Category Archives: Still Life

Upcoming class – Still Life at Home

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.

Stainless tea kettle, 5×7 inch Sinar Norma, Cooke 10.4″ Series II Anastigmat

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.

Takeout container for rice, 5×7 inch Sinar Norma, Cooke 10.4″ Series II Anastigmat

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

Things with skins, 5×7 inch Sinar Norma, Cooke 10.4″ Series II Anastigmat

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).

Proof of the Existence of the Outside World #1 – 8×10 inch Palladium print

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.

Using a Sinar 5×7 with movements to shoot a still life of a tea kettle.

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:

Ostrich egg, iPhone 12 Pro Max
Bottles for Sparkling Water, iPhone 12 ProMax

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.

To register click:

More Still Life Experiments

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.

Still life – Through a Glass

Another series/theme in my still life project is glass and light – both reflected and transmitted.

Still Life- Trio Mexicano

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.

Still Life- Shadows of Glass

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.

Behind the Scenes – Still Life

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?

It’s the season for still life

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.

Residual Proof of the Outside World

I’ve been engaging in series of work in response to triggers from my environment – there was that moment of eureka that started the six year journey resulting in the Sinister Idyll series and the gallery show at Gallery O on H. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been trying to work on a series coping with being in a near-quarantine situation, and how do we respond to/deal with the stress and anxiety of walking around every day in a public space that could kill you. After barely leaving my house for the last four months, I noticed that certain things were turning into patterns, most specifically, delivery food. I was cooking at home more, but I was also getting delivery from places I hadn’t in the past, and due to “contactless” delivery those delivery items and their remnants looked different.

Chipotle, Mexican Coke, Corona

Since I’m not leaving the house, and now I had all this accumulated subject matter, I decided that my response would be in the form of still life images. I brought out my 8×10 view camera and set up a small studio on my patio where I could work.

DC Noodles Delivery

These are just two preliminary images from the series. I’m continuing to work on ideas and presentation, but it’s a planted seed that will grow into something. Working on a series like this is very different from my documentary series Sinister Idyll because there, I had to go out and photograph my subjects in the places where I found them, in the circumstances they existed in (it might be rainy, or crowded, or the wrong time of day). Inspiration came from what I found when I found it, and I just had to interpret. Here, with doing still life, it’s a very different discipline because you’re creating something entirely de novo – yes, the delivery bags and food containers and beverage bottles are what they are, but I have to arrange them in a cohesive and aesthetic manner, I have to choose the juxtapositions, the backdrop, the lighting, the depth of field… everything. There’s nobody to blame for a shot not working but myself. I like the discipline of it, but it’s a big challenge.

As is customary for me, these are all going to be palladium prints. I love working in a hand-made medium, and the tactile nature of the photographs is so pleasing to me. The entire process of making them, from setting up the studio through using the large view camera, to developing the film and making the print, really, means that I put so much of my soul into the practice of making the photograph.

Here’s the little studio set up, if you want to see it. It serves as proof that you don’t need much to work with to make images- just a will to do something and a vision to make it happen.

And the camera in action.

Busy weekend in the studio

This weekend was a really busy weekend in my studio. I was supposed to have a shoot on Saturday. The model I had made arrangements with cancelled on me, but with more than reasonable advance notice, so I’m not pissed off about it – he gave me two days heads up. I’ve had some models flake out two hours ahead, some an hour after the shoot was supposed to start, and some who never bothered to call or cancel (that was the previous weekend, for example). I was talking to my studio-mate who had the studio booked for Sunday, and he said, “I’ve got two models coming in on Sunday, why don’t you work with them before I get there? I need someone to keep them occupied, and it’ll be a big help giving them a chance to work with someone who has a very different style of shooting, because they’re new to the business”. I was more than happy to help out, as it meant free models for me, and I’d be helping out a friend anyway. Since I had the studio booked for Saturday anyway, I went in and did some still life work using a flower I bought whose name escapes me but looks like a cross between a leafy cactus and a gigantic q-tip. I left my stage setup I had created (I took the old curtains I had from the previous studio and made a little ‘stage’ setup for a backdrop) for Sunday, as I thought it would be great to work with the models as well.

WELL, thus go the best laid plans of mice and men. I get in to the studio Sunday morning, meet the first model, Justin, a 6’4″ ex- football player, and get ready to shoot. On the third test pop of my flash, what happens but one of the capacitors in the power pack goes tits up. And I don’t have my own backup. I call my studio mate who is coming later, and he says just use his, which happens to be compatible with my accessories. So another half-hour goes by digging out his flash unit and setting it up. We do get on with the shoot, and once things get moving, it goes well. Justin is a good model and understands how to create dynamism in his body – I had no trouble setting him in poses that accentuated his physique and worked well with the somewhat exotic format I was shooting in – I was trying out the 5×12 for human figure work, mostly shooting verticals. Working with me, from a models’ perspective, is a real challenge and a physical workout because I need them to hold poses for an extended period of time while I compose each shot. I’m not shooting like a typical fashion photographer who likes to ‘run-n-gun’ and fire off hundreds of photos in an hour. I think with Justin, in about 1 1/2 hours, we took 8. I had him holding a pose for sometimes four or five minutes while I played around under the dark cloth.

My studio mate is a good friend (loaning me his strobes is an instant qualification!), but he’s a bit frantic. He’s a fashion photographer and likes to run-n-gun, for one thing, and he’s just a bit keyed up all the time anyway. Fortunately Justin and I wrapped our shoot just before he and the other model got there. The other model is a college student named Peter, (only) 6’2″, and about 2/3 the body mass of Justin. Peter was tragically late because of traffic and poor directional sense. What he lacks in timeliness, he makes up for in facial features. He’s one of those models who looks relatively ordinary when you pass him on the street, but when you see him through the camera lens, his face just screams High Fashion (that’s actually a good thing). They set up and shot while I went to the Nationals game with my father. When I got back, they were still there, and since my set had been taken down, we did a few shots in the air shaft outside the studio, which has a really cool steel security door and lots of exposed brick. Another great thing about shooting in the air shaft is that because it has these nice tall walls, you get beautiful soft indirect light from overhead – like a north light window. It’s very even, very consistent – you can meter once and not have to re-meter for hours. Reflectors are very helpful though because it is a top-down light and makes people into sunken-eyed zombies if you don’t bounce a little fill on their faces.

In talking to Peter about the poses I was looking for, I asked him to do a nude. I knew because he was agency represented that frontal nudity was a no-no, so I explained the pose would keep his intimate parts covered, and he was fine with it, but then he asked if he could cover himself with a sock. I find the whole ‘hide it in a sock’ business to be laughable – I’m not there to stare at your anatomy, and if someone IS nude in real life, do they ever run around with a sock on their penis? NO. We got that out of the way and went on. I did some head-shots of him with the 5×7 Canham, getting to put some film behind the 240mm Heliar I have for the first time with a human subject. The image on the ground-glass positively glowed! The shallow depth-of-field at f5.6 just made the features that were sharp SNAP, and the brick wall in the background looked like a painting seen through running water, it was so smooth. I’m DEFINITELY taking this outfit with me when I go out west for some figure-in-the-landscape shooting!

When I shoot, I’m used to shooting all by myself, no assistants, no “creative input” from other photographers. Sometimes having the helping hand is very welcome (adjusting lights, etc). Other times, not so much. My studio mate was watching the shoot with Peter, and while I was still arranging a pose, he had to jump in and start directing the model because he had this love handle that showed up only when in a certain kind of pose. I would have seen it and adjusted his pose, but I didn’t get the chance. GRRRR. And then, to make matters worse, I wasn’t done shooting before my studio mate mentioned a shot he wanted to do in the air shaft as well, and boom, the two of them were off doing their own shot. Moral lesson here – assistants are fine, but two principal photographers probably shouldn’t share the set – too many chefs end up putting someone’s finger in the chili.

Still Life in 14×17, number two

Still Life, Lanterns
Still Life, Lanterns

One of my 14×17 still life shots. Printed in palladium. Making a palladium print (or any hand-coated emulsion) this large presents unique challenges – trying to coat something this big is a lot harder to get even because it’s such a large surface. You have to work with a much bigger brush, and make sure you keep the emulsion moving around quickly. Don’t be afraid of getting sloppy outside your margins – it’s more important to be evenly coated than it is to be precise and tidy. I printed this on Bergger COT320, a 320 gsm uncoated paper designed specifically for alternative process photo printing. It’s a beautiful, heavy-weight paper with great wet strength and a bright white base – it gives you easily another full stop of contrast range over a more warm white/eggshell paper.

Getting back into the studio again…

Yesterday, in a fit of activity, I got in to the studio and shot a few still-life photos. I’m participating in a print exchange through the Large Format Photography Forum ( and I needed to shoot some images for the exchange. The final images will be platinum prints. I decided to use a lead crystal cut glass decanter I have as a subject – I wanted something challenging to photograph and that would create some striking images. I got the inspiration seeing the decanter on my coffee table with the sunlight coming through it and casting a shadow. I brought it over to the studio and set it up on a sweep of white seamless paper, and lit it with just one light, as it would be in the real world (there is only one sun!). It casts a beautiful shadow on the seamless, especially the way the crystal is cut with these random little scallops out of the body. I used the Century Master portrait camera, which after having been hauled around a bunch is starting to get a bit loose. As always, the lens on it is my Seneca Portrait f5. I put the whole plate back on the camera for these shots, as it’s about my favorite format. I indulged in my film choice and used some of my remaining stock of Arista.EDU Ultra 200 (aka Fomapan 200). Arista.EDU Ultra is Freestyle Photo‘s house-label film, made for them by Foma in the Czech Republic. Foma discontinued the 200 a year or two ago when their source for one of the critical components dried up, and just started re-making it but only in roll film. It’s one of my all-time favorite films, not only because it was dirt cheap (1/3 the price of Ilford), but because it produced beautiful results – it has this old-time feel to the image quality from a reduced red sensitivity. Here’s a couple of shots of the setup (pardon the poor quality- they’re taken with my iPhone which is not the best in low light). I’ll post some scans later of the finished prints.

Studio setup #1

Studio setup #2