Still Life on a Low Budget



While I enjoy photographing a wide variety of subjects, still life is the one I think I have most fun with. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I’m having fun
  2. I can take as long as I want
  3. I am in total control

That last one, however, means that if I don’t get it right, I can’t blame the weather, the time of day, the subject, or any of a host of other reasons that shooting stuff out of doors gives me. I also can’t blame the subject, because that’s my choice too and what I do with it in the studio is also down to me. But I like that. I like that if it works, it’s down to me and if it doesn’t it’s down to me.

Another part of the total control is total control of the way the light falls on the subject. Now in the studio I’m usually playing around with studio flash, portable hot shoe flash (though never in the hot shoe), and various, reflectors and backgrounds to get the light just the way I want it. But I wanted to do something low budget that would be possible for anyone with a camera and a few scraps of card to emulate – so here goes.

One of my favourite drinks in the winter is hot chocolate. Not with all that squirty cream and marshmallows, just the chocolate. Every time I pick up a fresh mug I spend a few minutes enjoyed the way the light hits the bubbles on top, and every time I do that I think – I need to photograph this next time I make one.

My daughter gave me a lovely new mug for Christmas that would be a perfect prop for the chocolate picture.

So, with no more excuses, I set about creating this with the minimum of accessories.

Here is what I used:

  1. The sun shining through the window
  2. A table with a shiny black top
  3. Several pieces of black mounting board (white on the back and available from art shops or framers)
  4. A couple of pieces of card covered with aluminium foil
  5. A tripod ( not essential but makes the job so much easier)
  6. A cable release (also not essential)
  7. A Canon 6D (any camera would do)

I set the table up so it was in the direct sunlight. Then I put black card around two sides of the table. One piece of card was used to make a dark background, and the other, on the right hand side of the table, to shade the background from the direct sunlight so the background stayed dark. On the left hand side I placed a piece of white card to reflect light back onto the subject. Subject placed on the table, a foil covered piece of card put a highlight down the left hand side of the mug to lift it and provide shape and that was pretty much the first shot of the mug on its own.

I then thought more about the still life aspect and added the solid chocolate to make the image more interesting. The second piece of foil was used to highlight the chocolate pieces, the packet label, and to reduce contrast in the froth.

Finally I took the image that started me thinking about this whole project.

A few tweaks in Lightroom, sorted out the froth and the mug on its own. But the still life needed a little more work. So it was into Photoshop to finish it off. There was a small mark on the mug that needed removing, a small bit of paper from the wrapper was a creating a highlight where I didn’t want it so the healing brush removed those. Finally I wanted to reduce the brightness of the highlight along the front of the mug so I used a brightness adjustment layer with a mask to do that.

At this point I was totally pleased with the finished result.

I had created three images with nothing more than the light coming through the window and a few bits of card.

Why not have a go and see what you can come up with.

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