Photographing a Simple Still Life

Iris still life, 2013. Exposure: 2 seconds @ f11, ISO 50. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Iris still life, 2013. Exposure: 2 seconds @ f11, ISO 50. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Do you ever ‘see’ a photograph in your head and then try and go out and shoot it?  Or to say it differently, how much does your preconceived notion end up looking like your finished photographic product? How much do things change from the moment you raise your camera to the final, finished print? I think it’s useful to consider these questions; the answers you come up with may have an impact upon your creative process. Here I’ll take you through my thought process from one simple shooting situation.

AN IRIS IN BLOOM

Here's the iris in my front garden. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Here’s the iris in my front garden. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

 

I’ve wanted to shoot some studio images of these flowers in my area for the last couple of years, something simple, elegant and spare: the irises are one of my favorite spring blossoms and I’ve never done them justice. Last weekend I noticed the very first bloom of the season and decided to stop what I was doing and set up a simple still life.

 

 

 

 

THE SETUP

  • 1 piece of 32″ x 40″ black mat board
  • 1 light stand
  • 1 clamp
  • 1 iris in a glass vase
  • 1 north-facing window
  • 1 white card (for fill light)
  • 1 Canon EOS Mark IV with 50mm f2.5 macro lens
  • 1 tripod

PROCESS

I clamped the black mat board to the light stand and set it up behind the vase which was positioned about 5 feet from a north-facing window. It was midmorning and the light was sufficient for my purpose. I mounted the camera on the tripod and stopped the lens down to achieve enough depth of field. (This meant I had to use a corresponding long shutter speed.) I used the white card as a ‘fill light’, bouncing some light back into the darker side of the exposure.

So what happens now? How did I come to the compositions shown here?  Although I had previsualized something spare and elegant, I didn’t know what I would shoot exactly–I tried to really ‘see’ the blossom for the first time, looking for angles and compositions that I found interesting. The blooms themselves are surprisingly translucent and I wanted that quality to come through in the finished images.

I did know in advance that I wanted to end up with black and white images–this will fit into a larger flora project that I’m working on. So that part was known and I made my black and white conversion using Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers. That and the sharpening technique that I prefer are illustrated here:

Using the Adjustment Layers palette while converting the image to black and white. I increased the yellow tones and decreased the greens in the conversion to brighten up the flower and add more depth to the stem. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Using the Adjustment Layers palette while converting the image to black and white. I increased the yellow tones and decreased the greens in the conversion to brighten up the flower and add more depth to the stem. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Here's my basic Smart Sharpen starting point: Amount 100%, Radius 1.3 pixels, Remove Gaussian Blur. This does a nice job on most images that need sharpening. Notice how the image appears in color in the Smart Sharpen window because my Adjustment Layer is a 'non destructive'  edit until flattened. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd).

Here’s my basic Smart Sharpen starting point: Amount 100%, Radius 1.3 pixels, Remove Gaussian Blur. This does a nice job on most images that need sharpening. Notice how the image appears in color in the Smart Sharpen window because my Adjustment Layer is a ‘non destructive’ edit until flattened. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd).

Finally, sometimes the most interesting image may be a detail, a part of the whole. This last version is an attempt at seeing things that way. I liked the squared-off format that this approached yielded.

Iris detail, 2013. Sometimes the most interesting composition will be a small part of your subject. I like this one. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Iris detail, 2013. Sometimes the most interesting composition will be a small part of your subject. I like this one. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

So while I knew I wanted black and white, spare and elegant results, I really had no concrete idea about how I would shoot this flower. That part of the process–the discovery and problem solving that takes place during a shooting session–is one of the chief joys of photography to me, and this was no exception.

So what do you think? Do any of these images work for you? How would you approach this differently? Let me know in the Comments below.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

2 Comments on "Photographing a Simple Still Life"

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  1. Hi Andrew!
    Very interesting to get a glimpse of how a highly skilled photographer is working. I think I learnt something here, especially about how to control the light.

    I would have liked to see the whole setup in the studio, though (yes – in a photo). It would have been much easier to understand and remember then.

    I have a question about the (warm)toning of the B&W pictures that you do. It seems to me that the highlights are more saturated than the shadows, am I right here? Do you have any presets for this?

    Best regards,
    John Arne

  2. Hey John, thanks for the excellent question.
    I use a split-toned technique in Photoshop that is
    very similar to what we used to do with split toning in
    the darkroom. Instead of using a toner for the shadows and
    a second one for the highlights, I map my shadows and highlights
    to two colors other than black and white using gradient map
    in Adjustment Layers.

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