Set up a still-life with a background that is not entirely plain. Fix the camera on a tripod and, using between six and ten similar sized objects, build a composition piece by piece, taking photographs as you go. The aim is to produce a final grouping that hangs together visually. For the final photograph sketch lines that relate the objects and any basic shapes that they form.
The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to group objects together in a way that they are linked in a relationship that is active, not static, and that is neither too boring or too ‘artful’ for the viewer.
Plan A, which I decided upon when first reading through the course notes, was to use gardener’s objects, such as seeds and tools, for the still-life. This idea came from a display in our canteen at work where the dresser had set up an arrangement of produce and garden gear to promote the canteen’s use of fresh food. With this idea in mind, this exercise was put on hold whilst my 18-200mm lens was being repaired (I didn’t fancy shooting this with a 70-300mm lens!). With the 18-200m lens now back home safe and well, I then re-read the brief and noted the critical words that I had missed the first time round – ‘similar-sized objects’. So swiftly on to Plan B – and a note to self to read the brief carefully – and more than once – for each exercise.
For Plan B I decided to use different items of sewing kit for my objects. Any friends of mine reading this post will now be doing a double-take as it is well known that Carol Does Not Sew (apart from re-attaching the odd button now and then). In fact my husband in desperation bought himself a Fix-a-Button kit a few years back, but that’s another story. I do have, however, my mother’s sewing box as a keepsake so it was with happy nostalgia that I rifled though this to find some suitable bits and pieces.
I shot the sequence on the table in the conservatory using natural light (from three sides). For the background I used a piece of curtain fabric that had a same-colour jacquard weave to provide some texture. I shot in RAW in aperture-priority mode using a tripod and my 18-200mm lens. I processed the images in Lightroom, converting colour images into mono by using the Black & White treatment button and then tweaking the Develop sliders. I tried the various b&w presets which I usually find a good starting point, but on this occasion I couldn’t find one that worked.
The darning mushroom is placed top-left, the idea being that the other items are positioned in front and to the right.
The pinking shears and needle case are positioned so as to make a triangle.
Reversed the darning mushroom and pinking shears and decided that I preferred them this way round. Repositioned the needle case so that it sits better next to the pinking shears.
Added in two cable needles to introduce another diagonal, a cotton reel and some tailor’s chalk; the latter two items were placed to the right to balance the picture.
Broderie anglaise tape was added, deliberately loosely scrunched, to bring some softness to the image and also to provide weight in the bottom right. Put some buttons to the left of the tape and below the needle case to form a triangle. Used different colour buttons hoping this would reflect as contrasts in black and white.
Decided the layout inside the frame was becoming too square. Moved the tailor’s chalk to bottom left (think this also looks better moved away from the tape as both are light in colour) – it now forms a triangle with the needle case and buttons. Moved the cable needles and positioned them so that they were not parallel as before; now they seem less of a visual barrier. Repositioned the pinking shears slightly to the left to allow room for a tape measure and an additional cotton reel.
Repositioned cotton reels to give them more space. Moved tailor’s chalk nearer to the needle case and rearranged the buttons. Slightly altered the position of the cable needles but they now look like chopsticks so will need to be moved again.
Decided the set-up looks too formal and lifeless so moved the cable needles to rest on the tape. Rearranged the buttons into a less tight-knit group, moved the tailor’s chalk so that the layout was less square at the bottom and added another cotton reel, this time on its side to add interest and also to appear less regimented.
Moved the buttons again so they now lead into the picture. Put one of the cotton reels at the top of the arrangement on its side to make the positioning of the three reels seem less formal (also makes a mini-triangle).
I don’t really enjoy shooting still life photography. Although the results can be stunning, it is not really ‘me’ – way too much faffing about for my liking. That said, I didn’t find this exercise too painful, although I did make a conscious effort to bring the session to a close without too many ‘takes’, otherwise I could have spent a lot longer (possibly days) continuing to rearrange things and trying to create the perfect shot.
I’ve realised that creating an effective still life takes a lot of thought; the more objects that enter the frame the more complicated it becomes to form a coherent design. I’ve learnt that multiple points can create implied shapes and lines within an image which provide interest to the viewer as well as adding movement and energy. Simple changes to an arrangement of objects can have a dramatic effect; in the set of images above this is most noticeable in Picture 8. Up until then the layout was formal, static and quite boring. Moving the cable needles and buttons to more informal positions has, in my view, given the arrangement some life and makes it easier to look at.
Am I pleased with these images? Well they are what they are. Technically they are ok and I think they meet the brief, but in honesty they leave me cold; they are just not my style. So I could have probably been more creative with this exercise and produced a better result.
Finally, on the planning front I must remember to read the brief carefully before exploring an idea.