I’ve avoided this exercise until now. As usual, I’ve researched prior to taking the photographs and spent some time reading students’ learning (b)logs that have gone before me and it seems that most have not enjoyed the exercise and struggled with it.
Set up your own still-life, with a background that is unfussy but not entirely plain. Use between six to 10 similar-sized objects, each compact in shape. You should fix the camera firmly in one position, aimed down at the background (ideally, use a tripod). The idea is to control the composition by rearrangement, not by changing the framing with the camera.
Begin by placing one object; make a record of this by taking a photograph. Then add the second, then the third, and so on; each time, take one photograph. The aim is to produce a final grouping, which is not so obvious as to be boring (avoid regular shapes), but which hangs together visually. The process will take some time, if you give it proper thought.
Consider each move and the effect that each new addition has on the overall grouping.
I have only tried a traditional still-life shot once before as a test shot with a new camera. I thought it might be a set-up that I could use again for this exercise, but with smaller subjects to provide points against a background.
I felt comfortable with the theories described in my research, but they tended to concentrate on arrangements of objects that could be used to fill more of the frame than the points we’re studying. Tutorials like this didn’t deal with small points but with the arrangement of still life subjects. I wanted to avoid the standard interpretation of using polished stones on velvet as it just isn’t the kind of set-up I’d ever make. I raided the fridge and found a pack of brightly coloured peppers and set-up on the kitchen table. I used the reverse of a (Sigur Rós) poster as a backdrop, a flash and softbox to the camera’s right, and a reflector on the left to soften the shadows. The camera was on a tripod to fix the framing.
My first attempt took in a little of the background and is more interesting than the view only of the chopping board in the second set below. As discovered in the balance exercise, placing a smaller object closer to the edge of the frame balances the larger knife, so the first pepper was at the edge of the chopping board and at an angle to the knife – the most pleasing arrangement. When my wife was shopping, she probably didn’t consider the ‘pointiness’ of the peppers and the difficulty that might bring when arranging them in a composition exercise.
From then on, I added peppers in sequence. I tried to arrange them, considering that the space between them, the infill of the implied triangle, becomes an object in itself, and needs to be balanced by the knife. The larger the triangle, the closer to the knife they get. Other observations were that odd numbers worked best and that I preferred either obvious patterns (like the image above with 6 peppers) or completely random arrangements. When I tried to be creative, I didn’t like the image as much.
Looking at the pictures now, after packing away all of my equipment, I realise the importance of each pepper’s colour. As usual, as soon as there is a bright red object in a frame, the eye is drawn directly to it.
I tried again with a similar set-up, but looking straight down onto the board, removing any context and giving me more room to play with on the surface of the board.
I’m happy to have the exercise behind me. I will return to it – indeed my plan for my second assignment will mean several shots taken using a similar set-up that will need the positioning of objects within the frame – but as expected, I didn’t particularly enjoy it.
I do however look forward to eating the peppers in a big, creamy risotto.
Having thought about this a little more, I realise that when a pair of similar coloured peppers are grouped together, they effectively become one point. This is obvious looking back, but didn’t occur to me at the time.
Bray, S. (3 December 2011) 10 Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography (Online) Tuts+.com Available from: http://photography.tutsplus.com/tutorials/10-tips-to-get-started-with-still-life-photography–photo-8278 [4 January 2014]