In the still of the light

The next Readers Photo Challenge assignment is “still life.” Merriam-Webster defines a still life as ”a painting, drawing, etc., of a carefully arranged group of objects.”

It’s a photo of things without any people or living animals. This could be also said for landscapes but a still life is usually a more intimate scene, dealing with smaller inanimate objects.

Still lifes have been the subjects of many an artist for hundreds of years. Classic painters used ordinary household objects of the day as their focus. Fruit and vegetables, captured game and kitchenware were popular items. This was probably due to the fact that they were “pose-able” and they didn’t move. One could set out a bowl of apples on a table and if you didn’t finish painting them you could leave them there and they would be in the same position to finish painting the next day. In the early days of photography this was an advantage as well. Due to very slow film, shutter speeds were measured in minutes so the subjects needed to be as still as possible.

Still life photos (and paintings/drawings for that matter) are studies in composition and lighting. They can be found situations or you can place the items yourself to create your own compositions. My guess is that in the days of yore it was a combination of both. The artist/photographer probably saw something that piqued his/her curiosity, such as a shaft of light or the way a bunch of grapes sat in a bowl and then perhaps moved things around to improve the composition.

Even though the still life is an old art, it’s still relevant today in part because of the “foodie” revolution. People are cooking in their kitchens or going out to restaurants, taking pictures of their food then posting them to a blog, Facebook or Twitter. Essentially a food photo is a still life. And the three most important things about a food shot are: lighting, lighting, lighting. The same can be said for almost any still life scene as well.

On a recently afternoon at my home sunlight streamed almost straight in through a west-facing window. It reflected off of a large mirror in the master bathroom. It then bounced off a smaller mirror on a medicine cabinet and finally came to rest on a towel rack on the wall next to the shower. The light illuminated a towel I had haphazardly placed on the rack earlier in the day. The uniformly lined shadows created by the window’s blinds contrasted against the random folds of the hastily hung towel.

A few days later a shaft of morning light beamed into my kitchen and landed on the tile of a counter near the stove. Not wanting to waste the light and the moment, I grabbed the nearest item, a saltshaker, and placed it in the light. The ray of light was moving fast, so I used my iPhone5, which was close by, to take a few quick pictures. I wanted to get a shot of the scene with a bigger camera but within the few minutes it took me to get my DSLR the light had vanished with the movement of the sun.

It’s tempting to think that is some is good then more is better, but, compositionally speaking, it’s best to try and keep your still life photos as simple as possible. Make sure that your backgrounds are free from distractions and try not to add to many elements to the picture lest it become overwrought.

Here are the rules:

1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “Still life” in the subject line.

2. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (ie: “my kitchen in Stockton.”)

3. Photos have to be shot between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29.

4. The subject is up to you but it must be a still life (no landscapes, people or animals). It can be a found situation or a created one.

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Sunday, Dec. 29. The top examples will be published on Monday, Jan. 6 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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