Still Life

Still Life

We started working with still life during the Covid pandemic to find expression when we couldn’t get out and explore. We found that we enjoyed the challenges it brought and artistic expression it provided. Still life challenges what we know about composition, lighting, and storytelling. It will continue to be one of our photographic outlets. 

The first thing we needed to do was find an appropriate stage and decide on lighting. We found this old farmhouse style table on sale at an antique store and thought it was worth the risk to see if it cleaned up. We took it home, sanded it, and happy with the result. 

We set this on our dining room table with an inexpensive moving pad underneath. Our setup is simple. On the left is a single flash. We use a white foam core board to bounce some light back when necessary. The grey background enables us to easily add a texture or a background image, such as a wooden wall. The neutral grey color makes masking in Photoshop easy.


We also look for and collect other material for use as a background, such as the red sheet metal pictured here. We have an old wooden gate, old pallets,  as well as photographs we have taken of walls and backgrounds collected over the years. The following photo also illustrates another source of lighting we use on some photos, such as glass or shiny objects. In particular, clear glass objects photograph well when lit from directly behind. This limits the glare. The light wands pictured allow us to paint the subject with light. We bought these from Harold Ross, a still life photographer. At the time of this writing the light painting tools can be found on Etsy and Harold’s store, “Rake the Light”. We supplied the flashlight, which is balanced for daylight.

Certain scenes require us to photograph from directly above. For this we lay a gray card on the ground and position a tripod over it. A single portable flash with a small softbox provides the necessary light.

With this simple setup and a digital camera with a 24-70mm lens we can create a variety of images and stories. Some of the following images tell a meaningful story, at least to us. Others provide an opportunity to travel back in time to scenes we remember in our childhood. Perhaps a time we spent in our grandfather’s workshop. We work in three different formats: studio lighting, light painting, and composites. Studio lighting is used to illuminate the still life with our studio flash. Light painting is done with the wands and flashlight pictured in a previous photo. Composites are used to take a photo we may have taken while out in the field and combining it with a still life scene to create a unique story.

An example of using still life to tell a story can be found with the cover photo for this article, which depicts a vintage Coleman stove against a wilderness mountain scene. In the mid 50s to mid 60s my family lived in Mt Shasta, CA. I loved to go camping, and more often than not it was by myself. I had an old Army/Navy surplus tent, a sleeping bag, a True Temper hatchet, and a few other essential pieces of camping gear. I was too young to drive and my parents were all too happy to drop me off somewhere to camp. I used to camp behind the fish hatchery, with the fish hatchery's permission, or if I could get to some place more remote I would.

Dora and I photographed this landscape on a 2018 trip back to California. The peak you see in the background is Black Butte. Black Butte is a cluster of overlapping lava domes to form the butte. It is a satellite cone of Mt. Shasta, which is directly to the right of this photo. It has an elevation of 6,334 ft. The photo was taken from one of the places I would camp at Castle Lake. Castle Lake is a small glacier lake at an elevation of 5,440 ft. Water runoff from Castle Lake form part of the headwaters of the Sacramento River. Some of the best drinking water on earth is right there.

The Coleman Stove and coffee pot were photographed on our dining room table. Look closely and you can see the flames from the stove. It works perfectly. These old stoves are not all that common anymore. They are still around and use white gas for fuel. Propane seems to be the fuel of choice for modern versions of the stove. I don't drink coffee. I always brought along an old coffee pot for heating water or milk to make hot chocolate. Something I still do.

The story for me is deeply personal and brings back many fond memories. The story and memories will be different for each viewer. What stories and memories can you find in the following photos?