Summer is a great time to have a camera. With long, bright days, trees full of fruit and flowers and beautiful sunsets, it’s a photographer’s paradise. So let’s talk about two areas of photography that can really up your Instagram game and that are perfect for summer—still life and twilight. Why not turn all those beautiful fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market into an art project before you turn them into dinner? Or, while enjoying the long, warm days, stay out until twilight and get some amazing shots when the light is at its best. (Did you know professional photographers’ favorite time of the day to shoot is when the sun is rising or waning? That’s when the light is most interesting.)
How to Shoot Great Still-Life Photos
Artists have been fascinated with the creative possibilities of the still life as far back as the 16th century, and the possibilities have captured the imaginations of photographers from the early-19th century to present day, making it one of the oldest photographic traditions. Today you simply need a pocket camera or a smartphone to create interesting and imaginative still-life compositions. It’s one of the few areas of photography where you are completely in charge of your subject and you can spend hours or days perfecting individual images.
Here are some simple tips that you can use with any camera, including a smartphone…
Choose objects that tell a story. Your pictures will be more enjoyable to create and hold more interest if the objects that you photograph have an emotional connection—your dad’s favorite fly-fishing gear, perhaps. My mother collected antique glassware, and I frequently include it in my photos. Alternatively, I’m always on the prowl for compositions that already exist. I shot the carafe and water glasses shown here while sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris.
Start simple. Begin with a single object, and introduce new elements one at a time. Everything from lighting to design gets exponentially more complex as you add elements. One of your goals is to make people study each object more carefully, so the fewer things you include, the more you force viewers to examine each one. Experiment with ideas before you bring out the camera. Give your compositions depth by placing shorter objects in front and taller ones behind. Consider the interplay of object textures—do you want them consistent or varied? Layering objects provides the eye room to explore and reason to linger.
Use natural light. Light from a north-facing window is a favorite of photographers because of its even, shadowless lighting, but light from any window works. Set up a composition, and see how the color and direction of the light change it at different times of day. You can open up shadowy areas with reflectors made from white poster board or cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil. Diffuse strong window light for a softer look by using layers of sheer curtain.
A few more tips…
•Use a tripod. Tripods steady your camera in low light and allow you to play with a composition while keeping the same framing.
•Play with angles and compositions. Look at your composition from unexpected angles—break out the step ladder and shoot a bowl of peppers from above, for example. Play around with plenty of different backgrounds and surfaces. Anything from an old curtain to rustic barn wood can make an interesting backdrop.
The Moodiness of Twilight
Twilight can be an unexpectedly rich and moody time for photography, and yet it’s often overlooked by amateur photographers who put away their cameras once the sun has set. In photo circles, the brief sliver of daylight between sunset and darkness (or darkness and sunrise) is referred to as the “blue hour” because absent the direct rays of the sun, the light provides a very cool palette. This coolness, combined with colors from the sunset’s afterglow, can create some lovely images.
Cloudless moonlit nights work well if you’re trying to capture the ethereal look of a moonlit landscape. But be careful to exclude man-made light sources in this scenario. Traffic or building lights may detract from a naturally lit scene.
Many types of landscapes also are naturals for twilight photography. City skylines are especially dramatic because the darkening blue sky contrasts nicely with the warm building lights as they flicker on. Twilight is my favorite time to photograph carnival rides for the same reason. Ponds and harbors also are attractive, particularly on calm days, because the still water mirrors any lingering colors in the sky.
Low-light solutions. You’ll want to use a longer-than-normal exposure when capturing low-light conditions, so a tripod is essential. A tripod will keep stationary subjects sharp, but remember that any moving subjects (auto taillights or a spinning Ferris wheel) will still blur—that’s something you can exaggerate creatively with an exposure of several seconds or more.
Shift to manual focus. Many digital cameras, including most mirrorless cameras and smartphones, use a focusing technology called contrast detection in which the camera uses subject contrast to help set focus. Because contrast is inherently low at twilight, switching to manual focus (if you have the option) is more reliable. No manual focus? Aim at a bold contrast edge—where black tree limbs meet the brighter sky, for example—to help your camera “understand” what you’re focusing on. There also are many apps for iOS and Android that help with manual focus.
Exploit creative white balance. One way to heighten the drama of twilight is by taking your camera’s white balance out of the auto mode and setting it manually. When you’re shooting in auto, the camera tries to neutralize the very colors that you want to capture. Instead, experiment using the “tungsten” option. (Every camera is different, so it’s best to check your manual if you don’t know how to do this.) This setting adds additional blue to scenes because it’s designed to reduce the warm color of incandescent bulbs. If you’re using your phone, there may be a slider to adjust the white balance in the camera app or you can play around with the filters that pretty much every smartphone camera now comes with. You may see a filter called “tungsten” or “cool” or something similar. If it looks blue, give it a shot or two. You also can check your phone’s app store for a free app for filter effects. The ultimate option? Shoot in the RAW mode. When your photo is saved in the RAW format, you can change the white balance setting after the fact, providing almost infinite color-balance options. And yes, there’s an app for that!