Photographing Elegant Still Life Images
As a nature/landscape photographer the quality of my images is very much dependent on the whim of mother nature and the light she decides to present to my lens. It can be a real disappointment to head to a great location only to have poor quality light spoil the scene. I've grown to accept that and cherish those moments when the light is perfect. There are times however when 'bad' light seems to lead to the best results. This 'black velvet' project is one of those cases.
The key elements are quite simple; a still life subject, muted natural light and a piece of black velvet. Although other fabrics will work, black velvet absorbs almost all light and has little to no sheen. It tends to pick up lint easily so having a lint roller handy will save some post-processing work later. Practically any subject will do but I tend to like using natural subjects from my garden. It's a nice change to be able to have greater control over the elements in your photograph. As far as lighting your subject, it may seem counterintuitive, but I find I achieve the best results under rather dull, early evening, overcast lighting - the type you would normally avoid.
The setup is incredibly simple and the results can be stunning. Here's the basic recipe:
• Black velvet cloth - 2 square yards should be plenty for most images
• a table to work on
• something to drape the cloth over to create a simple backdrop. I used a stool that I placed on the table
• Your subject - a few flowers, bowl of fruit, or anything else you want to shoot
• natural light from a window, but not direct sunlight.
• tripod - an absolute must
If you had a close look at the settings for the apple blossom photo above you may have noticed a few things. First, even though I was shooting in dim light I used a low ISO. Secondly, I utilized a fairly small aperture (f/16). I was using a relatively long shutter speed (2s), and finally, I brought the exposure value down by two stops. Let's look at those settings in greater detail.
The thing I like the best about this technique is that you can achieve great images straight out of the camera with little to no post-processing. The single light source with create some nice shadows that add dimension to your subject, and the dull light will maintain great colour saturation.
For those shots that need a little bit of work it usually involves the following;
Here are a few other black velvet shots.
The technique demonstrated within this post is only one way of shooting still life images. I really like the elegant look of a black background and velvet is by far the best choice since it reflects very little light compared with other materials. That said, it doesn't work for every subject or situation. For the whimsical shot below, a black background just wouldn't work so instead I used a roll of white studio paper.
Peter Baumgarten is a professional photographer and educator. He is also an Olympus Visionary and NiSi Official Photographer.