Window of Opportunity

Roy Hampson turned his back bedroom into a creative mini still-life photo studio for something to do on rainy days.

16/02/2011 - 16:35

Still lifes like this come in handy for submitting to Nostalgic /social history, and collectors magazines. 50mm lens and a touch of sunlight from window.

If you’re like me and occasionally find yourself stuck indoors waiting for something to be delivered, a tradesman to arrive, or for the weather to brighten up you may also be left with that constant nagging desire to take photos.

To banish away these frustrations I decided to set aside part of a spare bedroom and utilise some space for setting up and photographing still-life studies. A spot of indoor, home grown photography as a productive pastime to drive away the blues.

The room I use has a south facing window that provides wonderful natural light to filter-in through late in the afternoon. These rays even transform items of junk left in the room into quite photogenic subjects, revealing colour and textures.

I’ve used this room before, but each photo session began with the arduous chore of making space to work, then having to gather various bits of photographic equipment from all over the household. I often ended up worn out before I’d actually got down to any form of photography. Especially as the objects needed to create still-lifes were stored all over the place too.

I now leave still-life sets undisturbed for ages, allowing me to re-photograph them time and time again under different lighting situations.

Ideally, for photographic work, your room should be emulsioned white to reflect as much daylight as possible. My wife wouldn’t agree with a pure white makeover, so I compromised with a light lilac paint and kept the ceiling white. As my still-life set-ups aren’t huge elaborate affairs it doesn’t really matter about the colour of the room. A few handy white pieces of card, acting as reflectors, provide a little extra daylight if needed to illuminate or fill in shadows of my subjects being photographed.

The quality and type of natural light can vary even after a few minutes. So shooting the same subject several times on different days gives me an opportunity to choose which type of light suits a particular subject best.

I’ve always had a deep affection for photographing still-lifes. It’s good because you’re in full control, not seeking out photogenic landscapes or waiting for the light to be just right.

I can set up colourful subjects to photograph and decide how and when I want to illuminate these set-ups.

All that’s required is a flat surface close to the window, along with enough room for a camera, tripod and myself to manoeuvre.

I used an old desk placed near a window, its surface illuminated by the daylight outdoors. I added an angle poise desk lamp, which comes in handy to light my still-life set-ups when the light outdoors isn’t all that inspiring.

Now we’re ready to get down to some desktop studio photography. All that’s needed are some suitable objects to shoot.

Everything I need for creative still life sessions is stored nearby. I’ve assembled a few wooden racks to store essential photographic equipment and various objects I’ve collected over the years. In the main these are all small objects that fit into plastic storage boxes to keep them all together.

The camera equipment and accessories, my tripod and all the bits and pieces employed in my table top set-ups are stored alongside.

Although I love to practice the art of still-life photography I’ve never been keen on shooting images that the mere mention of the two words conjure up. You know, the usual stuff – a bunch of grapes, wine glasses or vases of flowers. Instead of relying on clichés like these I try to be more inventive and make use of the fact that I really love colour and like to seek out basic everyday objects for my creations.

I required a nostalgic feel to this still-life of old theatre memorabilia, so the modelling lamp from my old Courtenay studio light added a warm glow.

It’s just a matter of searching out various shops for suitable subjects to place in front of my camera lens. Pound shops, hardware stores, craft shops and stationers are just a few of my hunting grounds. It’s all about using your eyes and imagination.

I’m often called upon by a magazine to come up with one of my still-life creations to illustrate an article printed within its pages. The magazine in question is aimed at older people and its readers contribute the written material, but don’t supply any illustrations to go with it. So the magazine contacts me to supply a photo or two to bring the article to life.

The photos are simple set-ups of nostalgic themed objects - anything from old biscuit tins to a collection of cigarette cards. So I’m always on the lookout for suitable subjects of this kind to photograph.

For this reason a friend of mine scours eBay for old show business memorabilia, which is the most common requirement of the magazine. He’s certainly come up with some interesting photogenic material including old variety bills, photographs and theatre programmes – all of which came at an amazingly low cost.

I shoot the set-ups using my Pentax LX fitted with 50mm standard lens and the camera is always loaded with my favourite film, Fuji Velvia. It makes the best of those strong colours and the sharpness required for top class results. The illumination is usually just daylight
from the window.

I set the aperture at f/16 for maximum depth-of-field which results in shutter speeds of around 1/4sec. Even though I mount the camera on a rock-steady Benbo Mk1 tripod I still have to be careful of camera movement as some of the floorboards in the room are rickety, so I use a shutter release cable, hold my breath, and try not to move during the long exposures.

For the actual exposures I’ve started to use my wife’s digital camera to photograph the still-life set up first. This acts like a Polaroid where I can instantly check out any errors that might have been made. Objects that don’t look that good or positioned wrongly can then be displayed much better to improve the composition.

Even blank gaping holes that stare you in the face come to light in this pre-photography. A little tweaking can vastly improve the overall result and all can be put right before attempting any film photography to avoid wasting time and valuable film frames.

The most common error in these situations is strong highlights on reflective surfaces from plastic or paper objects. The areas of white light go a long way to ruin the whole effect, so tilting these troublesome items or holding a piece of black card out of view from the lens usually does the trick of banishing the reflections.

When assembling my still-lifes I make sure that I build right out of the edges of my set up – even if it isn’t visible through the camera viewfinder. This keeps the corners and edges of the final results packed with interest.

(Above) The desk used to photograph still-life set-ups is placed near the window to utilise the natural light. Shelves are nearby for quick access to props.
(Right) Plastic toys placed on a piece of wood painted with blue powder paint, taken with 50mm lens.
(Below) A tray that I utilise when messing with powder paints for still-lifes. I thought this also made an interesting still-life study in its own right. Also taken using the 50mm lens with window light on dull day.

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