Photography News Issue 52

Photography News | Issue 52 | Technique 47 Camera School Here we lift the lid on all things camera related, showing how to get better results from your CSC or DSLR, and providing all the info you don’t find in the manual. So, stick with us and you’ll soon be wielding your camera like a pro. This month, how to shoot a window-lit low-key still life...

Words & pictures by Kingsley Singleton

Window light with flag and reflector

Picking a lens for still-life

It’s the time of year when shooting outdoors can seem like an unnecessary challenge. But there’s plenty to keep you and your camera occupied indoors; practising your still-life skills is a great example; you can create beautiful images in complete comfort, and still-life photography always benefits other styles you work in, too; it improves your compositional skills, your eye for detail and resourcefulness. Still-life also breeds diligence; like other subjects, it profits from practise and repeated studies of the same subject. And you don’t even need to worry about lighting gear to create a compelling still-life image; all you need is a window, as has been the case for painters for centuries. Window lighting Not every window is ideal for still- life lighting, though. Ideally you’ll want one that’s north-facing and therefore provides indirect light, which is softer and easier to control (though of course you can use other windows if the weather is overcast or the sun is in the right position). To help control the effect you can also use some thin white material to cover it and diffuse the light; a voile or very fine net curtain should do the trick. Opaque material is also useful; by attaching it to the window you’ll be able to block some of the light, thinning it or changing its angle. You’ll also need to take care of the backdrop and for this, lengths of fabric are a good choice; the colour or tone will depend on what style of still-life you want to create. Low-key still life Using some dark fabric – actually a table cloth which I ironed to remove distracting creases – I set up a vase of tulips on a low table next to a north facing window. Immediately, the light looked too broad as the table was on the same level as the window and I wanted it to fall at more of a 45º angle, so I pegged a dark towel to the

There’s no set lens for still-life photography, but for a classical look a standard or short telephoto will work well, giving a largely undistorted view that’s similar to the human eye. On a full-frame DSLR, between 35mm and 85mm will do the trick, depending on the size of the subject; for smaller APS-C sensored cameras, look for 24mm to 105mm. If you use much longer lenses, the distance from the subject can cause problems both in terms of the minimum focusing distance, and to make alterations to the setup. Macro lenses, which tend to cover similar focal lengths, are another good bet as they allow you to work very close to the subject, meaning you can use very small items and may not even need to step away from the camera to make changes to the composition. Using lenses with wide maximum apertures is also useful: you’ll get both a faster shutter speed to avoid subject movement and more control of depth-of-field. For the images here, I used an 85mm f/1.8 lens.

No flag or reflector

No flag, silver reflector

Above Window lighting is great for still-life work, and it can be sculpted to your will with minor modifications. In the picture above, the background was darkened using a flag held between it and the window, but with the subject still fully lit. A silver reflector was also used to brighten the shadows and give the stems some form.

bottom of the window to block the light and push its angle downwards. I also made use of the curtains to control the light – with them completely open there seemed to be a lack of atmosphere, but by drawing one of the pair, the light was thinned and pushed slightly behind the flowers for a narrower look. Controlling light with reflectors Although the light from a north- facing window will be indirect, and therefore somewhat diffuse, it’s still a single light source, so may need some balancing to stop the image looking too shadowy. For that you just need a reflector. A reflector’s job is simply to bounce light back onto the subject, lightening shadows or adding form. They can be simple sheets of white card, a piece of silver foil or even paper, but 5-in-1 reflectors are

very affordable and perennially useful (a 60cm 5-in-1 reflector from costs only £17). I used the more powerful silver surface, because after closing the curtains slightly there wasn’t much light left. It’s also handy to have a flag on hand to block light falling where you don’t want it. I used a sheet of black A4 card, which was enough to cast some shadow on the backdrop, evening and darkening that part to let the subject stand out. Exposure settings Indirect light means a lack of intensity and therefore slower shutter speeds, so shooting from a tripod is almost essential. You’ll also be thankful for the tripod when it comes to making small changes to composition, and keeping your hands free to use a flag or reflector.

For complete control of the exposure shoot in manual mode, dialling in the lowest ISO for best picture quality. Next, choose the aperture that best suits your intentions: if you want the subject and backdrop to be sharp, set a high f/number; if you want selective focus, set a low f/number. I shot at f/2.5 which kept some of the subject sharp, but also added some blur and kept the background out of focus. At f/2.5, the camera metered the shutter speed at 1/10sec, but this gave a washed out look and I wanted more shadow, so I set 1/25sec to underexpose by just over one stop. This kept some delicate highlights on the flowers, but shadowed much of the rest of the setup. Finally, I set the camera to shoot in self-timer mode (5secs), allowing me to fire the shutter thenmove away and hold the flag in position.

Above A wide variety of lenses are useful for still-life, like this 85mm f/1.8. And if your lens doesn’t focus close enough, buy a close-up filter, which screws to the front.



Above You don’t need an advanced set-up for great still-lifes.

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