Still Lifes and Abstracts

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We can find many subjects for abstract and still-life photography around the house. To capture them, we only need basic photographic gear, and imagination.

A still life is usually defined as an arrangement of inanimate objects. Our homes are full of them. We may find an existing arrangement of objects that we like, such as this vase of flowers.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost from Don Peters


We can also select objects for an image and arrange them as we wish. Not long ago I did a series of photographs, trying to depict an imaginary person’s day by showing the objects that characterized different parts of his day. This shot portrays how he spent his evenings.

Choosing and arranging objects for such an image can be much more difficult than we might think. I tried many objects and many arrangements, until I found one I liked. 

We can tell a whimsical story with everyday objects. Once I decided to stage a battle between a slinky and a top.

It’s a silly image, but I still smile when I see it.

Household objects also offer many possibilities for abstract images. The word “abstract” can mean many things. In photography, it often refers to images in which the subject is not readily recognizable. The opening image, for example, is a photograph of the shadows cast by a decorative glass bowl and a prism. It’s actually as representative as a portrait or a mug shot. Because a viewer doesn’t know what is being represented, however, we deem such images abstracts.

Translucent objects offer endless possibilities for such images. To get them, we need a strong directional light—in this case, morning sunlight pouring through a window. I arranged the bowl and the prism so that their shadows appeared on a sheet of photographic paper. I used a tripod-mounted camera and a cable release.

Photographing an unrecognizable subject has advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that we seldom have emotional reactions to subjects that we don’t recognize. Abstracts are prone to offer nothing more than an interesting or pretty surface. We have to try to deliver more.

The advantage of using an unrecognizable subject is that viewers will have no expectations regarding how the result should look. If we photograph the Grand Canyon, viewers will have certain expectations concerning how it looks. If we challenge or disappoint those expectations, we’ll encounter viewer resistance. That’s one of several reasons why my processing of landscape images is very conservative. With an unrecognizable subject, however, we can process the result as aggressively as we wish.

This image combines two photographs of a stream of smoke. I noticed that one swirl of smoke resembled a snake’s head. I added facial features, primarily with curves layers. The result is something we might see in a bad dream.

We don’t need elaborate gear to photograph household objects. These were all taken with natural light, mostly from a window. In all but one of them, I used a foam board or photographic paper as a backdrop. A tripod is essential because, with natural light at least, exposures will tend to be slow. A zoom lens is necessary so that you can frame the small subjects tightly, and avoid having to crop. You’ll quickly find that you need to clean your subjects thoroughly in advance. Every fingerprint or bit of grime will be captured by the camera,

Mostly, though, taking such images just requires looking around, seeing what’s interesting, and being imaginative.

Don Peters’ images can be seen at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio