Still life experiments

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Legs

If you think about it, there’s actually not a huge leap between product photography and still life; after all, they are pretty much the same thing technically. The only tangible differences I can see are of course the intention/ message: one is to sell a product, the other is a visually interesting use of light and texture; and product photography tends to be with controlled lighting, whereas the majority of still lifes I’ve seen tend to use found available light. (Come to think of it, there’s not that much difference between still life and architecture or urbanscapes either, other than scale and occasional inclusion of human elements.) In fact, traditional still life photography was almost always of food – there’s an interesting avenue to explore for my next culinary assignment; it’d certainly be very different to the styles currently in vogue.

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Better days past

Admittedly, it’s not something I’d consciously tried to shoot earlier. The main reason I’m now giving it a try is because I’m trying to further heighten my awareness of the quality of ambient light in order to improve both my available light photography (remember, light, subject, composition, idea) and of course the quality of my constructed light. This exercise has taken me down two paths: firstly, the use of film cameras forces me to get it right in camera, whether it’s observation or construction; I want to speed up my workflow even more by paring the amount of postprocessing work I have to do to the bare minimum and absolutely unavoidable. I’m also training my eyes to work as a meter; so far, not too bad – I’m within a stop most of the time, which is about as accurate as the meterless film Nikons can go anyway. (Some lenses give you half stops, shutter speeds are always whole stops; my ‘Blad gives me half stops on the lens.)

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Real or artificial?

The second effort is focused on a study of the light used by the great painters of days gone by; they didn’t have the luxury of making their own in real life, so they had to be masters of observation, imagination and replication. In some ways, not having the technical constraints of execution probably made this easier; in others, it’s not easy to replicate realistic lighting entirely with paint! It of course goes without saying that the quality of light achieved by the Dutch masters, Da Vinci, the Italians hyperrealists like Canaletto et al was fantastic, if slightly impossible at times. Still, they conveyed mood perfectly with color and use of shadows. Though such light is seldom found in nature, we can create it now – and to some extent, make up the balance in postprocessing (the colour part, and dodging and burning for contrast, at any rate.)

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Classical painting experiment I – hommage to the Dutch Masters.

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Classical painting experiment II -hommage a Monet

The images in this set were mostly shot in the last couple of months with a variety of equipment, though there are a couple which date from earlier. I don’t think I’ve quite figured out what my style is for still lifes yet; I’m still in the imitation-experimentation phase, but feel quite drawn to darker imagery with strongly directional single light sources; I like to think of it as ‘tonal richness’. From a postprocessing point of view, it’s not easy to achieve because preserving the quarter tone contrast tends to result in oversaturated primary color channels, which you of course have to correct for individually, which results in hue shifts especially in non-primary colors. Once again, monitor gamut and calibration are critical in achieving the desired outcome.

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This is not a carafe*

*Spot the Magritte reference

On the film front, since I’ve decided to eschew color in favor of the tonal possibilities offered by black and white – not to mention full end-to-end control over the process – it’s more about lighting management and attempting to visualize the native tonal response of the film, which is both very different from digital and not much like my normal postprocessed output, either. It doesn’t help that there’s the intermediate conversion step post-digitization which further complicates one’s ability to clearly imagine what the end results will look like. I like to think I’m fairly capable with Photoshop and can quite easily previsualize my end results at the time of shooting with digital, but that extra step has thrown me out. I suppose it’s a matter of consistency, practice, and getting to know the characteristics of one or two film emulsions very well.

Enjoy the images. I’m off to shoot some more. MT

On an unrelated note, if anybody has been wondering about the lack of On Assignment posts of late, it’s because I both simply haven’t had time on some of the more demanding recent assignments, or the setups haven’t been that exciting; just seeing me hold a camera in a still pose is not really very instructive or insightful. I’ve got a couple of jobs in the planning stages for next year that should be more interesting…

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Cutlery

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Spectrum

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Froth

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Wholecut

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Before lunch

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Umbrellas

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Study of a lamp

Comments

  1. Gro Berntsen says:

    Froth! This is a classic. It is going up on our bathroom wall. Can i print it? Or do I make my own? Gro Norway

    • Err…no, you can’t print it. That’s like stealing, and it wouldn’t be fair, would it? Plus the small file and unknown printing method wouldn’t do the image justice.

      I can sell you a proper fine art print, or you can go off and photograph your own :)

  2. Still life photography is made properly here. The photo of those apples truly catches my attention. Congratulations Ming!

  3. You’re on to some great things. You might have enjoyed the “3S” exhibit in NYC awhile ago at the Met: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2010/stieglitz-steichen-strand An amazing catalog.

    (I also enjoy the trompe l’oeil of these two: http://www.weareprivate.net/blog/?p=24782 )

    • Thank you. I wish! I keep seeing great exhibitions all over the place and sorely lament living in a photographic and artistic desert. Last year’s trip to Vienna and this year’s earlier trip to Tokyo were fantastic just for the opportunity to see what other artists were doing.

  4. Jeff Smith says:

    Thanks for your post, it inspired me to give taking some “still life” shots on my own. I don’t have much in the way of equipment, i.e no studio lights, speed lights, hoods, umbrellas or reflectors. But I gave it a go with my RX100 a house lamp, colored paper for background, and a makeshift reflector of white poster board. Shots were fairly decent for my first go. Again thanks for the inspiration and wishing you a happy and prosperous New Year. Jeff Smith

    PS will try to send sample photo by email.

    • No problem. You don’t actually need much in the way of equipment – actually, a tripod is probably the most important part of your gear because you can set up anywhere there’s good light – your subjects don’t move, so you could even shoot it with a compact at low ISO. Might even give you a depth of field advantage over an SLR.

  5. Hi Ming, this sentence put my head in a spin: “preserving the quarter tone contrast tends to result in oversaturated primary color channels, which you of course have to correct for individually, which results in hue shifts especially in non-primary colors”. Can you pls expand on this?

    Not sure if this is related, but one thing I do know is that if you alter contrast using the Curves tool (in a layer) it’s best to set the blend mode to ‘luminosity’ rather than ‘normal’. If you leave it as ‘normal’ then the colour saturation changes [generally in an unwanted manner].

  6. I always enjoy seeing those apples, well done!

  7. jeffrey sklan says:

    I am digging these abstracts, and their calculated ( i meant, thoughtful) presentation. Don’t you find it interesting to transition from pure form and tonal qualities (B &W) to the extra dimensionality that color can bring to the equation? And what an amazing distraction those colors can be…. Thanks, Ming.

    • Thanks Jeffrey. Short answer – yes and no. I think B&W is more of a challenge and forces you to be aware of the quality of your light, but color can be interesting in and of itself in certain situations. Quite often you’ll find that good images work in either presentation – this means the light was interesting to begin with…

  8. Pictures are awesome. I have been admiring them on your flickr page.

  9. Love them!!! :) Especially the Foam one. ;) Awesome perspective.

  10. Reblogged this on RD Revilo.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you think about it, there’s actually not a huge leap between product photography and still life; after all, they are pretty much the same thing technically. The only tangible differences I can see are of course the intention/ message: one is to sell a product, the other is a visually interesting use of light and texture; and product photography tends to be with controlled lighting, whereas the majority of still lifes I’ve seen tend to use found available light. (Come to think of it, there’s not that much difference between still life and architecture or urbanscapes either, other than scale and occasional inclusion of human elements.) In fact, traditional still life photography was almost always of food – there’s an interesting avenue to explore for my next culinary assignment; it’d certainly be very different to the styles currently in vogue.  […]

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