Still Life - Something of a Learning Curve...

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#1
A few years ago, I was left tied to the house as a full-time carer to my parents... This basically put a lid on my love of landscape and outdoors photography and left me with a need to do something that was indoor, and controllable, and - lets not beat about the bush - fairly unobtrusive.

I settled upon Still Life works - mainly because I'd always had a soft spot for the rich opulence of some of the Dutch Old Masters paintings - ever since "art appreciation" sessions as part of my General Studies A-Level, seemingly eons ago now...

This post is probably as far as this project is likely to go for now - I don't think I've actually shot anything for getting on for 2 years now - I've had a couple of life changing experiences, and somehow photography (or at least taking these kind of pictures) has slightly lost its appeal...

(The whole Vanitas bit of "remember your own mortality" takes on a different meaning once you've been in the Resus Room at the hospital with the Paddles on your Chest...)



Anyhow - as you do when you start out on a project I thought "okay, what do we have around the house" - wandered around, picked up random assortment of old tat, and started to play...

Still Life - First Steps... 17th February 2011

Old Master Style Still Life
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

absolute first attempt day... no fancy lighting to speak of... the whole shot was actually done with an Anglepoise lamp, standard energy saving bulb (no fancy daylight balanced one or anything like that) and a large picture frame, that I stuck "baking parchment" on the back of to make a more diffuse light source...

Enjoyed it so much, I did lots more experimenting with tabletop and similar stuff, but decided if I was going to give this a go, I needed to get some decent lighting. As I'd worked with "proper" studio flash before, but was really "learning from step one again" I thought I'd be much better off going for the kit I was used to, rather than just flash guns - partly because of not having to keep messing around with batteries, but mainly for the "modelling lights" on decent flash heads...


So, we move on a couple of weeks


First "Serious" attempt with the Lencarta Flash kit...

3rd March 2011.

A couple of weeks, some trawling EBAY for props and we arrive here...


Old Master Trial 1
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

Then I thought... I wish that candlestick was taller...

(photoshop fixed that...)

Old Master Trial 2
by The Big Yin, on Flickr



lots of things I wasn't happy with... primarily the backdrop and the table, and the props cupboard expanded a little by the next attempt... Welcome onboard "Eddie" (the skull) plus the Churchwarden pipe, vintage playing cards (images found online, printed to card, and hand-cut) but the bigger change was the "Table" - it's actually just a Tabletop I made from the offcut of Oak Veneered MDF that the stuff's resting on in the picture above, plus some Oak Moulding Strip from the DIY sheds, all plonked together and given a good coating of dark brown oak stain.... Yes, this is part photography / lighting exploration, part arts and crafts project!


14th March 2011

Vanitas Style Still Life.
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

Now this was moving on, in quite a few ways, but I hated it. Primarily because of the horrible red curtain in the background, though the churchwarden was way too assertive as well



18th March, and the Plaster had dried on the "Stucco Rustico" wall

(it's actually half a sheet of plasterboard, blagged on the cheap from a builders merchants... One side it's a plain finished emulsioned wall, the other side has a "Stucco Rustico" treatment - basically white "patching plaster, with a couple of sample-pots of emulsion paint mixed into it, so when you put it onto the board, it goes slightly multi-coloured - it's possible to use plaster of paris instead of the patching plaster, in which case you can actually "polish" the surface and its a genuine Stucco Marble effect - but I didn't have any plaster of paris handy, and the more rustic look kind of appealed to me...)


Vanitas
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

Ahhhh that's better... little bit too much gloom, and the vase at the back was "cut off" visually at the base which I didn't like... Also, I couldn't stop Bert the Bluebottle from finishing his lunch, so had to snap while he was eating.

So, here we go again... time for another go...

2 Days later, March 20th 2011, and I got time to set things up again. Different Lemon, peeled a little better as well, otherwise, it's same as above, but with a bit better lighting and composition of the items (IMO)


Vanitas with Globe and Fruit
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

Bert's back on the skull this time, there's enouugh light to actually see the different types of fruit, and aside from the "hotspot" on the globe - i'm actually getting to the point where what I'm seeing in the camera looks something like what I'd got in my mind...


what might not be evident from the "forum sized" images, but I was really pleasantly surprised at the detail in the image... For Example - 100% crop of the "Peeled Lemon" from the shot above... I'm glad that detail comes out in a full-size image, because I went to quite a few lengths to pick up "organic" fruit where possible - as the "factory grown" pristine looking supermarket varietys of fruit wouldn't look "period correct".



And a Twist of Lemon please...
by The Big Yin, on Flickr
 
Last edited:
Messages
11,180
Name
Hi Ho Silver away !
Edit My Images
No
#4
Wow Mark, I think imo you have taken some cracking shots on the lot, love them all :)
 
Messages
10,249
Name
Robert
Edit My Images
Yes
#5
Great shots. I prefer the darker background in the first 2.
I'm sure I've seen some of these before?
 
Messages
4,777
Name
Dave
Edit My Images
No
#6
Good to see the progression explained.
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#7
Great shots. I prefer the darker background in the first 2.
I'm sure I've seen some of these before?
every single one (well - maybe not the first attempt) has been on here at some point - I basically set up this "project thread" to show the progression of a single image that I had in my head, and some of te steps I made towards realising it...

Was a really interesting month of playing around and gathering props, building things, learning how to "age" new looking stuff (the churchwarden pipe was stark white and clean as a whistle when I got it - it's aged with weak coffee and handling marks added by puttng a couple of drops of olive oil on my mits and "mime-ing" smoking the damned thing. I also "burned" the business end of the pipe in by holding it over a candle to get it black and sooty...
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#8
Good to see the progression explained.
yeah - that was the intention with the first post - I might shoot off at a tangent now and start adding in the next shots, and try and explain what (if anything) I learned with each of them....

I've left the links to Flickr BTW, because quite a few of the shots have explanations of the "symbols" used in the picture... As the props are generally similar, the descriptions are also of a similar nature, so I didn't really want to burden the initial post with it all...
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#9
Stunning work as usual Mark.
thanks - As I've tried to explain, pretty much every other shot is simply a prototype or "progress" work towards the last one in the series - each one has it's faults, each one was a learning experience, and pretty much all of them, apart from the last shot simply don't get an airing anymore... The Last one does, I've got a pretty large size print of it in my office.

I really like them, I was only thinking the other day that I'd like to do something in an Old Master style but didn't really know where to start, Out of them all the first one is my favourite, it really captures the look.
Sorry - it'll be the second image you're referring to now - I actually forgot the initial image that got it all started off. I know what you mean in a way about capturing the look - it might be something to do with the slightly "flat" or "matt" finish to the picture, taking it a little bit away from a glossy photograph... I dunno - part of me likes that look, but for this picture it wasn't really the look I wanted...

Wow Mark, I think imo you have taken some cracking shots on the lot, love them all :)
As I say, mostly prototypes or Work-in-Progress, but I'd like to think each has its own merits somewhere along the line... Thanks for commenting mate :)
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#10
So, Fast forward over the summer of 2011, to October.

Decided to do something with what could by now be referrerd to as "My Style" of shot, for the POTY competition... The Topic for October was "Past It...What once was in its glory, but now............"

So - I thought, okay, that sounds like a good subject for something "Vanitas" related - but I wanted a slightly more modern spin on things...

So I came up with a bunch of my props that were in some way "outdated"

Well - Eddie was pretty much past his best (in fact, this shot ended up with Eddie 2, a slightly less aged/weatherworn/not quite like it'd just been dug up skull... (they're both fakes BTW, ones a plaster paperweight and the other's actually a resin film-prop skull - neither have anything to do with how we dispose of spammers!) )

I'd been shooting some floral still life images, and I'd left a single long-stem rose in a vase, and it'd dried up... Well - that was a natural wasn't it.

Candles - well - unless I get "cut off" by the lecky people...

Globes - We've got Maps and GPS on our phones these days

Fob Watch - Well - how many ways are they out of date - wristwatches, smartwatches, activity trackers, or, yep - just the smartphone again.

Keys - stretching a point, but cars have keyless entry, hotel rooms you can get in with using your - yep again - smartphone - passwords and PIN numbers

then I looked in the "foreign change" box - Yugoslavian Coins, Francs, Lira... All gone one way or another.

Books - Home Medical Journal - nope, JFGI...

but I needed something to hang it all together. Something that signifys the march of progress, the passaing of the sands of time, Oh... Wait...


Sands of Time
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

This one kind of "fell together" - by now I'd got the lighting down to a bit of a formula - everything was in the composition, keeping each item clear as to what it was, and why it was there...

Couldn't resist the idea of putting the Faded rose between Eddie2's teeth though, just for a giggle.

Oh yes... how'd it do in the POTY... Bombed. 6 votes and =9th :(
 
Last edited:
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#12
I have huge admiration for your attention to detail.. that close up of the peel and the cracked dice really does look like a detail of a Dutch still life. I'd love to see these printed.
Thanks - it's fair to say that these shots aren't REALLY intended to be viewed as a 1024px longest side image on a screen... more like a metre or more across, and printed out where you can actually appreciate every wrinkle in the fruit - or count the legs on Bert the Bluebottle.

(as an aside, the adding in of a Fly on the fruit, or somewhere on the picture, is a "nod" to the artists of the era, who used to pride themselves in the realism of their paintings to the extent that they'd include a picture of a fly and wait to see the "customer" try and brush it off the picture...)

Vanitas 5d-Edit.jpg
 
Messages
4,554
Name
Simon
Edit My Images
No
#13
(as an aside, the adding in of a Fly on the fruit, or somewhere on the picture, is a "nod" to the artists of the era, who used to pride themselves in the realism of their paintings to the extent that they'd include a picture of a fly and wait to see the "customer" try and brush it off the picture...)
Absolutely, the reference wasn't lost on me. Have you actually printed them large?
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#14
I've printed a couple of them, yes - but i've also done a few "commissioned" pieces of a similar nature, and they've pretty much all gone out the door on seriously large canvases... Indeed, in a couple of cases, I actually shot the image working to the "form factor" of an antique picture frame that the client already had... Couple that with including some "trinkets" on the image that were owned by the client, they were pretty special and rather personal...

Indeed in one case, one of the items was an Engagement Ring... which hadn't been given to the intended at the point of commissioning the picture.

Proposal basically began after he "unveiled" the picture to his intended (oh, those romantic Goths...) and she said "that's lovely... hang on, that's my necklace and brooch there with that ring..." "Ahh, I've been meaning to say something about that...."

Thankfully, she said yes, so I got paid for the picture (phew...)
 
Messages
4,554
Name
Simon
Edit My Images
No
#15
I've printed a couple of them, yes - but i've also done a few "commissioned" pieces of a similar nature, and they've pretty much all gone out the door on seriously large canvases... Indeed, in a couple of cases, I actually shot the image working to the "form factor" of an antique picture frame that the client already had... Couple that with including some "trinkets" on the image that were owned by the client, they were pretty special and rather personal...

Indeed in one case, one of the items was an Engagement Ring... which hadn't been given to the intended at the point of commissioning the picture.

Proposal basically began after he "unveiled" the picture to his intended (oh, those romantic Goths...) and she said "that's lovely... hang on, that's my necklace and brooch there with that ring..." "Ahh, I've been meaning to say something about that...."

Thankfully, she said yes, so I got paid for the picture (phew...)
That's fabulous!
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#16
Speaks volumes about what a miserable old scroat I am, that the only thought in my mind when I knew this was going to happen was "oh hell, I hope she says yes, or I'll never get paid for this one..."

I'd love to share some of the commissioned stuff, but as they're so personal (maybe not all QUITE as personal as that one, but...) I made it part of my contract that they'd not get shared anywhere else - indeed, I don't even have them printed for myself or in a portfolio...
 
Last edited:
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#18
Thanks for posting this, a great 'story' and real source of inspiration.
Cheers - what's not mentioned is the hours of research that happened when I started digging into the history of these style of images - I'd see the pictures before (good old art appreciation classes) but either i'd not read the accompanying texts (quite likely) or I had and in the intervening 30+ years it'd been stored in some of the braincells I'd destroyed in the 80's and 90's...
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#19
So... next attempt - taking advantage of the "seasonal fare" (somehow, it's only around Christmas time that there's Walnuts and Port lurking in the pantry, ready to be pressed into use as props...

Still Life with Wine and Walnuts
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

This one, at the time I shot it was actually the first image of my own (as in, not a commission job) I felt that I was actually 100% happy with. Happy enough that theres a 4 foot wide canvas of it in my study... Of course, living with it for the past 5 and a bit years, and being the obsessive kind of sod that I am, I've actually managed to pick quite a few faults with it, but I've still not got to the point of wanting rid of it - even though I've been offered quite a bit over what It cost to have the print made...

Main faults are

the inclusion of a Quill Pen resting on the Bible, for no damned good reason - there's no inkpot, no signs of anything being written anywhere, ergo, no reason for it to be there other than I found a roadkill Pheasant the day before and "liberated" a couple of tailfeathers from the grim mass...

IMG_2913b-Edit-2.jpg


The Cover of the Book that Eddie is resting on is damaged, actually it's nearly detached from the spine, and it wasn't "on straight" and lined up with the pages of the book - so, it looks like the cover is just "floating" with no pages below it... that, more than anything else annoys me, because It was always drummed into me to respect books and printed matter... even now with my own text or reference books I can't bring myself to write in the margins (even in pencil), so they're always full of post-it notes...

IMG_2913b-Edit-3.jpg

and the third thing is the alignment of the "balls" at the top of the Hourglass... Every time I look at it now, I think how much better it'd have been if I'd have rotated it slightly, so that the three balls had echoed the alignment of the three "holes" in the skull (eye sockets and nose). Basically, the alignment was chosen as it was to allow the "quadruple image" of the window light in the upper chamber of the hourglass... looking back I could have rotated the hourglass AND the skull slightly and preseved the reflections whilst still getting the triangle "echoes"...

IMG_2913b-Edit.jpg
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#20
...and that shot was pretty much the final image in the whole "learning curve"... A change in circumstances a few months later i.e. My Dad's death - I was a full-time carer to him for the past ten years or more, and his death left me a) completely distraught and "adrift" and b) without a job or gainful employ... So, I'd some more critical things to do than take photographs - It basically saw me put photography to one side pretty much altogether for the next 4 years or so - I think it's only my involvment with this place that saw me start shooting again - and, even then, the restart had to be triggered by another life-changing event, this time I had health issues of my own...
 
Messages
4,777
Name
Dave
Edit My Images
No
#21
and the third thing is the alignment of the "balls" at the top of the Hourglass... Every time I look at it now, I think how much better it'd have been if I'd have rotated it slightly, so that the three balls had echoed the alignment of the three "holes" in the skull (eye sockets and nose). Basically, the alignment was chosen as it was to allow the "quadruple image" of the window light in the upper chamber of the hourglass... looking back I could have rotated the hourglass AND the skull slightly and preseved the reflections whilst still getting the triangle "echoes"...
That's annoying me now!!

Out of curiosity, how have you achieved the 'painterly' look to the image?
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#22
Out of curiosity, how have you achieved the 'painterly' look to the image?
a honest answer would be that it's 5-6 years ago, and unless I can find one of my original .PSD files with all the layers intact, I couldn't honestly tell you - I will say that there was much more done "in post" in the earlier ones, where the last ones were very much 80-90% lighting, and only a few tweaks...

Give me 10 minutes to have a look, see if I can find any of the .PSD's
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#23
well - it looks very much like nothing more complex than copying the picture into an additional layer, converting it to B&W then using that B&W layer as a Contrast mask - just apply it as a Hard either a hard light or (occasionaly) soft light overlay, and fiddle around with the opacity until the desired effect is achieved - looked at 4 of the earlier ones, and they all had the same things going on - but all at different settings, so I guess it was very much a "suck it and see" kind of thing... one thing they had in common though, was that the B&W conversion was actually quite a "flat" and not particularly contrasty conversion - certainly not the way I'd generally convert a colour shot to B&W...

As I alluded to in my earlier post, the later ones had far less "work" on them - pretty much all the first 4 shots had quite a bit of dodge and burn action going on, but the last two in particular weren't touched in that way. Guess it really was "all in the lighting"
 
Messages
4,777
Name
Dave
Edit My Images
No
#24
Thanks. (y)
 
Messages
1,965
Name
Roger
Edit My Images
Yes
#25
Really inspirational work and very interesting.
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#26
Really inspirational work and very interesting.
I'm happy with the progress I made, if anyone else finds it inspiring that's great - but in a way I just wanted to show how I'd sort of evolved a "style" of work - It's pretty "derivative" obviously, so I have a few qualms about considering it art in it's own right - but for these particular shots, I'm happy to consider them good examples of a learned craft.

(the "commission jobs" however, I have to say are far better - because they were pretty much produced with the same design criteria that the original Old Masters "ontbitjes" and "vanitas" works were... i.e. they had to show off the "bling" of the person paying the bills, and tell a story about them into the bargain... THOSE shots, I think probably DO get closer to crossing the line from craft to art - it's just my medium was "inconvenienced electrons" rather than Canvas and Oils.
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#27
And, over a year later, I've just noticed that I mentioned "Ontbitjes" in my last post...

Can't let that one go bye without adding this shot to illustrate the genre...

Ontbijtjes 1
by The Big Yin, on Flickr

Similar Props, the table, pewter server, books, candle, globe and roemmer are all there, but there's a slightly lighter feel to the shot, a little brighter and more hopeful in outlook...

Eddie's been given a day off...

For those of you wondering about the title... Ontbijt is Dutch for Breakfast - so the image is a "breakfast study" - we'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the contents of the glass to be apple juice I reckon :LOL:

for those who might want a little "behind the scenes" of what a mess these shots look off camera - the original thread is over here - https://www.talkphotography.co.uk/threads/ontbijtje.581017/

and, in case you CBA to look in the original thread, here's a cut/paste of the significance of some of the props in the shot...


While the Fruit is basically all about Fertility and Abundance , the fall of man is often denoted by pears, grapes and of course Apple. Erotic undertones are are also denoted by the plums, and apple.

Sea shells, or occasionally a living snail, are the remains of once-living animal, and hence signify death and frailty. Also, exotic shells denote Travel and the Wealth required to do so in this era - no RyanAir in the 17th Century...

The Globe, again denoting Travel and it's implied wealth and

Books: Human knowledge and its temporary nature.

Candles: often used to portray the human soul, so if the candle is extinguished, or burned low, the person would be considered either to be old, or at the latter end of their existance - a clear indication of "momento mori"
 
Messages
4,777
Name
Dave
Edit My Images
No
#28
Interesting stuff. It highlights how the 'old masters' aren't such simple pictures as might be imagined.
 
OP
OP
TheBigYin

TheBigYin

Staff member
Messages
22,763
Name
Mark
Edit My Images
Yes
#29
Interesting stuff. It highlights how the 'old masters' aren't such simple pictures as might be imagined.
oh, some of the Vanitas stuff that was commisioned pieces were often a real veiled "p*** take" of the person who bought the picture...

As now, there were people that were "new money" and who basically wanted a bit of 16/17th century "Bling"... so they'd buy some showy tableware, trinkets, baubles etc, and have a painting done with the "bling" in it, then display it in the dining room - and when they entertained they'd "mirror" the picture...

BUT, the painters included all sorts of little clues into their painting that were basically saying "you're rich but you can't take it with you..."



and I tried to do a little of that in my photo-homages...

for example, from the Vanitas with Globe and Fruit I have included a number of Vanitas symbols...

The skull, a reminder of the certainty of death;

Over Ripe Fruit, which symbolizes the decay of ageing, and the ephemeral nature of life... also a peeled lemon, which is like life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste.;

Smoke, and the almost burned out Candle which symbolize the brevity of life;

The Cards and Dice are an obvious reference to gambling - a form of excess;

The pipe is a symbol of vanity and excess;

The Bible rests on the book of Job: 14.1 - "Man that is born of Woman is of few days, and is full of trouble";

The Eyeglasses are an indication of ageing and decline;

The visible section of the Globe is showing the area from the Middle East to the Seas off China, reminding us of the Unrest and Natural Disasters that were currently unfolding in these areas when I took the shot;

In this case, the Dice have also been used to give a personal note to the picture - the 14th being my birthday... as to the significance of the reflected numbers, you'll have to work that one out yourselves


Earlier today, I was killing (lunch)time at work, watching youtube, and couldnt help to be drawn to the Vanitas imagery in this video...

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt1Pwfnh5pc


my (small amount) of knowledge in this field made the whole video even more poignant (if thats possible)
 
Top