Classic window-light still lifes

Let the natural soft light in!

Like most photographers my greatest photographic joy is to travel to exotic locales where I can take pictures of llamas dashing through the ruins of Machu Pichu, surfers hanging five on the curls at Big Sur, or skyscrapers soaring in any big city.


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Unfortunately those big trips are few and far between so I need another way to scratch my photographic itch (for me it’s more like a rash) on a regular basis.

I do that by setting up still lifes next to a window. That way, regardless of the weather, I can take pictures almost any day of the year. Not only doesn’t it cost me a dime, it sometimes leads to a nice snack.


What subjects make for a good still life? Just about anything that offers visual appeal and is smaller than a basketball. Recall some of those old master Dutch still life paintings, and you’ll remember they depict flowers, seed pods, fruit, pies, baskets, feathers, pocket watches, old keys, and so on (including a fair number of shot game animals). My personal favorites are pears for their sensuous curves and milkweed seed pods for their fluffy emerging seeds.

Once you decide what to photograph, here’s how. Choose a window with the type of light you want (I prefer soft sunless light, although the warm light of a setting sun can be attractive). If the wall that forms the background is busy, use a large poster board or sheet of fabric for your background. Use a table to hold the subjects, arrange them to please your eye, put the camera on a tripod, and consider using the self timer if the shutter speed is slow (that way your finger won’t shake the camera and blur the picture). Because window light comes from one direction, the sides of the subjects facing away from the windows may be too dark. Use a white piece of paper, poster board, or reflector disc to bounce light back into the shadows, lightening them and revealing detail.

Because you’re fairly close to the subject in most still lifes, try using a smaller f/stop, such as f/11 or f/16, so you achieve front-to-back sharpness.

With a little practice, you’ll soon be creating your own masterpieces.


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