Making a Photo Reference for Still Life #2

When I shoot a still life or a portrait, I always have a miniature theatrical stage in the back of my mind. I am trying to to create a little one act play - all costume and atmospheric lighting - no script.

In order to save my back, I use a high shelf in my studio to set up my still life for a shoot. I use brown wrapping paper to simulate a “table top” and matte black paper to “fake” an edge beneath.

I always use a tripod to prevent "wiggle" because I like to shoot with the smallest aperture for the clearest "in focus" picture I can get.

I have used an ordinary hardware store light and a low watt fluorescent bulb. I use fluorescent because the light is more diffuse and the shadows less harsh. I have used black construction paper to direct the light in a more theatrical way.

I like a box in order to “trap” the light. I use movable cardboard flaps to create shadows where I want them.

I anchor objects with masking tape, pins and even glue if necessary where it doesn’t show.

In my setup for a shoot I try to create a foreground – in this case it is where the drape spills over the table edge. A middle ground is the container of fruit. And a background – a piece of bent cardboard painted (aprox a 50% value) with either a neutral warm or cool color…and sometimes both.

Larger still lifes obviously require a larger setup.

Here are some rejects:

Besides the subject matter (bowl of grapes) being too dark overall, the white cloth at the bottom would become the focus. I could paint a pattern, embroidery, lace or somesuch to change this if necessary.

All is too bright - no atmosphere nor interesting shadow patterns here.

This is better and more interesting with off-white lace rather than a solid stark white cloth. However, I do not like the arrangement of the cloth. The leaves caught too much of the light and in the final painting would overwhelm the light on the grapes.

This is a screen shot of an iPhoto file on my Mac. You can see some of the volume of photos I took and rejected in order to get just one "workable" photo reference for a still life.

Note that I save all my rejects until my painting is completed. Often I will be inspired by some elements from the rejects that I like better than ones in my main reference. For example, adding a grape that fell onto the tabletop, a more interesting highlight on a leaf, or a better shape created by a cast shadow.

Shooting photographic reference for still life is so much easier than shooting the reference for a portrait. Portraits are more involved, complicated and can sometimes be stressful when time is limited. When this happens, I set up my entire shoot in advance and “test” the lighting so I don't have to fiddle around and waste time with too much technical stuff.

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