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Stand still and take a moment

Still life is not everyone's cup of tea, but when you see Gary Hickin's work, those who didn't really like it will soon discover a new love for it.

Posted: 16/12/2010 - 17:37

You don’t have to look too closely at Gary Hickin’s still life work to realise how much hard work and effort goes into setting up and shooting each scene. The shots are crammed with interest, but never look too crowded and each have their own stories waiting to unfold.

Gary sees each frame he shoots as a kind of theatrical set – all the ingredients being props or players. They all have visual weight and dynamics according to the size, shape and colour – it’s like a set of scales, trying not to tip it one way or the other while still maintaining interest and drawing the viewer’s attention to the significant areas or object(s). According to Gary, it’s a good idea to shoot the still life in black & white – this gives an idea of the tonal weight that any object contributes to the composition, red in particular has a peculiar greyscale value and can be very dominant.

Experiment with the dynamics of the group so it appears as if everything belongs there – even seemingly random collections of objects, if arranged carefully, can look as if they belong together. Gary likes to link things with imaginary lines so an object or group of objects can be likened to basic geometric forms. Triangles work well and, as always, don’t forget the rule-of-thirds. This is where digital comes into its own - it costs nothing to experiment with an arrangement.

Having a clear idea of what you want to achieve helps enormously with your choice and use of equipment and there are hundreds of places you can find ideas if you need it.

“Inspiration can come from many sources,” explained Gary. “It may be something that I have observed or even hear but it must generate a vision – the picture must be there in my head before I start – there is no reason why it cannot evolve from there, but I don’t rely on random selections in the hope that something great will happen.

“For me, the still life photographer must create the image completely, choosing the setting, objects and how they are lit and arranged. I like to work to a theme or convey a message maybe have some allegorical content – ask the viewer questions, grab their attention etc.”

Look out for good books on drawing and paintings too – they provide excellent guides on the technical aspects of composition. While you’re out, check local charity shops, antique stores and even ask friends and neighbours to see if they have items you can use for still life work.

Car boots sales and even classified adverts may be hiding treasures and interesting items perfect for this type of photography. You also need a selection of backgrounds to work with. Gary prefers plain ones and he has A1 size sheets of card in various neutral colours. A selection of fabrics are always useful but if you’re outdoors old bricks, stone or timber work well.

Kit wise, a good quality lens is important. Gary uses a Pentax SMC-A 50mm f/1.7, a Pentax-DA 35mm f/2.8 macro for general and close up work, an old SMC Pentax-M macro 100mm which is great for groups of smaller items, allowing a convenient working distance and he sometimes uses a Pentax DA 16-45mm f/4 – good for larger groups at the wide end in small spaces where working distance is tight.

“ I generally shoot around f/16 to f/22 to keep the still life sharp front to back. I have also tried focus stacking shooting around f/8. This is good for macro still life where depth-of-field is limited.”

Gary likes to use his north-west facing conservatory for a lot of his work, although the dining room, local church and old stable have all come in useful so you can really shoot a still life anywhere.

As for lighting, it all depends on the subject. Gary’s used window light, anglepoise /desk lamps, a Metz 54i flash on and off camera, a couple of Pentax ‘Xtra Flash’ battery operated slaves, candlelight, Maglite for painting in areas as required, a small portable lightbox and there is the ever so useful sheets of translucent plastic parcel packing which he attaches to a wire frame mounted on a tripod – it makes a great portable large diffuser for offcamera flash.

Gary spends a fair amount of time setting up – especially the height of the adapted telescope tripod as it’s a question of adjusting all three legs and getting things level again! You should always check and re-check your still life arrangement through your viewfinder. Basically it’s doing the work of your dominant eye – changes in angles can upset the composition.

“Having spent so much time setting up I will take many shots (RAW + JPEG), gradually refining the composition and lighting until it’s as close as I can get to my original vision. Sometimes happy accidents occur so it’s worth taking as many shots as is practical.”

As most of Gary’s shots are taken in low light levels, shooting at ISO100 to maintain the best possible quality, exposure times tend to be long, so a sturdy tripod is pretty essential. He also uses an adapted telescope tripod – it does take time to set at the required height, but once set it allows very fine pan & tilt adjustments to be made. Being rock steady it’s also useful for taking bracketed shots when tackling difficult lighting situations with candlelight, a sequence of shots for focus stacking or HDR.

The shooting distance and angle depends on the size of the still life group, the general setting and the chosen lens. For most studies Gary prefers to shoot at approx 25-30 degrees (vertical) to the group.

Once ready, Gary’s sequence works as follows: 1 Observe/listen, 2 Hopefully inspiration follows! 3 Theme, 4 Visualise, 5 Choose setting/background, 6 Gather suitable items, 7 Decide on relative importance and place main one(s) generally according to rule of thirds, 8 Arrange other items, trying to create visual links e.g. One item angled towards another.

“I try not to have items threatening to leave the scene through lack of attention!”

In an ideal world the final shot should be spot on in camera, but sometimes a little tweak here or there in post-production can make a big difference to an image. In addition to the usual adjustments of levels and colour balance Gary also layers a darker conversion over a lighter one then gradually rubs through with the Eraser tool to pick out and highlight areas of detail and enhance textures.

The basic setting in a small lightbox, with wood to simulate an old table-top or shelf. Some foil is added to the right side to reflect light, filling in shadow areas a little. The foil on card reflector will be placed on top of the lightbox to reflect a little light downwards.

For this shot net curtain material is then added on the window side – adding different types and colours of material gives an infinite choice of colour and shadow pattern.

A background of wood and decorative binder is added.

The main subject is placed to take a prominent position on the ‘set’.

Black card has been added to the left to simulate a window frame upright while also controlling excessive light. Natural daylight, desk lamp or a mixture of both can be used. Later on at night the picture taking can continue using candlelight and suitable re-arrangement of the still life.

The main theme of this still life is ‘One’, the selected items are all linked to this, some in a symbolic way.

Images by Gary Hickin.

Members photos with related tags: Still Life

Posted 16/12/2010 - 19:47 Link
Gary is currently producing the very best still life work in the country. I can't think of anyone else who can touch him. What a fantastic advertisement he is for our system.
Best wishes,


"These places mean something and it's the job of a photographer to figure-out what the hell it is."
Robert Adams
"The camera doesn't make a bit of difference.  All of them can record what you are seeing.  But, you have to SEE."
Ernst Hass
My website:
Posted 18/12/2010 - 15:31 Link
Beautiful lighting. almost artistic sort of painted effect, very subtle.
Posted 19/12/2010 - 17:01 Link
The message in the tobacco tins and lung tonic is very subtle but once you get it...
This is the picture that ASH should use in all their campaigns.
Thoroughly exquisite work. This is art at its finest.
Well done Gary.
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans" (John Lennon)
Posted 28/01/2012 - 06:18 Link
Takes me back to the Golden Age of Dutch painting. The mans a 21st century Rembrandt, van Beijeren and his contemporaries would applaud this work as do I.
As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.

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