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Still Life Photography


Still lifes are probably the easiest pictures to take, and the most common. All you have to worry about is the light, keeping the camera still, and having something pretty to take a picture of.

Still life refers to anything that isn't a person or animal. Plants, mountains, buildings, and cars are all still life subjects. Some subjects, such as nature in general, monuments, and buildings can't be arranged into a pleasing configuration, and so lighting and angles are key. Other subjects like bowls of fruit, cut flowers, balls of yarn, or your shoe collection can be arranged. Remember to keep an odd number of objects in the pictures you can control, make sure the colors are harmonious, and give the eye something to focus on.

What I mean by "giving the eye something to focus on", is that you should create a pattern to look at. Something subtle is best, something so barely there that it fools the eye without looking contrived. With the balls of yarn, for instance, you could pile them up in a pyramid... this looks somewhat natural to the eye, because that is the shape a person expects to see balls of yarn in. That would be ok, but a better idea would be to put the yarn in a single layer grid of seven balls, then place a second layer of five in a rough semi-circle shape, still following the grid. Make the eye follow the semi-circle from top to bottom, to sweep the entire picture. This pattern would feel much more natural than a plain pyramid, but the pattern keeps it from looking too random.

For flowers, you could arange the tallest to stand in the back of the vase at the upper left hand side, and let the other flowers step down gently to the shortest, or those lying on a table, at the lower right hand side. This creates a sweeping effect that pulls the eye over the entire picture, and gives a high-to-low pattern to focus on. Stagger the height of the flowers as you step down to prevent a uniform look, but try to fill any large gaps that might occur.

You should also consider eye relief. In a photograph full of circular objects, something straight will immediately pull the eye, and offer eye relief from all of the circles. Take the balls of yarn picture, for example. Adding a drop spindle with its straight lines will give the picture a focus, and be much more pleasing to look at. You can also create this effect with lighting and shadows... some harsher lights with straight edge shadowing give the picture a good contrast, and breaks up the uniformity.

Don't be afraid to be "artsy" with your photographs, even if you just want a simple picture to show your subject. If all that yarn is handmade and for sale, an "artsy" picture will encourage more buyers than just a plain product photo.

For those subjects you can't arrange, the angle of your shot is of utmost importance. Say you're visiting the Colosseum in Rome. Of course you want some fabulous pictures to take home... but how are you going to make your pictures different from the professional shots you can get on a postcard? Avoid the usual tourist "head-on" shots. Everyone knows what the Colosseum looks like, so it's your job to get a new angle they don't show in the school books.

With any monument, you can buy a perfect "head-on" shot for fifty cents from the postcard hawkers, so try for the artsy angles. Try a straight upwards angle shot, or stand at a thirty degree angle from the subject. Get some vegetation in the picture, or make another random person looking at the monument your subject. Include the monument, of course, but even the most slack-jawed idiot teenager is a good picture if he's staring at the Lincoln Memorial.

Available light is chancy, but for most outdoor photography a flash won't be of much use. Your flash is too small to improve the light for monuments, buildings, or large amounts of nature, so keep in mind the quality of sunlight, which I talked about in candid and informal portraits.

For indoor still life, flash is still iffy. Museums regulate how much light you can shine on their treasures, for instance, and anything under glass is out. Any object that reflects even a small amount of light will be lost in the wash if you use your flash.

Non-living objects react to man made light the same way people do. Flourescent lighting will look yellow and ugly, halogen is only slightly better, and soft white or grow lights are still your best bet.

Avoid pictures that are completely random. They may seem artistic when you take the shot, but the picture that results will be unsatisfying to look at. True randomness is almost painful to look at. Take a handful of small rocks and drop them on a flat surface... the result looks like a messy clump of rocks. Now take the same handful of rocks and place them in a large roundish scatter... it looks natural and graceful, even though it is carefully arranged.

If you want your pictures to look natural, you should also avoid too much uniformity. Keep a pattern, but be sure to frame carefully. Take those small rocks again... if the circular shape is a litle too perfect, remove a few strategic rocks to create random looking gaps, but keep the suggestion of a circle intact. Now place a round, squat candle in the center, arrange five dark green leaves in an almost circle around the candle, light it, and lower the lighting so that the flame is the brightest object but you can still clearly see the rocks and leaves. Tadaa! A pretty picture that is pleasing to look at, carefully contrived but still screams "natural".

Well, as long as the flat surface all of this is sitting on isn't linoleum or obviously your kids' plastic card table, that is.