To create unique still life photography, or photography of any kind, it’s very important to have a vision in mind prior to picking up your camera. In my opinion, this is the most important aspect when you’re striving to create something special.
Of course, the execution also needs to be excellent but without a solid idea to guide you on the shoot, your final photo can quickly come apart.
The Image we’ll be focusing on today was one I had in mind for some time. The idea was to show silky smooth clouds of cream and whiskey mixing together and engulfing a bottle of Baileys. I don’t want to cover theory too much here as it’s really a separate article, click here if you’d like to learn more. Within this article, I’ll be showing you exactly how the image above was created and I’ve got a great video for you which covers one of my favorite Photoshop Techniques, Linked Smart Objects.
Lighting and Compositing Breakdown
Firstly, I know loads of you love to hear what settings were used. In all honesty, I think amateurs can get hung up on settings when really they need to focus on theory. That said, I shot this using:
The settings for the bottle were; ISO 50, 1/160, f11. The settings for the clouds were ISO 100, 1/200, f16.
On first glance, the lighting for this shot seems pretty simple, and it is. There are two stripboxes placed either side of the bottle, a gridded spot above the bottle, and two speed lights off to the sides with reflectors covered in diffusion material.
The key part, as with any still life photo, is the positioning and power. There’s no point in me saying what power settings were used as this will always vary depending on your lights, camera settings, and subject. What I always suggest, however, is that you shoot tethered, whether into Lightroom or Capture One, so you can assess your changes as you go. And, always light your subject one light at a time.
In terms of light placement for this shot, the two stipboxes are at slight angle to the diffusion gel which creates a gradient that is then reflected in the glossy bottle. The top light has a grid attachment to avoid causing any unwanted spill, and the side lights are on a very low power setting to provide a small amount of additional fill. A very important point is the raised, transparent surface the bottle is placed upon. If you don’t do this, or something similar, you won’t get nice reflections all the way down the bottle. Check out this article on the “angle of reflection” for a thorough explanation of this concept,
With all the lights set up, we have a perfect base from which to work. Compositing is a technique you’ve probably heard of in terms of other genres of photography; it is crucial within still life as well. Seriously, learn this technique and the quality of your images will take a massive leap forward.
Our base, in this instance, was a good shot of the bottle, almost ignoring the labels. From there, we make small adjustments to our lights, use white/silver/gold card, and work systematically through every element of the bottle. We make the cap look good, then move down to the top part of the label, the Baileys logo, and so on until you have perfect images for every aspect of this bottle. In Photoshop, it’s a relatively simple process using masks to combine all of those images together.
The Cloud Tank Technique
I first heard about this technique from a video online. Someone was creating surreal, otherworldly video footage by injecting various substances into a fish tank. Doing some research, I found that this was a common “ish” technique used in the old days of Movies, before CGI, to create moody skies and other effects. You’ll have seen the technique used in Indiana Jones and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for example.
The actual Cloud Tank technique involves creating two layers of water, one fresh water and one salt. The clouds then float in between the two layers. For our purposes, I wanted to photograph clouds as a whole and hence left that step out. Getting this right involves a lot of experimentation and I’ll give you guys some important tips which I learned through much trial and error.
1) Keep your lens close to the glass. It’s an obvious one but to avoid reflections you want your lens very close to the glass of the tank
2) Use small modifiers to avoid reflections. As you may be able to tell reflections can be a pain, using small modifiers really helps with this.
3) Buy a water pump so you can quickly empty the tank. Unless you have a giant tank, the water will quickly get murky. As a result, you need a way to quickly fill and empty it or you’ll be wasting a lot of time.
Aside from those tips, the substance you use is also very important. I chose evaporated milk and food coloring but you can also use acrylic paint (I believe). Oddly enough, if you choose to use evaporated milk I found that heating the milk very slightly in the microwave produced a silkier appearance. I have no idea why I did that! You can see an example of a RAW milk cloud above.
Considerations When Retouching Composites
This was a mammoth retouch. Unless you guys want to stick around for a couple hours, I can’t take you through every stage. Instead, we’re gonna chat about some compositing theory and then I’ve got a video which takes you through an amazing Photoshop technique called Linked Smart Objects; I use it in all my composites.
Firstly, as I mentioned above, you need to make sure you have all the elements you need prior to packing up your gear. I’d advise making rough composites throughout the day so you can be 100% certain everything will work. Once inside Photoshop, it’s all about making all the elements sit together correctly. To do so, focus on three main things; shadows, color, and depth of field. Within most still life photography you’ll be ensuring that everything, front to back, is sharp. As such, for this shot at least, we don’t need to consider depth of field.
Side note – to get an entire product/scene sharp you have to focus stack. I use a piece of software called Helicon Focus. You can find a review of that, plus a 20% discount, here.
To make multiple elements sit correctly many photographers simply focus on shadows. Don’t get me wrong, adding realistic shadows, through dodging and burning or any other technique is very important, but don’t overlook color.
In the photo above you can see the edge of this Baileys bottle. The original edge has a neutral/blue color, by adding a brown tint to match the color of the clouds coming around the side a more realistic composite is achieved. When compositing, think about every surface and the way that shadows and color would play off between the two.
In the video below, I take you through a technique called “Linked Smart Objects”, I use this method in all of my composites. It’s fantastic for saving computing power, organization, and for allowing you to make global adjustments without merging. It’s the best Photoshop technique I have learned in a long time.
When attempting to create creative still life images, it’s essential to have an idea in mind prior to beginning your shoot and to ensure that you have all the elements you require once you get into the retouching stage. For effective, believable composites, focus on the three elements I mentioned above; depth of field, shadows, and color. It takes a lot of practice but if you keep at it you’ll get there in the end.
For more still life photography tips be sure to click here and check out my new YouTube channel and also have a look through all my past SLR Lounge articles, click here. If you need to brush up on your photographic theory, SLR Lounge cannot be beaten. I highly recommend the premium membership, check out everything on offer in the SLR Lounge store, click here.