Still Life” – fine art at its finest?

Still life images are a fundamental skill for anyone with a camera – the reasons are many but essentially a still life is the rare opportunity to take an image totally under the photographer’s control, and in some respects similar to painting. The subject matter is inanimate – it may be flowers, glass, rocks, sea shells, food such as fruit, anything non-moving and typically arranged in a small group, often on a table or desk-top. The arrangement of the components, the lighting, whether high key or low key, whether to shoot in colour or in black and white, what depth of field and thus which camera settings to use, and even the angle to take the shot, are all in the control of the photographer, and the success (or failure) of the resulting image is entirely his or her work.

So having the idea for the intended image, planning, and choice of objects to be photographed, their arrangement and their lighting are the essential skills. But the great advantage of still life work is that it is inanimate and doesn’t move – if the image doesn’t work the first time, then re-arrange, add to or take away some of the components, and take it again – you the photographer have the time and opportunity to take complete control and to practice until satisfied with the final image.

There are no rules as regards the equipment to use for a still life – any camera or mobile phone can take a still life image – but perhaps it is appropriate to suggest a couple of items. The first is the use of a tripod which will ensure a stable platform for your shot, and enable repeat attempts with different camera settings or different compositions to get the exact shot desired. The second (though less important) is to use a lens in the range of 50mm-100mm – this will give a perspective very similar to the way the human eye sees things.

Lighting may be daylight or flash, whilst the use of “light modifiers” will be helpful in building your image. Modifiers may be reflectors – inexpensive ones are available such as kitchen foil or white card to “bounce” light into a specific area of the shot to give emphasis to your composition – or net curtain to diffuse and soften the light, or even black card to reduce or stop the light hitting certain areas of the shot. Remember that you are trying to build impact and atmosphere so lighting and the placing and intensity of your highlights and shadows will be critical to the final image. The use of the on-camera flash is probably not the best option as this tends to result in harsh shadows and very flat lighting.

I have written previously on the magic of monochrome. Removing colour from an image means other elements such as contrast, texture, tone, and shape all become priorities in your composition, so plan accordingly.

However, the best shot will not be dependent on the equipment you use but on your imagination – your idea and vision of the intended image, and whether you have the creativity to make it happen. Cameras take the image in fractions of a second, but a still life takes time to create. As with many aspects of life, practice and more practice will help develop technique. The images accompanying this article are all by Ron Shimmin, a life member of the IOMPS and one of our most meticulous and skilled workers.

However you take your images, if you like the result, then good enough – your shots will provide pleasure and enjoyment. Check out our website – and our Facebook page for more ideas to stimulate and inspire your photography.

Chris Blyth

Old Compass Set by Ron Shimmin
Tommy Big Eyes by Ron Shimmen
Cocktail Time by Ron Shimmin

The Magic of Mono

For those of us of an older generation, photography started as a black and white medium – in a cupboard under the stairs or in a bathroom draped with black-out cloth, smothered in the smell of developer and fixer, our prints hanging from a clothes line hung over the bath or a basin….  and it remains a strong and perhaps nostalgic memory. And whilst black and white images are nowadays very simple to produce – the press of a button on a mobile phone or a click on our computers – for many of us, the images retain their fascination and power.

So – what images work best in black and white and when does one choose to make an image monochrome rather than colour? I would suggest it requires a critical eye for an image and an understanding of the benefits of one versus the other.

The human eye sees in colour – and this can be used creatively by the photographer to catch the viewer’s attention or suggest time and mood. A bright colour such as red or yellow for your subject will draw the eye, whilst a warm colour may suggest summer or cool colours such as blue are perhaps appropriate for winter or to infer sadness and loneliness. And some colours do not translate into monochrome very satisfactorily – reds and greens are very distinct in a colour image but tend towards similar tones when transformed into a mono version, for example.

However, photography is all about the use of the light – and a mono image is seen only in black and white, emphasising the essentials of light and shade in the purest of terms. However, an image mainly of tones of grey will appear flat and lifeless, so contrast, with a full range of tones (including deep black and a good white) is usually necessary for a satisfying monochrome image. The photographer will use the lighter areas of the image to draw attention, the darker areas and deep shadows to add presence, atmosphere and drama. And some photographers, particularly fine art workers, often have a preference for working in black and white as the removal of colour gives mono images an almost timeless quality. So portraits, whether of people or of animals, are a popular choice for the use of monochrome – the light and shade on the face and head giving modelling and depth to the image, the sitter’s mood and character in particular exposed for all to see. But monochrome suits many different genres – still life such as flowers and architectural interiors as the ones shown here for example – and is well worth exploring for everyone with a camera.

If your camera permits, shoot in RAW as this retains maximum detail, and allows the photographer the greatest manipulation of that information in producing the final image.

In the end, of course, the choice of colour or monochrome is down to you, the photographer, your creativity and your vision of the intended image – but whichever it is, make sure the choice adds something to the image in terms of mood, impact and its “wow” factor.

However you take your images, if you like the result, then good enough – your shots will provide pleasure and enjoyment. Check out our website – and our Facebook page for more ideas to stimulate and inspire your photography.

Chris Blyth

In Safe Hands – Barry Murphy
Abbezzzia Sant Antimo, Tuscany by Ruth Nicholls
Yin Yang by Nigel Owen


When the going gets tough….”

In the absence of a regular weekly report of our meetings and in the current unusual circumstances, the IOM Photographic Society is taking the opportunity to provide some insight into the art of photography and some techniques and guidelines you may find interesting and helpful.

If you only ever use the “automatic” setting on your camera, then depth of field will perhaps prove challenging as understanding and taking advantage of this concept and using it creatively requires switching off the camera’s auto function and using the manual camera controls of aperture, ISO and speed settings.

Put simply, depth of field is the distance between the closest and furthest objects in your image which appear sharp – anything closer or further away becoming less and less sharp and ultimately becoming totally defocussed. In a landscape shot, for example, you would probably want the image to be sharp from foreground to background, whereas for a fast-moving action shot, it would usually be essential that the subject is in focus but perhaps unnecessary for the background. Getting those two images with a “correct” exposure and focus requires an understanding of both the aperture and the speed settings (ignoring for the moment the ISO setting).

The aperture is the “hole” in the lens through which light passes to the sensor or film plane – it can be varied from wide open (a setting usually around f2.8 or f4.0) to a very small aperture (usually f16.0 or f22.0). The settings are in a sequence – F2.8 f4.0 f5.6 f8.0 f11 f16 f22 – known a “stops”. From f2.8 onwards, each stop reduces the amount of light entering the camera by half (so f4.0 is half the light of f2.8).

To compensate and to ensure the equivalent amount of light enters the camera for the exposure, the speed settings must then be doubled for each reduction in stops – f2.8 at 1/500th is the same amount of light as f.4.0 at 1/250th, for example. The tricky bit of the physics of a lens is that the depth of field changes with the aperture – so a wide open lens at f2.8 has a very shallow depth of field whereas a setting of f16.0 or f22 gives a very wide depth of field. The two small images with this article show the changing DoF with two different aperture settings. All of which means that a landscape shot (a non-moving subject) is probably best shot on a tripod with a small aperture such as f11or f16 whereas the action shot is best done with a wide open lens at f2.8 when the speed setting is at its fastest and the action is captured.

And one last comment – the closer you are to your subject, the narrower the depth of field..….

Given the current travel restrictions, why not try a few shots in the garden – maybe a family member sitting in a chair, using different apertures as an experiment – you’ll soon get the hang of this difficult concept!

However you take your images, if the result is pleasing and you like it, then good enough – your shots will provide a record of the day or the event and always be there to remind you of it.

Chris Blyth

Garden Birds

Given the instructions to avoid going out, now is a good opportunity to photograph the birds in your garden – they are truly beautiful, each species has its own special charm, and they make great subjects. But getting a high-impact shot can be difficult – many species are shy of allowing humans into close contact and immediately fly off if approached. And most birds are actually quite small, so getting a high resolution shot which includes good feather and eye detail requires a really good lens, typically something in the range of 200mm – 500mm (either that or lots of luck!). If you don’t have a really long lens, a “teleconverter” (sometimes called a “multiplier” or “lens extender”) can be an economical way of increasing the focal length of a lens – usually by a factor of 1.4x or 2.0x – so a 200mm lens with a 2.0x converter would be equivalent to a 400mm lens. Their disadvantage is a reduction in the light entering the camera so need a larger aperture setting or an increase in the ISO setting to compensate. There are often good deals available on ebay or amazon.

Having garden feeders to encourage the birds into your garden will provide a ready source of talented models for your images – robins in particular are very approachable and even larger birds such as gulls will allow reasonably close contact when food is on offer. .

Patience, quiet, and minimal movement will prove helpful in “getting the shot”, whilst the guidelines on composition given in an earlier article apply just as with a landscape image, so the “Rule of Thirds” is a good starting point.

Whether to go for the really close-up image or a more distant shot with a landscape or seascape environmental context is up to you – I have provided several images to show the sort of shot possible. It helps the impact if the background can be kept relatively uncluttered (if not totally defocussed) so the viewer’s attention is drawn to the bird – and whilst movement in flight may render the wings out of focus, it is vital that the eye stays in sharp focus, ideally with that little catchlight sparkle too. So, camera settings of a wide aperture (say f2.8- f4.0), ISO at 200 or 400 for maximum quality and reduced noise, and a fast speed setting of at least 1/500th are suggested. And as a “piece de resistance”, the bird in action, singing, catching its prey or feeding its young will make for a stunning image, if not a masterpiece. Good luck with your photographic efforts – and be aware that you’ll likely take dozens of shots before getting a shot that really pleases. Bird photography is not easy!

Chris Blyth

Wren – by Steve Johnstone
Robin – by Steve Johnstone


The “wee beasties” in your garden…

Following on from a previous article about depth of field, this week we will look at photographing insects and the “wee beasties” to be found in the garden – spiders, beetles, butterflies, and even snails for example. The advantage is that they are right in front of us even if sometimes hard to see – and the experience of trying to photograph them will not only provide you with some intriguing photo opportunities into the world of nature but also demonstrate their fascinating variations of features and colours. There is beauty to be found here albeit on the small scale – a butterfly’s wing, the curl of a snail shell, the colours of a beetle.

The first requirement is obviously to find your subject. And they are everywhere – in the bushes, on the ground, or in the grass. So keep your eyes open! The next is perhaps to identify what you are looking at – and that is often not easy but the internet is usually a good source of help, with specialist sites providing images for comparison and even helplines for advice. But why the need to identify? Well, not all of these little creatures are harmless – if they feel threatened, they may bite or sting, sometimes quite painfully so require you wearing gloves and other protective equipment or even moving away and giving them space. Identifying the creature will also enable you to develop your knowledge – of their habitat, their feeding, whether they bite or sting, life cycle, time of day likely to be active etc. Butterflies like sunshine and particular flowers to feed on for example, whilst flies are slow to move on cold mornings so easier to photograph.

Patience and slow, quiet movement are essential! Your subjects are unlikely to follow instructions to “keep still” and rapid movements will disturb them so they fly off. You just have to wait for the best moments to take your shots – and lots of them – before getting that “magic moment” when all comes into focus.

Wide angle lenses are probably not a good choice, given the generally small size of the subject. Instead, lenses capable of focussing as close as 9-12 inches for example, in particular capable of capturing images at a 1:1 magnification (a “macro” lens ideally in the range 100-180mm), or a lens or a telephoto in the range 200-400mm where you can stand away from the subject but still get a good size record shot would all be suitable.

On the subject of depth of field – the closer you get to the subject, the shallower this becomes, making it difficult to get the whole subject into sharp focus, even when using a small aperture such as f11 or f16. Shooting side-on to an insect such as a damsel fly will help, whereas a head-on shot will probably have only a tiny part of the head in focus, the body and wings increasingly out-of-focus. In such conditions, keeping the eyes in focus is key to a shot with real impact.
You may also find that you are taking images in quite subdued lighting conditions (under trees or in bushes for example), so an additional source of light may be required – increasing the ISO setting, the use of a flash gun or even a piece of white card to bounce some extra light on the subject will all help, in particular if using a small aperture as suggested when a longer exposure is required.

Lastly, be patient – insect photography takes time and can be very frustrating, but get it right and the results can be a delight.

However you take your images, if you like the result, then good enough – your shots will provide pleasure and enjoyment. Check out our website – – for more ideas to stimulate and inspire your photography.

Chris Blyth

Side view of common blue damselfly – Chris Blyth
Snail – Chris Blyth
Weevil by Jeremy Broome-Smith