Landscape photographs can take on the feeling of a still life when the view is narrowed to a few isolated elements. The label probably doesn’t matter but the approach is similar.
In a typical still life painting or photograph you have control over the lighting, the objects, and the composition. The image is about the inanimate items that you place within the scene.
I have experimented with still life photographs in a small enclosure with controlled lighting. It is time-consuming and interesting to see the effects of altering the light intensity and direction. My preference is a black background, very low lighting, and underexposure so that the objects appear to be floating in the dark. Sometimes I use a flashing red bicycle light during a long exposure to introduce another color on the surface of the items or to reflect off of the background cloth. But it is always about the objects placed in the enclosure. Not the setting or the surroundings. There is no context.
Landscape photographs can be approached in a similar way. It helps to find distinctive objects that fill the view.
You only have control of the view of the objects, as with all landscape photographs. You can not rearrange the objects. When you find a few interesting natural objects you exclude the rest of the landscape. It is a close-up of those objects, like a still life. Nothing complicated.
The creative part is the composition of that close-up and the lighting. The lighting you wait for. It is what you think about and plan for. You watch it develop and change. It is the entertainment as you try different compositions. It continuously alters the scene in front of you.
Your composition might have worked with the light five minutes ago, but now, you move to show the effect of the light that enhances surface texture or shadows. The color of the light changes also as the sun angle lowers. The light is manipulated by the Earth’s rotation, not by where you move your studio lights. But it is still all about the objects, not the setting. There is no context.
This scene could be in Africa, the middle east, Australia, South America, or the western United States. It is apparently an arid place. But the location is not important. This image will always be about the objects floating against a background. The background sky could easily be a cloth drape behind a carefully arranged miniature diorama.
I am not trying to show you the Mojave Desert. This photograph is about shapes, composition, colors, and lighting.
'Work', Still Life, Head Sculpture by Annie Howell
Day after day, week after week, during our working life we look forward to Friday.
Except for those who don’t have Saturday and Sunday off, but they designate another day to be their ‘Friday’.
We work faithfully each day, sometimes absorbed and fulfilled, sometimes frustrated by the tedium. We want our work to have meaning and accomplish something.
If you are reading this on a Monday, let me be the first to say, “Friday is just a few days away!” If you are reading this on any other weekday, you are probably already thinking about Friday.
I am writing this on a Friday. This week I worked quite a bit on still life photography. I have many new images that I will review and perhaps exhibit. My wife has sculpted another group of clay heads for the Driftwood Dancer figures that she makes. Her sculptures are beautiful and have that eerie ‘a little too lifelike’ feeling. I arrange these clay heads in a darkened photo enclosure along with a variety of props. She has lots of miniature things for her artwork, so I use those in my still life photos. It is easy to become absorbed in ideas for these posed photographs and at times I am sure that I got maybe a little too creative.
As I have said before in this blog, still life photography is a good way to learn more about the camera and other equipment. I experimented with exposure, composition, and lighting. The photo enclosure was black and sat on a table to make it convenient to use a tripod standing on the floor next to the table. The black background lets me underexpose the image and makes the heads appear to be floating. The fabric on the base of the enclosure had some silver sparkle woven into it, and I used a variety of lighting effects to make it sparkle without adding enough light to reveal the fabric of the enclosure.
Perhaps you can see some red sparkle in the bottom of this photograph. It depends on how you have your monitor adjusted. The device is labeled Daily and Weekly, if you can read that. Again, it depends on your monitor. (The variety of monitors and how they are adjusted makes it challenging for photographic websites and blogs.)
This photograph is dedicated to TGIF for all of us. I will call it ‘Work’. It is supposed to suggest the obligation that we have to work each day, each week, and on and on. I selected a sculpted head that looks like an old man to add wear and fatigue. The chain connects him to the endless cycle, driven mechanically by the work machine.
This mechanical gadget was given to me by a work friend. I have no idea what it is for. It had a tag on it that said that it was last cleaned in 1966.
It will be interesting to exhibit these still life photos in the months ahead. They are very different than the travel photos that I usually exhibit but I like the variety.
Underexposure, light, shadow, shapes, texture, arrangement, and depth of field.
But where did the heads come from?
My wife, Annie, sculpts heads for the beautiful Driftwood Dancers that she makes. She paints the heads and then mounts them on driftwood ‘bodies’ which she carefully selects to form poses of dance movements. The Dancers are dressed in handmade clothes. If it is a commissioned Dancer the clothes and the accessories represent a specific person. Annie loves beachcombing and is very creative, so this is a perfect artistic outlet for her. Her sculpting skills have grown quite refined over the last several years.
I saw these heads sitting on her drying rack. The plain off-white clay seemed like it would be interesting to photograph against a black background. So I found some black fabric and constructed a simple enclosure. Over several days I experimented with arrangements, camera position, exposure etc. I tried a tripod, but I couldn’t get the camera low enough to be at the same level as the heads. So I constructed a support of wood and foam core. Since the camera was not attached I had to use a cable-release to avoid camera shake.
I used a wide-angle lens so I could get close to the heads. The enclosure was nearly dark inside and I wanted a long depth of field which required a small aperture setting. So the exposures were long. I wanted the heads to appear to be floating so I underexposed the photos.
It was fun experimenting with the arrangements. Some of the faces are comical and all of them are eerily lifelike. The arrangement in this photo is a teacher and a class, or a presentation to a group, or a choir and conductor. You can use your imagination to decide. Eventually I realized that I had spent too much time trying different arrangements and put them back on the rack so Annie could paint them.
I can see how making still-life photographs could become very time-consuming. I didn’t even start with a specific plan to make still lifes. It just developed over several days as ideas occurred to me. It was just an experiment. A controlled setting like this is a great learning exercise and can produce unique images.
These heads are about two inches in diameter and the camera was about three or four inches from the closest head. I used a 16-35mm lens. This exposure was 30 seconds at f/20 with the lens set at 22mm. This is natural light with ISO set to 200.