Still life – building the atmosphere

Lights and subject need to be arranged

Building the shot is about both the set up of the still life and the set up of lights to bring out the best in the final image.
(Image from the video)

There is more to still life than meets the eye…

Doing a still life is not just about getting your subject set up. Your subject should satisfy your creative goal, create an attractive feast for the eye and look natural. Making your work both artistic and natural is essential. Otherwise you will not convince the viewer.

So what is needed beyond a convincing subject?

When you are building an artistic shot the central place is occupied by something you have put together to make a point – your subject. It is a point that’s either artistic or interesting to the eye. Around the subject you will need to build an atmosphere to make it convincing.

Still life – the atmosphere

When you have your subject set up right set it in the right atmosphere.

Making the atmosphere right brings it all together. More often than not it is all about complementary lighting. Get the lighting right and the atmosphere of the subject and setting (background) come together.

Some of the issues you might consider are…

  • Light sources.
  • Colour of the lights.
  • Tonality of the shadow/light relationship.
  • Where the light points.
  • How intense to make the light(s).
  • should you use soft light or hard light.
  • If you want highlights or not.
  • If you want spot lights or not.
  • How diffused to make the light.
  • How tightly focussed to make the light.
  • Alternative combinations of light.
Still life lighting experimentation

There is little doubt. The only way to success with light is by experiment. But, have an idea in your head first.

Consider your subject and think about the ways it can be offset by the use of light. Colours should not clash. Highlights should be complementary. Avoid big highlights so as not to blow out large areas of white in the image. (Here is a link that can help with dealing with blown highlights). Make your light pick out the important parts of your set. Let shadow subdue the less important parts.

Many people forget about colour setting. Bring out the colour of your subject. Try to make your still life look lifelike. However, use your light to bring the colours out in the surrounding area of the set too. This will help your subject to look like it is influencing the surroundings of the set. In other words, remember, light onto the subject is often reflected off it too.

Putting it all together

Lighting is a skill that comes only with practice. The way to be successful is to build it up bit by bit. First get your photographic subject right. Then start the lighting. Work on both the subject and the surrounding background. Try to see ways to blend the light. Use light as if solving a puzzle. Work to fit everything together into an aesthetic outcome.

It is your eye for aesthetics that will tell you when you have got it right. Learning how to do that comes by studying different lighting situations. Try to find as many ways to combine light to bring out your subject as possible. Study other still life photos for the way the light is set up. Try to analyse the light and find ways to reproduce it in your own situation. Work toward building an expertise with light.
Here are some still life images to help. Google search: Still life photography images xxxx | External link - opens new tab/page.

Still life ‘How To’ – Shoot red wine

The video helps us get our ideas in place. Practice and analysis go together. The presenters help us see how this simple still life is lit using a complex of lights. What is interesting about this video is the way that so much emphasis is placed on lighting not directly on the subject. Much of the atmosphere here is about complementing the subject with the right colours too. Watch for the different uses of hard and soft light as well.

Karl Taylor Still life: 'How To' shoot red wine | External link - opens new tab/page

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Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photographer and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training courses ing digital photography.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

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