Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway, June 2017Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway, June 2017

Holiday Still Life Photography

January 05, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

During the recent Christmas season, I began to see many wonderful still life photos posted on social media.  They motivated me to pull out my studio lights and give it a go myself.

Still life photography does not look overly difficult to the casual observer but for the novice it can be quite challenging.  "How so?" you may ask.  Well, the photographer has 100% complete control of everything.  Composition, color balancing, styling, lighting, concept and, of course, the camera settings themselves.  Being new to this myself, it can be a bit frustrating.

In this first photo, I used a decoration my wife made for Christmas.  To my untrained eye, the colors seemed nice and in keeping with the holiday colors of red and green.  The candle in the background is one of those artificial battery operated ones.  These work in our home as we have three cats and we do not need them messing around with a real flame.  But I needed something else and I remembered some other photos with background lights to create the bokeh effect you often see.

First, I set up my background stand using a black roll of paper.  Over the stand, I draped about three strands of Christmas lights.  I set up the decorations on a card table covered with a piece of black velvet.  Black velvet is great to have with still life  photography since it is not reflective.  I played with the placement of the card table in terms of the distance it was from the black background.  The further away the subject is from the background means the larger the bokeh effect you will achieve.  If I had placed them close together even while using a wide aperture, the lights would be more defined rather than soft and blurry.  Placing the table about four feet in front of the background provided the amount of bokeh I wanted.

I was surprised to see the lights were orange as I was thinking they were white.  I tried to change the color during post processing but finally left them orange.  In the end, I think it turned out OK.  To fill in some blank areas, I cloned in some additional lights in Photoshop.

To light the scene, I used two Nikon SB-910 speed lights in a 3' Profoto and 2' Godox softboxes.  They were set on the right and left sides.  My Nikon D850 with Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens used a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, its sync speed, and an aperture of f/2.5.

 


 

This next photo is not a favorite of mine.  I show it to illustrate that still life, at least for me, is very challenging and takes lots of creativity and practice.  Here, I wanted the story to be freshly baked cookies cooling down.  I set everything up on a darkly stained wood background I made.  Some greens were added as well as the background Christmas tree ornament to add a bit of seasonal color.  The "hero" of the photo was the front toffee bar.  Some other cookies were added to help lead the eye further into the photo.  A bit of flour as sprinkled around to add a bit more realism.  But in the end, compositionally, it doesn't seem to work very well.

 

This photo used a simpler composition using just peanut clusters.  I swapped out the background using a faux granite.  A Santa and some berries were added for color and the spatulas added some cooking props.  The lighting and camera settings were nearly the same as before.  Overall, I was happy with this photo.  It doesn't seem cluttered to me and the colors seem to work.  When I posted this photo on social media, one person said they really liked the photo but that he did not like the yellow spatula.  It seemed OK to me but that is why understanding complementary colors in photography is so important.

 


 

This final photo is my favorite of all.  I raised my tripod high to get a more overhead composition.  Many food photographers have a camera arm that can take images from directly overhead.  But not having one, I got as close to overhead as I could.  Again, I tried to add some holiday colors by using some red cranberries along with some  greens cut from our Christmas tree.
 

During the winter months I want to continue practicing my still life photography.  The great thing about photography is that there are so many interesting facets of it.  There is so much to take in, practice and enjoy.  I encourage everyone to try out many areas of photography.  You may find some new passion.
 


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