Clive R. Haynes FRPS.
Still Life, as with so much of photography, has its roots firmly embedded in the romanticism of traditional painting techniques. Still life usually seeks to illustrate the natural world and to present something more than a simple record of the scene. When a painter works, the resulting picture will reflect what's has been in the artist's mind - predilections, frustrations, enjoyments and moods etc. This applies to the photographer as artist too - so our pictures represent something within us, making each unique.
During the 17th century a branch of Dutch painting created an almost specialist form of the still life and raised it to the state of high/fine art. Often the scenes from these Dutch masters show tables fairly creaking with layers of food, brimming chalices of wine, sprawling game with fine cloths and brocades adorning the frame. They're rich in chiaroscuro, texture, sombre colour, sparkling highlights and an infinity of shadows. Often pictures such as these were aimed at a market of wealthy, likely buyers, who wished for scenes to decorate dining rooms of fine houses.
The subjects for still-life pictures are often simple and commonplace. The familiar can be rendered special and significant by the treatment that it's given. Just as trivial words can provide the source for a beautiful song so trivial objects can be arranged to form a beautiful picture.
It's hardly surprising then that photographers since the inception of the medium have sought to emulate the traditional forms of still-life. Experiments have been made to extend the range of the genre and to seek methods of involving the viewer. Cezanne and Salvidor Dali certainly experimented greatly with the accepted form by their distortions of plane and perspective and photographers such as Man Ray and Andre Kertesz in their turn pushed back the boundary lines.
Still life photography presents the photographer with something of a "blank canvas" and in this respect the beginning is closely allied to the traditional, painterly forms of art. Ideally the photographer should be involved in the process of creating the scene, building it up from an empty space and using the shapes, textures, tones and colours presented. Add to this the selection and arrangement of lighting, the various technicalities surrounding exposure, the range of darkroom skills and after treatment and one can readily see that still life work considerably stretches the photographer both artistically and technically.
In still life photography all the elements of picture making are under control. The decisions we make in this genre will teach us a great deal about how the camera "sees". Valuable lessons will be learnt about composition, lighting, contrast, colour harmony and the art of keeping things simple.
Examples of still life are all around and can be found within brochures, catalogues paintings, advertising, magazine and book covers and within fine art galleries. Keeping our senses alerted to such imagery is one method whereby we can gain inspiration and ideas.
Generally speaking, the still life should be a self-contained expression in which each ingredient should make a real contribution to the overall effect. Subsidiary elements should support the main subject and not compete.
A simple way of starting is to experiment with a few household objects and link them with a common visual theme. Try to choose objects with interesting surface textures and characteristics such as garden tools, kitchen implements, glassware, food and fruits for example.
A good way of beginning to understand composition is to start with two or three simple objects, move them around and discover the strongest arrangement. Using a camera mounted on a tripod, the viewpoint can be kept constant, as subject matter is re-positioned. Once the background and principle subjects are established, add secondary items (if any) one at a time, checking through the viewfinder after each addition. Be critical and constantly assess the picture.
Remember, each ingredient in the scene should make a positive contribution to the picture. If in doubt, leave it out! Strive to keep things simple. It's a good idea to make a sketch of successful arrangements so that the technique can be applied again.
A backdrop will usually be necessary and it needs careful consideration, as it will almost inevitably occupy a large portion of the picture area. Keep the backdrop unobtrusive and harmonious, avoid creases, folds and marks.
Lighting is of course critical, as this will influence the mood of the scene. Studio lighting is useful but not essential. Natural daylight can be used to great effect, indeed if you're shooting a scene out of doors, you'll probably have little choice. Daylight through a window is often successfully employed with reflector cards providing fill-in. Whatever lighting is chosen, the first consideration is that of direction. Low angle or cross-lighting will emphasise surface texture and contours and cast long shadows. Shadows thus created will need to be considered as part of the composition. A main light to the front of the set will cause objects to be well recorded but lacking in three-dimension quality. As in portraiture, make good use of back lighting and angular lighting. For the light and airy high-key approach a "soft box" will give even shadowless illumination. Make and sketches about the lighting arrangements not forgetting to note distances and power settings.
Still life work provides a very quick and enjoyable learning path to the skills of composing, lighting effectively, being creative, problem solving, improvising, being creative and working in a disciplined manner.
The treatment of the subject can range from the coldly clinical to deeply personal with concerned involvement. Often the narrative approach is adopted. Here there is the feeling of a story line, a sense that a moment in time has been recorded and that the scene has a history and a future beyond the moment of exposure.
Remember, still life can be found and created anywhere. The subject matter may be constructed over several hours or simply be "objet trouvé". Whatever it is, keep your senses tuned and use your imagination to the full.