With the ongoing pandemic, many people are turning to, or at least considering, still life as a genre to explore with their photography. This class is designed for those wishing to tackle still life in their own home. One of the great things about still life is that you don’t need a fancy studio with expensive and complicated lights to produce great images, and since your subjects are (usually) things, you can take all the time you need and your subjects won’t complain.
We will cover the basics of how to get set up and choose a space to shoot in, and how to manage your light. All that is required is a table that is within reach of a window, so if that’s all you have, that’s all you need. We will cover lighting options both low-cost and more complex should you not have access to a good window, or you want to be able to shoot regardless of the hour or the weather.
Beginning with single objects and growing from there, we will build complexity into multiple object setups. Most if not all the images used in this article were made with a single light – you can see that you don’t have to be a studio lighting pro to produce excellent results. We will touch on using reflectors and diffusers (very useful when working with natural light where you may not have as much control over the quality, direction and contrast as you do with studio lighting).T
Still life can be more than just a bunch of fruit. It can tell a story, reflect the zeitgeist, or even be a portrait (of the thing pictured, or of a person).
While in my own work, I do mostly large format film photography, because I like it and I like the results it produces. Between the antique lenses available that produce a unique look to the camera movements to control depth-of-field and plane of focus placement, there is really no better tool for still life.
That said, you don’t have to use a view camera to produce excellent still life work. What counts is your creativity and understanding of the tool you’re using to produce the image you want to make. Anything in this class is acceptable, from a smartphone to a view camera. As proof of the pudding, the following are images I made on my iPhone:
The class starts on April 21 and runs for six weeks through May 26. Classes are held via Zoom, from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. The link to the class will be sent to enrolled students via email a few days before the class starts. Tuition is $300 for the six sessions.
I have a class coming up from March 4 to April 29, Understanding Your Practice – The Photo Project, at Glen Echo Photoworks. This course is about thinking about how we approach and execute photographic projects. The foundational text for the class is Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice., edited by Sasha Wolf. The book consists of interviews with forty different photographers who work in long-term projects, asking each of them the same twelve questions.
We will use the text as a guide to introspection into our own process of working on projects – how we come up with projects, how we shoot those projects, how we decide when they’re done, how we edit those projects, and how we think of them as a body of work – will they be prints on a wall, a book, a website, or some combination thereof.
We will execute our own mini-project over the duration of the class, using the ideas we discuss to help us guide our project and get a better understanding of our own working methods. There are no “right” answers here – this is just an exercise to help bring clarity to your own working techniques, to refine them and hopefully bring success to your ongoing long-term projects (or help you get started on them!).
The images following here are illustrations from my ongoing project about The Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Day of the Dead is a far-reaching cultural institution across not just Mexico but much of Latin America. It has regional and even local variations – Mexico City was, until very recently, somewhat blasé about the event, with celebrations being held more on the personal level. Thanks to the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, Mexico City decided that they needed to have the big public parade (desfile in Spanish) depicted in the film.
The event has its roots in traditions predating the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, which were co-opted by the Catholic church. Today, the tradition adapts with the times and competes with Halloween (and its Hollywood inspirations), but also serves as a mirror of contemporary cultural and political events.
To sign up for the course, click on the link below. Tuition is $350 for 8 sessions. No class will be held on April 1.
I’ve just been playing around more with my ultra-simple setup – an ostrich egg on a cardboard box. No distractions, no fancy backgrounds. The first image is just one light – a big fresnel.
This one is two lights (obvious from the highlights on the shell), both aimed to bounce off the backdrop and backlight the shell. I’m not fully satisfied with this one, I’ll try re-shooting it some other ways.
A third take on the theme, this time contrasting the shape and texture of the egg, the box and the fossil. I realize I missed the depth of field on the fossil a little, so the very leading edge is a little soft. Another one for the re-shoot pile.
(I’m calling this Part 1 because I’m sure I will want to revisit and/or expand upon this at a later date, perhaps multiple times)
Perhaps surprisingly, there are still debates to this day as to what exactly photography IS – is it art, is it a mechanical reproduction tool, is it truth, is it false? And this debate continues to roil without conclusion one hundred eighty-one years after its public debut.
Today I would like to tackle the question of photography and its relationship with truth. I would lay claim to the statement that photography now, and historically, has never really been about truth. It is barely about facts.
To define some terms before we go farther – there is a great deal of confusion about the difference between truth and facts. The use of the Boolean binary of True or False (positive or negative) leads many people to believe that Truth is equally binary – something is True, or it is not. Quite the opposite – Truth is very closely tied to faith. Truth is an absolute belief in the correctness of something, either without proof or even in the face of proof to the contrary. An example of this is that many contemporary practitioners of religion will argue that even if the historical facts surrounding the founding of their religion fall somewhere between muddy and non-existent, there is a greater Truth to the writings of their religious texts that extends beyond any need for factual accuracy. Facts are things that are provable – there is a rock on my desk. I own one hundred daguerreotypes. I live in Washington DC.
So what does this have to do with photography? I read many discussions among people with passionate feelings regarding the nature of photography. Many will assert that there is such a thing as “pure”, “true” photography, and that the specialness of photography as a medium is its fundamental relationship with truth. They make statements such as photographs are accurate, true representations of the things photographed, they cannot lie because the objects photographed had to be in the same place at the same time in the same light in order to appear in the frame together. They make this argument especially when arguing for an analog, chemical-based photography and against digitally generated photographs. They claim a superiority of the analog, chemical photograph because it is un-manipulated and therefore demonstrably “true”, whereas digitally generated photographs are untrustworthy because they can be easily manipulated into appearing to be true but in fact the things depicted never appeared in the same place at the same time in the same light when the exposure was made.
The Great White, the T-Rex, and the man at the edge of the cliff certainly never existed in the same space at the same time. It’s a ridiculous example, to make an exaggerated point. It is a photograph, but a heavily manipulated one that bears only the most tangential relationship to reality.
But what about this image? “Fading Away” by Henry Peach Robinson, is far more emotionally “true” than the shark and the T-Rex, but as a photograph, it is no more true- this 1858 image is every bit as manipulated as the photoshop fantasy. None of the people in the photograph were in the same room at the same time. It is a hand-assembled collage of at least six different images (each of the people, the room, and the view out the window were all distinct exposures on different plates). It is every bit as factually false, yet the scene, a young woman being comforted by her family as she dies of tuberculosis, is so emotionally resonant that we WANT to believe in the truth of it.
What about this image? While everything in this photograph was in the same location at the same time in the same light when the single exposure was taken, the entire scene is manipulated. Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan were walking the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 6, 1863. They saw the body of a Rebel sharpshooter, and photographed it where they found it. As they continued walking, they came across this spot and felt it was where the sharpshooter must have been positioned earlier, so they picked up his gun and his body and moved it 40 yards to this location, in the name of making a more emotionally resonant photograph. They certainly succeeded, as this is one of the most recognizable photographs of the entire Civil War. But there is not an ounce of factual accuracy in the scene. As journalism or documentary photography, it is a fraud and would have no value as evidence in a court of law.
Yes, photographs can be taken for the purposes of showing evidence, be it to an engineer troubleshooting a part failure, a court determining guilt or innocence in a trial, or even more prosaically, that I in fact did visit Niagara Falls on June 17, 2013. But the fact that a photograph CAN have evidentiary value does not mean that all photographs MUST have evidentiary value, and that in order to make a photograph, one is required to have a one-to-one correspondence between representations of objects within the frame of the image at the time of making a single exposure. Just as a tea kettle can also be an object of art, and it can also be functional. Neither art nor functional object have exclusive domain over a tea kettle.
And even within the confines of “straight” photography, there is not a literal absolute truth to a photograph. The tea kettle above, as photographed, is absolutely unmanipulated via software. But I doubt anyone looking at the image would say that that kettle looks just like that – with a basic understanding of the mechanics of photography, a viewer knows that the lens used to make the recording was operated at a large aperture that created a shallow depth of field, rendering only the spigot sharp. While this looks LIKE the tea kettle, nobody would argue that it is a 1:1 representation of the actual kettle, or that they could be deceived into thinking there was a kettle before them that they could pick up.
It is an illusion of an illusion – we know it is a distorted representation, but it bears minimally sufficient verisimilitude that we imagine that we can interpret the actual object from the photograph.
A poor lonely plastic Frappuccino, tucked away in the empty would-be dining area of a Starbucks. The emptiness is wrought by COVID, and the plastic liquid dessert in a cup shelters alone, unwanted and unloved, lurking in the shadows for another time when it can come back out and challenge the insulin production of thousands, once more.
Another series/theme in my still life project is glass and light – both reflected and transmitted.
Trio Mexicano is a very literal treatment of glass bottles. It’s about form and shape, and is easy to interpret. We know what we’re seeing.
Shadows of Glass is a first attempt at a concept- I want to project the shadows of glass bottles in varying arrangements onto seamless paper and then photograph the resulting projection. I’m working on building a suspension frame that will let me be more free in the arrangement and layering of the bottles. For now, I’m somewhat limited by having to support them on a table, so my compositions are constrained by how I can group and position them.
With this ongoing home confinement due to the pandemic, I’ve been taking a lot of looks at domestic objects, particularly cooking implements, since I’ve been doing more of that lately. This is just a few articles of stainless steel things I have that photograph well. The modern tea kettle got me started, really, as it is a very sculptural piece and made me think of a show of Bauhaus photos I saw at the Goethe Institut two years ago.
The colander is obviously NOT new any more, unlike the IKEA tea kettle, so it has plenty of battle scars from two decades worth of washing and scrubbing. The swirly marks on it add something, I think, as it makes it clear this is not an advertisement for a colander but rather a portrait of an object that has had a life.
The colander and the shadow it projects gave me inspiration to take a different look at my grater with all of its different size and texture perforations. It’s a very formal presentation of the object, But I like the way it becomes abstract and about repeating geometric patterns. It almost becomes architecture, like a series of Japanese gates in a garden.
I thought it might be fun to show a behind-the-scenes look at doing a still life shoot, particularly showing my lighting scheme. Studio lighting is something that mystifies many people, but it doesn’t need to be complex or intimidating. Here is the finished image, at least the iPhone version thereof. How do you think it was lit?
Answer: one light. Yes, it’s a somewhat specialized light, a 10” focusable Fresnel, but that’s it. No fill, no reflector, no background light, just the main. After all, there is only one sun.
I’m using a single LED continuous light source (a GVM 80s LED lamp). Continuous lights are great because they let you see exactly what you’re getting, and they allow you the luxury of playing with time as a component of the exposure.
Pay attention when photographing in the studio to how close or far away things are to the background, and how close or far your light is to that background. You can shoot a subject on a white background but have it appear dark just by withholding light from that background, or if needed, you can do the opposite and take a black background white by pumping enough light at it.
Here’s a prime example – same setup, same light, same camera, same backdrop (light gray seamless paper). The only difference is that I blocked light from the backdrop with the barn doors on the Fresnel. Amazing, isn’t it?
So, with the happy happy joy joy that is the COVID pandemic, I wanted to find something I could do to keep exercising my photography muscles. Still life seemed like the perfect thing, as I can do these little tabletop setups in my living room with a minimum of fuss, just a patio table for the base, a roll of seamless paper, one light or at most two lights, and my 5×7 view camera.
I’ve been shooting exclusively with my Sinar Norma 5×7, using the Sinar shutter (which lets you adapt any number of barrel lenses that don’t have a shutter of their own) and my ca. 1915 Cooke Series II 10.4″ Anastigmat. It’s not one of the more famous soft-focus Cooke Series IIa models, but it produces gorgeous out-of-focus areas, so I’m not complaining. It was silly cheap. I’m really loving the Sinar shutter because it has built in speeds as long as 8 seconds, which is a godsend when doing studio tabletop with large format – it’s very easy to get slow speeds to begin with, and then add on two stops of bellows compensation you have to do and voila – 8 seconds coming right up.
I’ve been doing a lot of work around textures – anything from rough paper to smooth stainless steel/chrome to the skin of vegetables like onions and garlic. I’m also starting to play with translucent objects and projections, but that’s for another post.
This tea kettle is something that I was so inspired by the design that I had to buy it, even though I didn’t need another kettle. I wanted to photograph it as soon as I saw it at IKEA. So I brought it home and here it is – it made me think of the Bauhaus photos I saw of industrial objects last winter at a show at the Goethe Institut here in Washington DC.
A still life can also be a portrait of an object. Here is a rice container from some Chinese takeout I got one night last week. It’s one of those ordinary things we handle all the time and never pay any attention to, until they’re presented in a formal way and then all of a sudden we see the beauty in them.
Last but not least, the onions, garlic, shallots, rice container and a wrapper for Ritz crackers. It’s all about “skins” – things that have them, and things that serve as skins as well.
All these images were shot with a single, continuous light – in the case of the very first image of the coffee beans and coffee mug, the light was a single 1000w halogen lamp in a 6″ fresnel light. The rest were done with an LED lamp in a simple reflector or in a large beauty dish with grid. I’m really liking LEDs now as a light source. They’re a lot more compact, light weight, and they generate a lot less heat and use a lot less electricity compared to an equally bright halogen lamp. About the only time a halogen might be preferable is if you’re working with nude models and want to keep them warm in your studio. No worrying about accidentally cooking the food in a food photography shoot, or wilting the vegetables. And no worrying about setting your light modifiers on fire.
The Cooke in action on the Sinar Norma. Starting today off with some chrome/stainless steel, then moving to glass.
While not a requirement for doing still life (you can shoot still life with ANY camera – a point & shoot or a pinhole will work just as well as a DSLR or a view camera, if you understand the operating parameters of the camera), I love using a view camera because it lets me place my plane of focus and depth of field exactly where I want them, and I can have a razor thin zone of focus or I can have it be total, and I can control the shape of the image.
Coming in March, I’ll be teaching a still life photography class online through Glen Echo Photoworks (check their website later for details on schedule and sign-up). We’ll look at the history of still life and have weekly shooting assignments. I’ll show you how still life isn’t just bowls of fruit or flowers, and how it can be every bit as exciting and dramatic a story-telling genre as street photography, plus you can do it in your home with minimal space and equipment (all you really need is a camera, a table and a window!). Of course, I get fancier, but you don’t have to!