Still life

Still life photography is a genre of photography used to show inanimate subjects, typically a small group of objects; for example, food photography.  The brief for our coursework was to produce a still life image  that could be used to promote a bread mix. Still life is not something I’ve done before so I did a bit of research about it to get some tips and spent some time considering how I’d like the image to look and planning how I’d shoot it.

I decided to use natural light because I haven’t got a decent flash or other lighting equipment and our cottage is rather dark inside. I thought breakfast al fresco would be a good way to promote bread mix, so I gathered what I needed together… a tray with a coffee, fresh orange juice, bread, butter and jam, and some other items that I thought might work well. I then experimented with different arrangements of the objects on the tray, and by moving the tray into different locations and positions to find the best background to highlight the objects. I took into account the lighting, making sure the shadows and highlights weren’t distracting, and the colours looked attractive.

On the camera, I used aperture setting, altering the aperture to alter the depth of field. I used a fairly large aperture because I wanted all the objects to be in focus, but to stand out against a blurred background. Using a longer focal length (I used 45mm for these) and standing closer to the subject were other ways I could reduce the depth of field. The shutter speed was fast in the bright light in the conservatory. However, when I tried some shots in the darker kitchen and lounge the shutter speed was slow and I needed to increase the ISO to keep holding the camera by hand. I experimented with exposure compensation to see what effect it had on the tones, reflections and shadows of the image. I also took pictures from different angles to see which I preferred.

The first 4 images below were taken in the conservatory on the windowsill, sofa and floor: wide aperture for shallow depth of field, fast shutter speed and low ISO. I had trouble finding an arrangement I like. I think the image I prefer is the one with the gold background because it highlights the objects best, but the colour is wrong and something paler would have been better… maybe a green, yellow or pale grey.

The next images were taken in the kitchen. I had hoped to use the plain tiles as a background. However, there was too much clutter in the kitchen, which got in the way… we have sockets everywhere! Also, the light was casting harsh shadows in some places. I could have done with a flash set up or maybe tried using some lamps or torches to combat them. I ended up increasing the aperture for some of the images (I’m not sure why!) which means the background isn’t particularly blurred. This also meant I had to increase the ISO for the images to be correctly exposed without reducing the shutter speed, which I couldn’t do because I was hand-holding the camera. If I’d found a composition I liked, I would have got my tripod out so that I could have used a slower shutter speed and lower ISO, and I’ve taken more time to compose the images properly. I like the image with the grey background best of the 4 images below, and I think the bread is quite visible and looking quite tasty. However, this shot was taken on the floor, which doesn’t seem appropriate or hygienic for promoting bread!

I then tried taking an image in the lounge. I like the way the dark background highlights the items on the tray. However, the flowers don’t stand out well enough. The ISO is very high for this image and it’s noisy. However, I could have used a tripod.

1/125 sec at f4.5, ISO6400 45mm
1/125 sec at f4.5, ISO 6400 45mm

I found producing the still life much harder than I expected. There is so much to consider and it was difficult to get an attractive composition which highlighted the bread, particularly as I had laid it flat on a plate. Off camera flash would definitely have been helpful to light the scene and enable use of any settings in the poor light in my house. It would also help to have some backdrops for this sort of work.

I’ve since had another go, and it was easier second time around. This time I used a tripod which was much better. As well as making it easier to use a slower shutter speed in the poor light, it helped me slow down and consider the composition of the image more carefully. I used cheese and wine this time. Overall, I’m pleased with the composition of this image… it does make me want to eat the bread! However, although the background is blurred nicely by using a wide aperture, it isn’t subtle enough, and is too fussy with the changing stripes. I was right that the colours work with the subject though, and it is more interesting than plain black or white. I did try changing the background to a plain, textured one in Photoshop but I found it too difficult to adjust the layers and crop around such a complicated set of objects, particularly the flowers. Lots to learn!

1/40 sec at f4.0 ISO 200 45mm


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