We’re all currently struggling with the loneliness, intense boredom, and restlessness that quarantine has brought us. If you are a photographer you might be particularly frustrated by being stuck indoors and unable to go out and take photos of the world or set up shoots with clients. I know that burning itch, the one that drives you to pull out the camera and be creative, and I know how difficult it can be to ignore. See, many photographers will attest, that this medium for creativity often feels like an addiction. The next shot, the next perfect photo, that is our high. Being stuck shut up away from it can drive a photographer insane.
There is hope though. Believe it or not this is the perfect opportunity to be creative with your camera. This is a wonderful time to be able to sharpen your skills and explore new ways to photograph that you may not have tried before without the added stress of clients. These last few weeks I have been exploring three specific mediums of photography: Still life, self-portraiture, and splash photography. I plan to explore each with you, and provide some tips I’ve learned along the way.
The key to each of these styles of photography, while trapped inside, is to be aware of how you’re using your light, knowing how to compose your image, and learning how to work with the equipment you have. I want to go through each style with you and give you tips on how best to achieve it for yourself.
First, let’s take a look at still life photography. Still life is a new medium for me. Before this, I had never actually attempted still life. I did a bit of reading and researching on how best to compose and create a still life photo. YouTube has some great introductory tutorials on the basic concept of still life, and I’ll provide links to the videos I watched below.
Essentially still life is a very composed version of photography that uses inspiration from classic art to create captivating concepts. The key to achieving a great still life photo is being specific about how you place your objects and by painting with light in a way that flatters the subject.
For this shoot I used my 45” octobox to the left of the frame, I set up the camera on a tripod with a remote shutter, and I used an LED to paint with light. What I mean by this is that I took several shots of the same setting and moved the light around. In post I took all of the separate images, adjusted all of their settings in lightroom, and opened them up in photoshop as a multilayered file. In the file I made visible only the parts that were most flattering to create my final composite image. From there I finished my touch ups, last minute colour grading and voila! I had my beautiful still life photos. The image could have been done with one shot. It does not require all of that extra work. The key to doing well, with only one shot, is to make sure that your main light is soft. Soft light helps to create the kind of light we are used to seeing from the sun. This can be achieved using the technique I used with the octobox, but indirect light from a large window is also a great alternative.
Now the subject matter for still life varies greatly. Common themes to get you started conceptualizing your photo are the bountiful theme, the writer theme, the working-class theme, or the bizarre theme. The bountiful theme speaks to anything that includes flowers, wine, food, or fruit. This theme often includes red wine specifically, grapes, or baskets. They are arranged to look as though they are overflowing. Grapes in particular express this, and call back to classic paintings. The writer theme is often expressed by multitudes of books, writing utensils, desks, skulls, ravens, papers, and glasses. If you require a visual aid, think of the Edgar Allen Poe aesthetic. The working-class theme is pinpointed by the use of wood, chains, tools, or things you might find on a farm. This aesthetic it a way to accentuate the grit and rustic beauty of manual labour. Finally, the bizarre theme takes weird and unsightly things and melds them together with beautiful things. People have used doll heads, flowers, fake blood, and taxidermy as some of the things they’ve added into the photo. This version is successful when the elements together create both a disconcerting, but awed feeling in the audience. Balancing these elements tends to be a challenge, but for our friends who enjoy the bizarre it could be the perfect theme for exploring still life.
Self-portraiture is a pretty straight-forward concept. Having done many self-portrait shoots when I was bored, I do know that this version of photography can feel awkward, weird, and beyond difficult! I do know that the more I do it the better I get, and it helps me hone my abilities as a portrait photographer. This is a great way to experiment with posing and lighting your human subjects because you are forced to work slowly and to think more about what it is you are doing.
The advantage my canon camera affords me is that I have a 180-flip screen and can see before I take the shot how my pose is working out. For those without this advantage you might be able to get away with propping a mirror behind the camera so that you can see your “live view” mode in real time. The easiest way to work with your shutter is with an external remote and autofocus. If you do not have either of these, find an object to sit roughly where your head will be and raise your f-stop so that you can extend your depth of field. Set your shutter to its ten second timer and go pose for your shot. It may take a couple tries to get this right, but the more you work the better you’ll get. Do not be discouraged if you don’t get it right off the bat. I mean, just look at my first self portrait verses my most recent:
For the lighting I used my 45” octobox as my only source of light. It has an amazing diffusion that creates really soft shadows that are personally the most flattering I’ve seen for portrait shoots. Rectangle soft boxes are lovely too, but for the effect like mine you’ll need more diffusion. Alternatively, there are $20 diffusers/reflectors that you can get off of wish that are amazing. Put it a few inches from an LED or lamp and you should be able to get a similar look. If you don’t have any lamps that you can use, a white shower curtain over a window during daylight should also give you a nice diffused light for portraiture.
The background I used was by Kate backdrop, it is washable and wrinkle resistant fabric that looks absolutely lovely. I have included a link to their website below, and no they don’t sponsor us. If you don’t have the budget for a backdrop, then finding a bed sheet and ironing it will also work perfectly fine. Don’t go out and get a cheap wish backdrop. I made that mistake. It says that it is ironable, but in my experience ironing it ruins the fabric, changes its colour, and there is no way to remove the wrinkles. Having to remove wrinkles while editing significantly lowered the quality of my photos. This is why it is important to make the effort to find a backdrop that is made with good fabric. Having good backdrops will increase your photo quality substantially even if you don’t have the best camera or lighting, and Kate backdrops has very decent prices, just beware of international shipping fees for anyone outside of the United States.
Finally, we get to splash photography. Now this one is a very fun kind of photography, as long as you don’t mind making a bit of a mess. This can be done in direct daylight, or with very strong LEDs like I used. The key to this photography is having a shutter speed high enough to freeze the action. I had my shutter speed up at 500 or 640 and still some of the splashes aren’t quite frozen. For this you’ll need a tripod, and to use a timer or off camera trigger because you’ll be busy trying to drop things in the water and shooting at the same time. If you are able to use a strobe flash so that you can increase your shutter speed, I strongly recommend this. Unfortunately, that it a little out of my price range at the moment.
For this shoot I used two Dollarama poster boards taped to the wall and my dining table. These are great for product photography, or any kind of messy photography because they are disposable and you won’t ruin your professional backdrops if you spill. There are many different ways you can pose this, but the most interesting thing about the shot is the splash, so framing the photo needs to prioritize the splash rather than the object containing the liquid. Make sure your camera is set to high speed continuous rather than a ten second timer, and use an off-camera shutter that allows you to utilize that function. Wish offers a cheap off-camera shutter that connects to the side port that works wonderfully!
My challenge to you dear friends is to show us the photography you’ve been able to create while trapped at home, and maybe try to attempt the photography I described here! Tag us @caliburngroup on twitter, Instagram, or Facebook when you post! If you have any questions feel free to message us! Happy shooting, and remember that, while we are quarantined, we are not without our talent and love of photography! We look forward to seeing your art!
Youtube Videos on Still Life: