Sunday, February 14, 2010

Conceptual Still Life

In this article we take a look at creating Conceptual Still Life/Product Photography. Some of the examples include table-top lighting and photoshop tricks to create snow, fire, water drops, splashes and how to defy gravity. Take a look inside for tips and techniques to acieve these various effects.

Ways to Creative Product Lighting

Lets take a look at the lighting first. Once your background has been put into place, it makes a lot of sense to position the products reasonably near it, so separate lighting will not be required for the subject and the background. The key light for this kind of photograph is usually a medium sized soft-box, either 80cm or 1m square. This is normally placed at about 45 degrees to the right or left of the camera, and should also be slightly above it. Make sure that the subject does not cast a shadow on the background. If this happens, either move the background back or move the subject forwards until the shadow is removed.

The next light is the 'fill' light. Its function is to lighten shadow areas in the set, and to reduce overall contrast to an acceptable level. Again, this light can be a medium sized soft-box. The ideal fill light should be large, comparable in size to the subject, and give soft, diffused lighting. The classic position for the fill light is as near as possible to the camera lens, and positioned at the same height. This is the most used set-up for still life/product photography. In the water drop/ice shot, and the X-hale mint shot below, we have used a seamless silver paper as the backdrop. This reflects the light back thus lighting the transparent subjects like ice and bottle etc. thus eliminating the need of a fill light.

Defying Gravity

In this shot, we used the softbox as the main light and white sheets as reflectors to fill in shadows. Though at a first glance, people might think it is completely 'photoshopped'. Then they try to detect traces in the shadows where the plates touch each other, and it looks too real to be photoshopped, and finally get confused as to how it was done. The trick for a seamless photo editing, as always, is to get as much as you can in the camera, and then use just a little photoshop to clean it. So, what you see in this image is 90% real. Take a look at the actual shot below.

What we did here is we stuck the bowls and plates at the joint with a re-usable adhesive called Blu Tack. This is kind of like a bubble gum material in a very light blue/neutral gray color and holds the plates firmly for a few seconds and the bottom bowls for even a couple of minutes minutes. It comes out easy without stains once you are done. It is a must have for Still Life, Food and Jewellery photography.

Blu-Tack Re-usable Adhesive
Blu Tack did a good job of holding the bottom 3 plates, but the top one it held only for a second before it started falling. So we gave the top bowl some support with a scale...could have been any long thing in neutral or white color so as not to leave a color cast on the bowl where it supports. It was cleaned out in photoshop finally, making our bowls on the top balance in mid air.

Freeze Frame

The concept should be clear from the visual here. An advert for X-Hale mints. The execution required to have a cool tone overall, and yes, to freeze the Tabasco bottle!

 We used a silver paper background and just one light with a softbox. The silver creates intresting shades and also gives fill light on the subject. Now for the interesting part..... creating snow particles on the bottle. The snow that you see on the frozen bottle, is nothing but salt. What we did was take a lot of salt on a sheet of paper, and roll the Tabasco bottle on it. But before you do that, you will need to spray the bottle with an adhesive. We used the one from 3M.

45 General Purpose Spray Adhesive: 16 Oz.

If the first coat of salt is not enough, do this step again to add more of the effect.

Water Droplet Shape

This is a simple photoshop bevel effect used to create water drops. Here we pushed it a bit to create the shape of the map of India.

We shot everything from the ice to the water drops the way it is. The spot where the map is was actually empty. We outlined the shape of the map in photoshop and after making sure that the perspective is correct, we copied it on another layer. Then we added the bevel effect on it, making sure the direction of light matches the original image. A little bit of of shading and playing with transparency of this layer gave us what we were looking for. The final image was later toned with a bit of cyan. You can play around with various water drop shapes.

Yin Yang

This was one of the favorite and most creative product shoots which combines food and still life.

As you can see, the shooting part was fairly simple with just one softbox. See the food photography lighting technique here. The trick here is all photoshop. The camera was set on a tripod and first we shot the empty pan. The next was just the yolk of an omlette made on another pan....and transferred carefully on our main pan. Then we got rid of the yellow and transferred the sizzling egg white in the pan, the above shape was (approximately)cut with a pizza cutter. The empty pan formed the base layer in photoshop followed by the egg yellow and white layer. The egg yellow was slightly cleaned and repositioned. The egg white was reshaped to perfection and cleaned.


You can see the softbox reflection on the fish bowl. Another light was used for the background through a grid.    First we shot the gold fish in the bowl with the camera set on the tripod. Then we removed the fish, and shot just the bowl. To create splashes, first we tried throwing ice cubes in the bowl. It created very good bubbles inside the water but the splash outside was too small from what we were trying to achieve. 

So, we had our assistant get a glass and made him stand just out of the frame on the right holding the glass upside down in the bowl dipping in the water halfway. On the count of three he removed the glass with rapid force straight up and out of the frame(most of the time) creating a big splash coming out of the bowl. We took a lot of splashes to get the perfect one. The bowl had to be cleaned every time between retakes. (You can also do this yourself by putting the camera on self timer mode of 10-20 sec. and on the last beep, pull out the glass.) The different layers of the bowl, fish and splashes were mixed in photoshop for the final image. It was easy as the camera angle and lighting were constant through out.

One of the effects created in photoshop so realistically will be explained in-depth in some later tutorial. Basically smudging and liquifying in three different layers and three different colors.....pale yellow, yellow and orange. These layers are blended together with the screen mode to make it look like a real flame. You can also photograph a flame in a black background and liquify it to add a more dynamic shape and use it. Take a look at the following layers to know what was done in photoshop.

The same background flame layer was placed on the cutout of the bottle, with the blend mode set to screen. To create a foggy glow and haze, we made another copy of this layer with the new copy also in screen mode, and put a heavy gaussian blur to it. The opacity of this haze layer was reduced to 45%, to give just a subtle effect.


  1. Very interesting. It made really good reading.

    Nice photography too.


  2. Incredible BLOG!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!