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Kitchen Sink Still Life

March 16, 2013

Needing a diversion during a recent bout of illness, I decided to keep my eye and hand in by doing a simple still life, using everyday household items rather than complex studio lighting. It is quite a good back-to-basics exercise and, done correctly, can result in surprisingly good images.

I had a couple of vine ripened tomatoes on the kitchen sink and my Panasonic LX5. To this, I added soft window light, a sheet of A3 white copy paper, 2 water glasses and a sheet of aluminium foil. Because the tomatoes are highly reflective, an overcast day and a big window is optimum. If you have a window covered by a transparent white curtain, or blind, the sun doesn’t matter. A small portable table is ideal for the setup, because you can move it closer, or further away from the light source. Depending on the light level, and object size, a tripod is a valuable, but optional addition. If you are shooting objects requiring a macro lens, or macro setting and slow shutter speeds, then the tripod is a must.

On macro setting, you need to use small apertures which result in slow shutter speeds, hence the tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, you can always raise the ISO, or improvise. I have used glasses, bricks, mixing bowls or any stable object of the right height, as makeshift tripods.

Tomatoes shot by window light with Lumix LX5

Tomatoes shot by window light with Lumix LX5

With everything sorted, you’re ready to start. Position the object on the front edge of the paper and prop the back up on the glasses to give you a seamless white background.
At this stage, don’t worry about a camera, look carefully at the object. Where does the light fall? Where is the shadow? Where is the highlight? You can turn the table to give the object more front, side or back-light. Watch the object carefully while you’re turning it.

Once you have settled on a position and the lighting looks right, decide whether the shadows are going to be too dark. Your eyes compensate for a far greater range of tones than a camera, so dark tones will be far darker than they appear. Is there sufficient light on the background? If not, a piece of foil can be used to reflect light on the background.

If you really enjoy experimenting with these still life photographs, you can buy sheets of matte and dull silver cardboard at newsagents or art suppliers. They are useful because you can tear and fold them into custom reflectors and they can stand up. There are also sheets of white, black, silver and gold foam-core board which are the studio photographers must have for lots of lighting fixes.

Seed Pods shot with baclight and silver front fill reflector.

Seed Pods shot with a white blind as back-light and silver front fill reflector.

With everything in place, you’re ready to take a shot. Because you’re using a white background, you need to compensate and increase your exposure by 1 to 2 stops. If you forget or don’t know why, see my previous blog entitled Your Lightmeter Lies.

Once you master the white background, try colours or black. Try back-lighting with front fill reflectors. Try different coloured reflectors. Use different apertures for out of focus effects. The variations are endless.

Seed Pods shot with available light and reflector

Seed Pods shot with macro lens, available light and reflector

So there it is, a basic set-up, using inexpensive tools that can lead to quite sophisticated pictures of flowers, fruit, plants and objects. Best of all, it is absorbing, educational, addictive but most of all fun and creatively rewarding.

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