So, the blog has been in hiatus for a while, hopefully back now regularly, if slightly longer between posts. This post leads on from the last two sessions about still life, the practical and club member Simon Caplan’s excellent presentation.
Dorothea Lange made her camera “… A tool for learning to see without a camera”. It allows us to mine the extraordinary from the mundane, the exceptional from the ordinary. Looking and seeing are, very definitely, two different things. We often look but, frequently, we don’t see, or we see different things.
Photography, at least beyond the spray and pray, is about looking for the details that make a difference to how the viewer would otherwise perceive a scene and stop instead of passing the moment by. Moment, here, doesn’t just mean that Cartier Bresson split second where the true identity of something bursts through the cloak of mundanity, but also the weight of a thing, and its’ purpose, its’ importance in the re-telling of that fraction in time.
This process Ansell Adams called “Visualisation”. It is the interpretation of a story otherwise lost in the hubbub of our world. It is based within the practice of looking for the connections between the elements in the frame of our viewfinder. It is either something to be pondered or seized upon depending on the environment it exists in, but it is something tellingly special.
Control, then, is an issue and it would follow that the best we can ever do photographically is exhibit the maximum amount of control. If, however, that were universally true then there would only be one form of, one style of, photograph. It may be contextually true and it is certainly true of the still life, but it does not extend to all photography, because the purposes of making one photograph or another, even from the same subject, are different.
Discernment, the ability to judge, is far more important to photography, to art, than control. There are three elements to any picture. Light, subject and composition. Still life gives us maximum control of these three elements, but that control without the capacity to discern won’t give the basically inanimate objects that are the subject in any still life any meaning.
Meaning comes from the way we weave these three elements together.
So, in essence, still life is the art of arrangement. OK, it could be argued that all of photography is the art of arrangement to some greater or lesser degree, but still life is all about arrangment from conception to execution. There is no element of chance, all components are subject to total control.
There are other incarnations than the straightforward still life art shot. Product photography and sub-genres like food photography share the same DNA. Fashion, especially in the studio, ditto. Of course there are exceptions, such as the deliberate introduction of movement either by camera or subject, though the potential for control still remains (even if those examples aren’t very still!).
Simplicity is also a key feature. Too many items, more than one subject, weakens the overall image. The tools of composition still apply, indeed this is a great opportunity to learn about leading lines, the power of odd numbers, symmetry, texture, radial patterns, subject isolation, repetition, etc. etc. because we create them. Still life is a blank canvas.
Light is everything in photography. That does not mean that lighting setups for still life photography have to be complicated. The options are either daylight, the most natural, or artificial, the most flexible. Daylight will probably involve the use of reflectors and diffusers to direct and soften the light, but this doesn’t have to be expensive.
Artificial light, strobes, constant lights, etc will need the same care but we can also introduce the notion of multipoint lighting. The basic idea remains the same – control of light and shadow as a compositional tool. Learning to use hard light and soft light according to the look that we want is the place to start. What we are doing though is as much controlling the shadow as the light (and here).
Still life has a long history in art and photography, it is relatively easy to set up and cheap to do if we use what we have to hand. It is also subtle and quite absorbing, time can go very quickly when we really get into getting the best out of the arrangement of a few simple objects. It is also a good tutor and practice for using light in other situations and really one we can all improve our photography through.
Thanks to Simon Caplan again for an interesting and absorbing evening. I have replicated his list of still life photographers taken from the club’s members Facebook Page here:
Harold Ross – www.haroldrossfineart.com
Tineke Stoffels – www.tinekestoffels.eu
Diana Amelina – http://en.35photo.pro/eruven
Michael Lamotte –https://michael9dbc.myportfolio.com/from-the-source
Mandy Barker– http://mandy-barker.com
Also check out these:-
Kevin Best – http://bestshots.com.au
Barry Rosenthal – http://barryrosenthal.com
Joan Kocak – https://www.joankocakphotography.com/
Inna Karpova – http://innakarpova.com
Sergei Sogokon – https://sogokon.wordpress.com/gallery/
Bas Meeuws – www.basmeeuws.com
Table top and/or product photography is an extension of the hobby for amateurs and for some professionals a staple and stable income. It has many branches and specialities. You can throw as much money and kit at it as any other branch of photography but as with any other form if the light isn’t right it’s not worth a dam. In common with other forms of what I shall broadly call “Studio” photography, which I will discuss a little further shortly, it is one where the control of the light is total.
Studio came to English from the Latin via Italian word for application (also eagerness). It is the application part that is of particular interest to this piece. In essence we are applying the Exposure Triangle to a subject, usually fairly limited in size, but that depends on how big your table is I suppose, to a single (usually) object or limited number of objects against a plain background (again, usually). The studio is a place set aside for the production of the final piece. It doesn’t have to be permanent and the glory of table top is that it can be made to order from things either already in our photographic collection or household items ready to hand. It can be from the size of a match box to the size of a hangar and anywhere in between. It can be very absorbing as small changes in the lighting can have quite profound effects in the overall image captured and the absolute concentration on detail it requires can be quite revealing.
The common elements of the table top studio are a table top, a background, preferably plain, at least one light (though two and three light set ups are common) and something to photograph. Basic refinements then come in the shape of diffusers and reflectors and again these can be made from things readily to hand. I am taking the camera as read in this equipment list on the grounds that this is a camera club blog and the camera is rather implied. Also the vexed question of which camera is best skirted. The answer, as ever, is the one you have.
Most compacts will focus pretty close, for systems with interchangeable lenses you have macro specialist lenses (true macro gives a reproduction scale of at least 1:1), then you have macro filters, reversing rings, extension tubes and bellows that allow you to get closer than the native capacity of your lens. Fixed (Prime) lenses are generally easier to use – especially with reversing rings, but zooms are by no means ruled out. The shorter the focal length the closer to the subject the lens can be, for instance my 24mm on an APSC sensor has a minimum focusing distance of 180 mm which comes down to about 10 mm with a 13 mm extension tube. My 50 mm and the 340 mm minimum focus comes down to around 25 mm for the same fitting. Depth of field is also shallow.
You might want to shoot with a plain backdrop but one that is seamless, and gives no hint of depth to the background. It’s known as an infinity curve, infinity cove or cyclorama and is formed by taking your back drop and curling it under what you are shooting. That can be something as simple as a piece of A4. Somewhere along the journey from table top to full blown studio the infinity curve becomes an infinity cove, the curve covers right angles without showing any angles, but that is a distinction that need not bother us (the cove comes from the shape, not the size). The physics remain the same, only the scale (and expense) varies. Beware, though, that Amazon own the patent to the set up (as discussed last May here), though I doubt that adds up to much under UK law, but that hasn’t been tested. And then we come to the light tent, aka the light box. Essentially it is a 360 degree diffusion box. Lights are mounted externally and the subject internally. They soften the light (of course) and can be used to reduce specularity and also have an infinity curve effect. They are straightforward and can be bought quite cheaply (and not cheaply at all), made very cheaply, or somewhere in between.
As hobbyists the table top presents us with the opportunity to practise basic and not-so-basic lighting skills in our own home. It is also a way of keeping skills sharp or refining existing ones and it presents challenges of its own. Therein lies a further utility, it helps keep things fresh through subtle challenges and in ways that are transferable to other styles. Starting out it is best, as always, to keep things simple and start with one light plus something to use as reflectors, such as paper, cards and mirrors. It is amazing how much you can get done with a single light source, be that flash or continuous (such as a table lamp) and it is also really productive to find out what effects you can pull off using black reflectors as well as white or silver (or any other colour if it comes to that).
But colour isn’t the only thing that makes for a decent table top shot. Texture is important too. This comes back to what was mentioned above about finding images in detail. If, by keeping our attention to a single or relatively few objects devoid of clutter, we can make for some interesting images, then we can transfer those skills into the messier world outside of the simple table top and look for the angles, textures and details that make for more interesting shots. The possibilities for still life/tabletop/product photography are almost boundless. It is fun, as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be and it builds transferable skills. So a big thanks to everyone who contributed to this evening, from the shots on the FB page I think a lot of us found it very productive.
N E X T M E E T I N G
An evening with club member and treasurer Steve Hallam.