Stuck inside on a rainy day? Giles explains how to bring the outdoors to you with still-life photography
For all the talk of braving the elements to take great pictures when the weather is rough, sometimes you just want to stay warm and dry.
If you’ve never experimented with still-life photography, bad weather days are perfect for having a go – and chances are you’ve already got everything you need. What’s more, turning to your own interests for inspiration is a great place to start.
Here are a few pointers to set you on the path to creating fun and striking table-top pictures with an outdoor theme, all in the comfort of your own home.
What you’ll need
Sigma CR21 Cable Release
Putting together a still-life picture is something of a ‘gather and assemble’ process. For this reason, it’s best to have your ideas finalised and everything in place before you even think of lining up the first shot.
Mounting your camera to a sturdy tripod is sensible, as it will allow you to step back and observe your arrangement. If your tripod is not the steadiest of models, try hanging a weight (such as your camera bag) under the centre column; this will help anchor it down, reducing any risk of camera movement.
The camera itself doesn’t need to be especially fancy – it’s possible to create amazingly striking pictures with your smartphone, as long as you give it some forethought. If you do try this, though, it’s worth investing in a tripod adapter that will hold the phone firmly in place.
For everything from compact cameras right up to DSLRs, using a remote release is a good idea as it reduces the risk of camera shake caused by physically pressing the shutter release button. If you don’t have one, your camera’s built-in self-timer is a great alternative.
You will need to light your ‘set’ and for this, you have two options – either daylight, or artificial light in the form of flash or ‘continuous’ lights. See ‘Lighting’ below for information. If you’d like some more in-depth tips on which is the best option suited to you, take a look at the guides I previously wrote on the Wex Blog, covering flash versus continuous light, flash triggers, anddifferent types of lighting.
Set yourself an outdoors theme
While the process of visually exploring a tabletop arrangement can be great fun, it’s always best to have a brief in the back of your mind. This doesn’t have to be anything too serious or technical – just a reminder of what you’re aiming to achieve so that you don’t stray off course.
Setting a theme of some sort is perfect for this. It could be your favourite outdoor pastime, such as walking or cycling, or maybe a specific colour that appears in nature (something like autumn leaves, for example).
Either way, think about how you can really make the most of the props you choose. One of the great things about outdoor kit is that it tends to be colourful and full of detail – perfect for exploiting!
The importance of research is something that a lot of photographers overlook. Do you have a favourite outdoors photographer or Instagram account which you like to follow? If so, take some time to seek inspiration and work out what you like so much about their pictures. When you do this, keeping a notebook by your side is a worthwhile move.
One of my favourite approaches to taking still-life images is to shoot from above. In this way, you really get to ‘map out’ your picture. Set a small aperture of, say, f/16 and you’ll have so much depth of field that the frame will be pin sharp right into all four corners.
To visualise how the final layout will look, you can take a quick reference snap on your phone; the composition doesn’t need to be exact, just good enough to give an overall impression and confirm that you’re moving in the right direction. Another advantage with this method is that you can scan around the set, looking for additional detail shots which you might not have previously considered. If you find any, it’s worth making a note and returning to them once your main shot is in the bag.
Shooting from a front-on or 45º angle is also worth considering, as it brings its own advantages – most notably that you can really play around with composition and shallow depth of field. For example, if you’re placing an object in the foreground and using it to frame something behind, why not shoot with a long lens at f/2.8 or f/4 to throw it nicely out of focus? This will add depth as well as interest to the picture.
By far the easiest way to light your still-life shot is to use illumination that is already around you. This could be anything from daylight to an anglepoise lamp, candles or even a small torch.
Setting up next to a large window on a partly cloudy day will give a similar effect to using a lamp or flash directed through a softbox. Just like the modifiers we use with flash guns, window light can be controlled in various ways – including curtains and blackout paper (to block light), tracing or greaseproof paper (to diffuse it further) and mirrors or tin foil (to bounce light into shadow areas).
One thing to be aware of is colour temperature. All sources of light have their own colour cast, and this is where your camera’s white balance (WB) settings come into play. As a starting point, set the WB to Auto and see what the camera makes of the scene. Chances are it’ll be pretty spot on, but you can always tweak things in Photoshop (or equivalent software) afterwards if needed.
Alternatively, try matching the light source to the corresponding WB setting on your camera. For example, use ‘overcast’ or ‘cloudy’ for the type of daylight described above, or ‘tungsten’ when using domestic lamps fitted with regular light bulbs.
As ever, there is no right or wrong way to light your still-life – it’s a creative process after all, and the final results ultimately come down to personal preference.
The great thing about still-life pictures is that they are completely controllable and open to interpretation. From the props you choose to the lighting you employ, everything can be managed down to the smallest detail. You can add a few things, do some test shots and tweak until all the elements look exactly how you want them.
Also, don’t think you have to limit yourself to a tabletop, either. If you have a suitable corner in your house, for example, why not set up an arrangement right there on the floor? If you have a workshop or shed whose bench lends itself to being a backdrop, then give it a go! And what about the ground outside? It can make a great ready-made surface on which to arrange your items.
Finally, if you should need a further reminder about just what is at the heart of the still-life, take a quick glance at Wikipedia – where we are told that the term refers to “a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which may be either natural… or man-made.”
Above all – have fun!
About the Author
Giles Babbidge is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Hampshire. He travels all around the UK and works with a wide range of clients – you can find out more about his day-to-day activities over at his website.