Essential Still Life Lighting Techniques


I was a professional advertising photographer in New York City in my younger days, and now I have truly embraced the digital age of photography. Yet, even as materials and chemicals have disappeared (or almost so) lighting and the art of lighting remains as important as ever.

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When I was photographing products (still life and illustration) for magazines and newspapers, I mostly used bounced light. This gave a very broad, soft quality of light which tended to go around the subject and not cause hard shadows. This is still the best lighting for still life, I find.

However, today we have the soft-box which tends to give the very same quality of light as light bounced off a very large white reflecting surface.

These devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can use all manner of light sources from electronic flash, to quartz lamps, to the new CFL bulbs (compact fluorescent lamps). They seem to be ideal for still life work and I make use of them in my own work extensively.

One fact needs to be stressed, that is: Lighting need not be elaborate or expensive when it comes to still life work.

With that in mind, I will talk about my approach to lighting.

My lighting consists mainly of an older studio electronic flash system which uses quartz bulbs as modeling lights. These quartz lamps can be highly controlled insofar as power output from the main unit is concerned and are exactly representational of the electronic flash in terms of lighting ratio, shadow, and light quality.

They are, however, quite different in terms of quantity of light output, and color temperature of the light.

If I first use the quartz modeling lamps to get the lighting just right, and then shoot the picture using the flash, then the color is balanced to daylight temperature.

That is to say, it is the same color as natural daylight lighting. But it is unbelievably bright! Shooting at f22, on my small sets, I have to apply at least 5 stops of neutral density filtration in order to get the exposures to anything like normal. From that point, I tweak the exposure in successive brackets to arrive at the optimum exposure. This can mean changing the aperture, adding, or substracting neutral density, lowering the light intensity via the electronic controls, increasing the distance from the subject to the lights, adding diffusing material, or a combination of these factors.

However, I use the flash only rarely in my still life work as I prefer to do without the filters which can add unsharpness or lens flair to the shot – though I use high quality filters, this can still be a problem.

Instead, I generally shoot using the quartz modeling lamps and then change the color balance in post processing to a more acceptable and normal looking color temperature. Though I often leave a good bit of the warmth of the quartz lights in the shot as it seems to suit the genre better than a perfectly daylight balanced view might.

Less is more, in Lighting Effects for Still Life work!

Image Not AvailableStill, I only use two or at most three heads in most of my work. One is the main light and is usually in a soft-box or a very wide diffused reflector. (I might even shoot using a reflective umbrella or even through a translucent umbrella if it looks better for a particular subject.)

The second light is always on the other side of the set closer to the angle of view of the camera and is primarily for moderation of the shadow caused by the main light. But, I often don’t use a light at all since the subject may be so small.

When that is the case I might only use a white reflective card placed just out of camera view to reflect some of the light from the main light back into the set in order to soften the shadow and even out the lighting ratio.

When I do use a second, fill light, it is usually bounced from a large white reflector which stands where I would normally place the fill-in light – that is, on the opposite side of the set as the main light and more or less directly in front of the set in line with the camera’s view point.

The light is bounced off that reflector from in front of the reflector and to the side of the set – so it is in front of and pointing more or less at the camera. Here a lens-shade (and a bellows-type shade is best as it is adjustable) becomes an important accessory.

Occasionally, I need another light to put some light in from the top of the set. When this is true, I suspend a white card reflector above the set, and I angle it so that I can bounce light into the set using that reflector. This light is mainly to produce highlights when I am photographing highly reflective objects such as silver, glass, metal vases, or, perhaps, a trumpet – for example.

So, normally I use two lights, very occasionally three lights.

Sometimes, I only use one light and a white card as a reflector.

These cards generally consist of white foam-core boards which are cheap, lightweight, and  not cut all the way through the material  so that they may be bent in order to be self-standing. These are stood and angled, sometimes clamped to a light stand, to get the best bounced light effect and to place highlights exactly where I want them.

I repeat here what I said in the beginning of this small article – lighting need not be elaborate or expensive when it comes to still life work.

One of the best photographers  I have ever known, one of my bosses when I was a very young photographer’s assistant, only used inexpensive, spring loaded aluminum reflector lamps with 3200k, 500watt bulbs bounced into very large white reflective flats.

He did the highest level of professional work  with the cheapest lamps that one can get. Of course, he would bounce maybe 10 or 20 of these lamps off 4X8 ft reflectors into a full sized set, but we were shooting pianos and pool tables as compared to pears in baskets, or flowers.

The very same principal applies however, and that is, bounced light (or lighting of the same quality from a softbox) Image Unavailable produces the most appealing light as it mimics a large, north-facing window best.

Soft light is usually better than harsh light and shadows should normally be well balanced and appropriate for the subject. Lighting ratios should not be too steep.

I hope that this was not too difficult to follow and that it helps some budding still life photographer get a good start in his or her still life work!

Thanks for taking the time to read it.

Website Design With WordPress And Photocrati

I’ver been working with the WordPress program and the theme/template from Photocrati for a couple of weeks now and I have what I think is a very passable site. So far, I have been able to finalize the Main Menu System, the Major Galleries, the About Me pages, the Equipment and Techniques page, the Contact page, and I’ve made starts on the Print Sales page, and the Shopping Cart system. That seems pretty good as I didn’t have a clue as to how this whole thing worked when I began.

OK. So, it was not a walk in the park! No, not a simple or even an easy task at all. The learning curve is very steep for a beginner and though I have extensive computer skills to back me up, including being a former programmer and applications developer, it was/is still difficult. It would have been far worse if I didn’t have some skills. Mine are obviously outmoded now, but I won’t get into all of that right now.

I mentioned before that I had a great deal of difficulty familiarizing my self with the database product that is used to manage the site – MySQL. It is still a thing of great mystery to me. Short of going out and buying or finding books that teach me the whole PHP language, the database construction and its syntax, I have really been on my own. I didn’t go into learning an entire new set of programs or the language that runs them as I truly expected some relatively easy to follow instructions somewhere either on the Hosting Site, or on the WordPress site, or failing those venues, on the Photocrati site (at least as it relates to their product.) Not very much information was provided at all.

Not, at least, information that would be useful to me as a beginner. Very probably, the information that I was able to find would have been much more understandable for one who has been through most of this before. But, that is not who I am!

I have to say, to be completely fair, the Photocrati – Themes for Photographers site does provide a good deal of information. There are videos that can be accessed both at their site and on YouTube. There are FAQs and a Member’s Area as well, but the information does not go into the details that are necessary for a full understanding of the product or its operation. It is a beautiful product, and the results that can be achieved using it are nothing short of wondrous, but it does take a level of knowledge that I don’t believe is posessed by the average beginner to website building. I don’t know, maybe I expect too much! But I am a person who likes things to be made crystal-clear, particularly if a product is aimed at beginners.

Special Note: On Thursday, March 6, I contacted Photocrati for some help via their email system. I was having trouble with an eCommerce gallery (which is one of the galleries that Photocrati builds easily and quickly, usually without a hitch at all.) Drew, from Photocrati got back in touch with me after looking at my site and suggested a fix right away. It was something that I thought I had tried before but which didn’t work (actually, I hadn’t tried it, only thought I did since I had tried so many other things.) He was 100% correct and, not only that but he got back to me in less than 15 minutes with that correction! I couldn’t be happier!

Drew also told me that the Help System is undergoing a complete rebuild as they have been holding off on that prior to making some major changes in their templates. So far, it is going into place bit-by-bit and should soon be more helpful than I have indicated in these pages. UUUURHHA!

Rather Long Aside
I also have to be fair to the people who work and maintain the WordPress software. These people provide an incredible piece of Free software that does great things right out of the box (or the air, as it happens) and they do so out of personal dedication and because they can! I can’t!

I have been ranting about the difficulty that I find using all of the products mentioned here, but without them, I would still be stuck with my old site (which was OK for what it is, but really is very, very basic as it was a first website and I was really a clueless beginner when I built it). If you would like to see just what a really clueless web author, using some pretty great and Free tools can produce, it is here: This Beautiful World

OK, so having said that, I have to say that the people at the WordPress Site certainly have an extensive support base which includes installation, lessons, troubleshooting, forums and a host of other helpful information that is there just to assist those like myself.

If I find it dense and difficult, well that is my problem. But, the more I work in the system, the more I understand and the more helpful the material which they provide becomes.
End of the Aside

But muddling along, however, experimenting with different methods, trying things over and over, eventually does bring one to a decent understanding as to how all of these products, programs, and languages work. And, a very capable and complete site can eventually be built and implemented.

One very good thing is that WordPress installs faultlessy with my host’s One-Button-Install, and the very first (really, the only) thing that is produced is a very competent and feature-rich Blogging site. And, of course, that mystery-of-mysteries, the My-SQL database. After that, there are numerous free themes/templates that one can use to flesh-out the basic site – these come with the WordPress installation. Other templates are available free or for reasonable prices from third-party developers. You can find them on the web by searching for WordPress Templates.

There is also what amounts to an almost uncountable number of plug-ins that can accomplish almost any task or implement almost any feature that one could desire in a site. Some charge for the plug-ins – these are written by third-party-developers who are in business, after all – so that is quite understandable, but a good many are free. For the most part, the free ones are somewhat limited versions of the Pro level products, but they are useful “as is” and the pro versions generally simply add features not present in the free versions, and some may come with more support from the authors.

These are very easy to find, install, activate, and test. They are also easy to delete when and if they don’t work out or if they fail to do exactly what one wants to accomplish in using them.

Though some of these plug-ins are simplicity itself to setup and use, others take a level of understanding that is akin to that of figuring out the whole WordPress-SQL-Theme/Template system in the first place. Most of the instructions, when there are any, are not written for beginners but for those who have some experience in website administration at the very least. Still “. . . Perseverance Pays,” as the I Ching tells us!

Play around with this stuff long enough, try as many different approaches as you can think of, go to the authors for as much support as you can get, and you will come up with a site that is pretty, fast, capable, informative, and feature rich. It is probably not as difficult as I am making it sound here. It might just be a case of my being too close to it all – but that is how one builds a website.

And if you can’t build a website structure-by-structure, page-by-page, then you probably should go ahead and fork over the bucks to a professional web developer because, if not, you either won’t get one built, or you’ll have something that is a candidate for The 25 Worst WebSites Ever!