Still-Life Photography

All of my recent photography activities have not been exclusively film-oriented, despite the implication of the last post.  Something that I have been exploring lately is still-life photography in my makeshift studio in my home’s attic.  Still-life photography takes two primary forms – the found still-life and the created or constructed still-life.

The found still-life consists of a scene or tableau as it exists in the environment; it was or is available to be seen and experienced by anyone who encounters it.  This could be a flower blooming in the wild, a distinctive arrangement of street objects along a sidewalk, an array of tools or manufacturing materials in a workplace, and so on. The common feature of the found still-life is that the subject matter is as originally found by the photographer.  The photographer may then still employ creative lighting and composition, perhaps long exposures, or other techniques, but the scene as originally encountered is not physically altered – it remains as it was naturally found.

The created or constructed still-life, in contrast, features an arrangement of subject matter in a setting that has been built, at least in some degree, by the photographer.  This can be fruit arranged in a bowl, tools on workbench, etc.. The key difference from the found still-life is that every aspect of the composition can be dictated by the photographer – the setting, the background, the lighting, the actual subject matter, and the specific composition of every element in the frame.  The photographer assumes responsibility for every one of these creative elements, which allows him to emphasize a particular feature of the subject, or to create a specific mood for the image, or to construct an intended metaphor for some idea, cause, or message.  In other words, the photographer, and not nature, determines the intent of the image.

The Inevitable Result (Fuji XT-1, XF 23mm f2 at 1/160 sec, f11, with flash)

I have been exploring the created still-life, for two main purposes.  The first is that it compels me to develop a concept of what I want to shoot – more than just pre-visualization as described by Ansel Adams, I need to create from scratch an idea of an image, determine the purpose or message of that image, gather the requisite elements of subject matter and setting to best render the image, and then employ appropriate techniques to capture the image as envisioned.  I am pursuing this approach to drive more intent into my work, as opposed to just “wandering around” and hoping to stumble upon something inspirational to photograph.  The second purpose of the still-life exercise is to broaden my photographic skills in areas that I am not particularly strong.  In particular I am trying to advance my photographic lighting skill set, to include natural light, reflectors, flash, and continuous light.  A specific technique I am exploring is light painting – not the type where a in-frame moving light source draws an illuminated line in a long exposure image, but rather where a off-camera light source is selectively used in a long exposure to apply light in a very specific manner and direction to a subject.  An outstanding practitioner and teacher of this form of light painting is Harold Ross, whose portfolio and tutorials can be found at his website.

Wrenches at Wrest (Fuji XT-1 with XF 50mm f2, at 20 sec, f16, using light painting)

This is has been an enjoyable exercise for me, using my Fuji XT-1 digital camera.  Attached are a few images that I have created using these techniques.  I intend to explore this further in the future, and will share any developments or lessons learned as I go.  In the meanwhile, I encourage you to also explore still-life photography to perhaps bring more intent into your own work, or to develop a particular photographic skill or technique that you wish to better learn.

Riveting Experience (Fuji XT-1, XF 50mm f2, at 30 sec, f16, using light painting)


USAF flight helmet with oxygen mask, maps, checklists, and gloves (Fuji XT-1, XF 50mm f2, at 1/1.3 sec, f8)

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