Image by Irina Mosina. Gear: Nikon D 3000 camera, 35.0 mm f/1.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 35; exposure 2.5 sec; f11 ; ISO 100.
Since the invention of the camera, photography and painting have shared a rich and complicated bond. In the early 20th century, as photographers started to enter the art world, many tried to replicate the effects of painting. The Pictorialists, as they were called, used soft-focus lenses, thin fabrics, and even darkroom manipulations to make their pictures look like paintings.
Fast forward a hundred years to today. It’s 2019, and photographs are everywhere. Still, we long for imagery that feels tangible and rooted in history. Painterly photos seem to be going through a digital rebirth; consider, for instance, the popular photography-based Instagram account It Looks Like A Painting, launched earlier this year.
Image by Marta Teron. Gear: Pentax K20D camera, Pentax-FA 1:1,9 43mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/180 sec; f7.1; ISO 100.
Shutterstock Contributors like Irina Mosina, Daykiney, Marta Teron, DG Stock, and Nailia Schwarz reminds us of walking through the galleries of an art museum, soaking in the rich tones and luxurious shadows of their compositions. Sumptuous fruits and delicate florals abound.
We asked these five artists to tell us a bit about their process behind-the-scenes. Read on for eleven quick tips for taking your own still lives to the next level.
Image by DG Stock. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF50mm f/1.4 USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/20 sec; f9.0; ISO 200.
According to some historians, first still life, painted by Jacopo de’ Barbari, dates back to 1504. By the 17th century, it had grown into a genre of own. So there’s more than five centuries of inspiration available to the modern photographer.
“The most important thing is to look at as much art as possible,” Shutterstock Contributor Daria Garnik (aka DG Stock, @dashagarnik on Instagram) advises. “Go to museums and exhibitions to understand how light works and how artists build compositions. Seeing a lot of images will help you to form your own ideas.”
When it comes to still lifes, consider starting from the beginning and moving through time. Read about the techniques used by Caravaggio, Pieter Claesz, Rachel Ruysch, and their contemporaries. “Works by the Old Masters can be a good source of inspiration, teaching you a lot about the magic of lighting and composition,” Mosina explains.
Image by Irina Mosina. Gear: Nikon D3000 camera, 35.0 mm f/1.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 35; exposure 3 sec; f11 ; ISO 100.
“One of my great sources of inspiration is my parents’ garden,” Mosina tells us. “These fruits and flowers look very different from what we are used to seeing in supermarkets. Given so much freedom and air, they sometimes take imperfect forms. But this is where their true inner beauty is hidden. Imperfection makes them full of life.”
Image by Nailia Schwarz. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L ISUSM lens. Settings: Focal length 58mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f8; ISO 100.
Selecting the right foods and props is just as important as choosing your camera and lens, so look for pieces that move you. And remember: one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, so feel free to look in unexpected places. “I like buying my props from flea markets,” Schwarz says. “This is where you can find true treasures for your still life pictures.”
Image by Daykiney. Gear: Canon 650D EOS camera, Sigma DC 17-50 EX HSM lens. Settings: Focal length 37; exposure 1/13 sec; f6.3; ISO 400.
When possible, Schwarz suggests opting for real food, with the exception of the occasional ice cube. Irina Prihodko (aka Daykiney, @iraprih10 on Instagram) agrees that natural ingredients are always best, adding, “I only use fresh flowers, vegetables, and fruits for my shoots.”
Image by Nailia Schwarz. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f10; ISO 100.
“As far as still life photography is concerned, you never take a picture,” Mosina says. “You always make it. It’s the only photography genre where you have full control over the creative process.” As with a great piece of music, the right composition is crucial. Schwarz (@nailia.s on Instagram) explains, “The objects should be connected to each other and go together.”
Composition is an art, not a science, so let your imagination run wild, and give yourself time to play with different ideas. “Working on a composition can be tricky,” Mosina admits. “You can spend hours on end trying to make the picture ‘speak,’ only to wonder if it’s all been in vain. But suddenly, some little detail—like a petal that has just fallen down—makes all the difference. It somehow holds everything together, making the composition whole and unified.”
Garnik has a helpful trick to keep you from getting overwhelmed by the process. “I start shooting my still lifes with one or two objects,” she says. “I try to light them first, and then I complicate the composition gradually.”
Image by Marta Teron. Gear: Pentax K20D camera, Pentax-FA 43mm Lim lens. Settings: Focal length 43mm; exposure 1/180 sec; f7,1; ISO 100.
The background is also something to consider when creating your composition. While rustic wood might give your photos a homey and nostalgic atmosphere, perhaps a wall with chipped paint will give them that aged and timeless mood. As Teron explains, “It is very important to choose the right background.”
Image by Daykiney. Gear: Canon650DEOScamera,SigmaDC17-50EXHSMlens. Settings: Focal length 38mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f5.6; ISO 800.
Prihodko has a collection of images available on hand for this exact purpose; “As additional backgrounds, I use my photos,” she tells us. “I collect these photos in daily life, wherever I see something interesting.”
Image by Nailia Schwarz. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF70-200mm f/2.8 L USM lens. Settings: Focal length 135mm; exposure 1/50 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.
“The most important aspect of still life photography is the lighting,” Schwarz tells us. “Different lighting schemes make for different pictures.” Mosina agrees, saying, “You first learn to see light, then understand how it works, and finally come to harness it.”
As Mosina explains, the right lighting can make the most “ordinary” item—like a piece of fruit—into a work of art. She elaborates, “I prefer natural lighting, usually from the left and slightly behind, which allows me to reveal the true magic and captivating beauty of everyday objects.”
Schwarz agrees, adding, “I personally like daylight. I use cardboard to darken the scene and reflectors to add brightness.” Any well-lit area will do. Prihodko, for example, doesn’t work in a studio but in a special room in her home, where beautiful light filters in through the window.
Image by Marta Teron. Gear: Pentax K20D camera, _Pentax-FA 43mm Lim lens. Settings: Focal length 43mm; exposure 1/180 sec; f7,1; ISO 100.
“Don’t be static,” Garnik stresses. “Shoot from different angles, and move your objects and light sources to different positions.” She often uses natural window light, but she also incorporates artificial light from time to time, using reflectors to imbue the scene with some heightened drama. If you’re interested in learning how to use Rembrandt lighting, a favorite technique of Garnik’s, check out this helpful guide.
Teron has her own lighting set-up as well. “I take pictures with a pulsed light source on one side and a reflector opposite,” she says.
Image by Nailia Schwarz. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; exposure 1/20 sec; f9; ISO 200 .
While an understanding of art history will provide a firm foundation for any still life photographer, a twist of modernity can bring something new to your work. “You should frequently look at paintings from the Old Masters, as well as pictures from other photographers,” Schwarz suggests. “Analyze contemporary and classic work to get inspired.”
Image by Irina Mosina. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. Settings: Focal length 50; exposure 3.2 sec; f10 ; ISO 100.
For example, try achieving an old-fashioned look using cutting-edge technology. “By combining historical references and a modern approach, you can always find something useful,” Mosina tells us. “For instance, the ‘old school’ look and that painterly aesthetic can be obtained through the use of different textures, added to the picture in Photoshop.”
Image by Irina Mosina. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. Settings: Focal length 50; exposure 2 sec; f8 ; ISO 100.
Still lives are all about symbolism and suggestion, so have some sort of narrative in mind before you get to work. “When you work in still lives, you can convey something about a human presence: a book on the table left open, a knife, a half of a pear lying on the table, a piece of cloth someone used to wipe her hands while cooking dinner for her big family,” Mosina explains. “All these tiny details tell us something about the true nature of their owners, far beyond the scope of a selfie on social media.” Your story can be joyful, sad, or ambiguous—the choice is yours.
Image by DG Stock. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF50mm f/1.4 USM lens. Settings: Focal length 50.0 mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f4.5; ISO 200.
Garnik uses the color wheel to help her select the right foods and props for any given photo shoot. Splashes of color, complementary tones, and unexpected harmonies can all play an important role in setting the scene and establishing the mood and tone of your image.
Image by Marta Teron. Gear: Pentax K-3 camera, _Pentax-FA 43mm Lim lens. Settings: Focal length 43mm; exposure 1/180 sec; f7,1; ISO 100.
“Post-processing is required—whether it’s working with various effects, adding textures to the background, or shading,” Prihodko says. “It’s hard work, but the result is a picture that you’d want to print and hang on the wall. Proper monitor calibration is important for this step.”
During this final phase of the process, you can finesse your light and shadows as well as your colors. “I add saturation, contrast, and sometimes gradient,” Teron tells us. “And I also make the colors warmer.”
Image by DG Stock. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF50mm f/1.4 USM lens. Settings: Focal length 50.0 mm; exposure 1/20 sec; f9.0; ISO 200.
Garnik suggests, “Shoot in RAW so that you can emphasize the nuances you need during post-processing without losing quality.”
While post-processing is key, it’s best used in moderation. “You should not overestimate the power of effects added in Photoshop,” Mosina advises. “Bear in mind that some 95% of a good still life picture is made in the course of taking the shot.”
Image by Daykiney. Gear: Canon 650 EOS camera, and lens Sigma DS 17-50 1:2.8 EX HSM lens. Settings: Focal length 30mm; exposure 1/50 sec; f5.6; ISO 800.
Up until this point, we’ve spoken a lot about preparation, whether it’s getting your lights set up just right or refining your composition. But sometimes, fate can be the best collaborator. Allow some room for spontaneity and happy accidents.
Prihodko is the perfect example. After she had meticulously arranged her compositions, her cat Masyanya used to jump into her set unannounced. “She loved the process of shooting, posing with pleasure in front of the camera,” the artist admits. “It was her calling. My still lives have two varieties: with Masyanya and without Masyanya.”
Image by Daykiney. Gear: Canon 650D EOS camera, Sigma DC 17-50 EX HSM lens. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 1/15 sec; f7.1; ISO 100.
Sadly, Masyanya passed away shortly before our interview with Prihodko, but her memory serves as a reminder to us all: sometimes, no matter how much you plan in advance, it’s the unforeseeable, serendipitous outcomes that make a photo unforgettable.
Top Image by Marta Teron
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