

Do click on an image to open a larger version in a new window.


5 Responses to “Learning from Still-Life”

  1. Vicki

    Thanks for listing all the factors that came into play with your still life project. Its certainly not as easy as it looks. Love the first image with the tulip, but not so sure about the knife handle being out of focus in the second shot. But thats just me, of course.

    What makes for a very interesting part of the second image is the knife blade aged appearance and scratches revealed by the light source and the smooth colour markings on the apple….. the 2 textures make a nice contrast. I like the angle of the light on the goblet too. My eye was also drawn to the sharp shadow outline of the knife handle compared to the blurred shadow of the goblet in the lower left-hand corner.

    I can imagine it being quite exhausting when you’re doing Still Life photography. I’ve shot the occasional food shot in a cafe, but you’ve inspired me to try some still life arrangements indoors with various lighting sources.


  2. LensScaper

    I’m reminded of the phrase: ‘Fortune favours the brave’. I’ve found repeatedly through life that we do have the ability to rise to a challenge, although along the way we can find ourselves wondering why on earth we tackled something so difficult. I still recall deciding to build a small wall around our patio and discovering how difficult brick laying was. It got done, but first attempts were not good!
    And it’s been the same with learning Photoshop for me – you do learn the most when you set yourself a hard task. I’ve never tried still life photography and the list of issues involved shows that this genre is replete with difficulties. I love that second image particularly – very simple composition but very effective. It takes me back to childhood too – my father had a fruit knife exactly like that.


    • alan frost

      Thanks Andy and I agree 100%. It’s not until you put yourself to the test that you come to find that things can be achieved which previously you thought were nigh on impossible.
      Pleased you liked the second image.



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