Still Life Photography: Beating the Winter Blues

Still Life - Berries

Keep yourself busy, that’s what I say.

Last winter, off my big portrait project, I needed something to keep me entertained during these cold Michigan winter months. I needed a photo project to keep my mind and camera busy, and something that I could do inside.

When Sandhill Crane Vineyards invited me to be their featured artist for May, I felt like I needed to show some fresh work in their gallery. Wine would be fun. But what if I did more than wine still life photos? What if I made it bigger?

It ended up being my big still life project.

A few months back I was invited to speak to the Jackson Civic Art Association about the project. One of the members, Carrie Joers, dug my still life shots. More than liking them, she wanted to paint them, and figured a how-to session on setting up a still life setting would be good for her drawing and painting friends.

Here’s what I told the group in terms of restrictions and things to think about:

  1. Look at good still life paintings and photos to get an idea of what you like. I started with the Dutch masters, and went through to good product photography. Keep an idea board (I used Pinterest).
  2. Get yourself a theme. Doing random stuff is fun, but I found a theme (seasons, with food as the focus) easier to keep myself focused and organized. Pears go with winter, acorns go with fall, and colors matter, etc.
  3. Look for materials and items around the house, and keep texture in mind (the more, the merrier). Figure out what you don’t have on hand, and then go bargain shopping: yard sales, thrift stores, stuff in your parents’ attic, that kind of thing. Fabrics, containers, decorations – all that stuff can be had for cheap. To get the fresh ingredients, I went grocery shopping.
  4. Set up near a window for good light, and make your own backdrop. This was a lot of fun for me: I got to experiment with painting on a canvas, and setting a mood (here’s my simple set up at home).
  5. Experiment and practice. Move stuff around. Try a bunch of shots. Take 50 photographs to find the one killer shot.
  6. Challenge yourself. I went with one camera, one lens – and a 100mm macro lens at that. Set restrictions, stick to your theme, and don’t make it easy.

I’m making my slideshow (with notes) available as a download (PDF), since I can’t give my presentation to you, the reader. It should give you some background, some ideas, and some inspirational crumbs to follow.

Photographer Profile: Jake M (dissonantdays)

Who are you, where are you, and what do you do?

They call me “Jake” on the streets… because… it’s my name. I am located in the Pacific Northwest, which is just about one of the greatest places ever… if you travel around inside of it. I do things. I like to take pictures (surprise!), ride my bike, sleep, sulk, and eat. You know, human stuff. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and work at a hotel… so you know… living this dream.

How did you get started in photography?

I was a curious child. My mom used to take a lot of photos of our family with old point-and-shoot cameras, and I would always chew o n them…. or try to eat them or something. Once I became a teenager, I stopped trying to eat cameras, and started using them for their intended purpose. I took a few (film) photography classes at my school, and really enjoyed all the processes involved with taking photos and printing them.

What do you like about your photography?

I don’t really like. I think it’s a little dramatic. I think I’m good at being dramatic with my photos… but do I like that? Ehhhh… The things I like about my photography are the things that people don’t get to see. Photography is and will always be (hopefully) cathartic for me.

A lot of your work focuses on nature, especially at the macro level. I love your sense of depth and layers, and your color work. Where do you get inspiration for your style/ideas?

I tend to be a fairly reserved, quiet, non-confrontational person… and so I suppose photography is my form of therapy/anger management. I feel like I’m venting when I’m rummaging around out in the freezing cold taking pictures. I feel the same when I’m editing my photos. It’s my time to be in control.

What kinds of themes do you explore with your work?

I think most of my themes (for me) are emotional in nature (get it!?). Obviously, nature is a big part of that. I consider myself an environmentalist, so a lot of my photos end up being some kind of dissonant personification of nature reflected off myself. I hope that makes sense.

Any upcoming projects or shoots you’re working on?

My work is kind of inhibiting when it comes to making future plans. I do have plenty of locations I am planning on visiting (with a camera) when I get some time. The Bruneau Dunes and Payette River are certainly within my grasp.

Check out Jake’s Tumblr, and check out his other photography Tumblr, @activeoblivion for more good work.