Category Archives: Still Life

Articles relating to still life photography

2015 Retrospective: Intense and Focused

Now that we are well into the year 2016, it is time for a retrospective look at my photographic journey in 2015.

The year can be summarised as intense and focused, as the majority of images I captured during 2015 were in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where we embarked upon an incredible seven-day safari with our friend and safari leader Mario Moreno.

Looking at my statistics, I shot more images in 2015 than I did in the years 2013 and 2014 combined.

Had the Kenya trip not happened, I suspect I would not have shot much.

Photographically, my year started quite late — near the end of April — with a macro/still life image of a new watch I had been given:

Certina 1888

Certina 1888

We had some family in town from overseas, so I took the opportunity to shoot some cityscape images from a location at which I had not shot before.

One afternoon we headed to the Glebe apartment and I waited for the right light to capture some views of the beautiful city skyline.

This was the result:

Dusk Descendence

Dusk Descendence

And a little later, during blue hour:

The View Sucks

The View Sucks

I also took the opportunity to capture this tight view of the Anzac Bridge as twilight fell:

Anzac Bridge

Anzac Bridge

In May, we all had an outing at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbour.  I took a camera and a couple of lenses, but I did not shoot a great deal of images.

This image of a kangaroo was one of the more pleasing images I captured on the day:

One of Skippy's Mates

One of Skippy’s Mates

Later in the month, I felt compelled to head out and shoot another cityscape.

In the mid-to-late afternoon, I scouted for some vantage points along the western side of Circular Quay, and finally settled on the observation deck of the International Passenger Terminal, which affords a higher view, and additionally was empty and free from passers by.

I waited for the blue hour, and captured this view of Sydney which I have not seen (or photographed) before.

Circular Quay West

Circular Quay West

It had been a slow, but pleasing enough start to the year.

In June, the photography I had been eagerly anticipating since we booked the trip the previous year, would finally happen.

We headed to Kenya to spend seven days in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we would re-ignite our passion for wildlife and landscape photography.

So far I have published over 100 images from that trip, so I will not publish a great deal of those images in this article; but as the trip brought us a lot of first-time encounters, I will instead present some selected highlights from the trip.

We were based in the luxurious eco-lodge Elephant Pepper Camp, which afforded us total isolation and positioning right in the middle of where the action was.

This is a view of one of Elephant Pepper Camp‘s honeymoon/family tents:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

And this is a view of the camp at twilight, depicting the dining tent, lounge and camp fire:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

Highlights of the trip included one of my finest bird images, which was my first frame of only two I snapped while this pied kingfisher was bobbing up and down in flight:

Suspended

Suspended

Just about every day, we were treated to lions — most prominently, the Cheli Pride.  One of the fantastic things about the Cheli Pride was its abundance of cubs, and on this trip, it was our first time seeing wild cubs, such as this cute little lion:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

On one afternoon, we were fortunate enough to spend some time, in pleasing, afternoon light, in very close proximity to a lilac-breasted roller, where I captured this and a number of other images of the national bird of South Africa:

Plumage

Plumage

Naturally, a safari in Africa encompasses more than just wildlife — there are amazing opportunities for stunning, iconic landscape shots, and we certainly took advantage of that, rolling out into the plains in the pre-dawn darkness before other safari-goers were even awake.

This was one of my earlier landscape shots, captured during a moody morning:

The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

On another morning, we captured the ‘postcard shot’ of a rising sun behind a lone acacia tree:

Sunrise on the Mara

Sunrise on the Mara

This particular tree is known as Mario‘s Tree, as Mario often photographs it.  We certainly did — several times — including one particular morning which greeted us with a colourful sky:

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

On only our second day on this trip, we were treated to a number of first-time encounters.  In the morning, we encountered our first Mara leopard, who was also also the first leopard we had seen in a tree; and in the evening we found our first male lion of the trip, again a member of the resident Cheli Pride.

We had gone back to Leopard Gorge to look for the young male cat, when we found a large, dominant male lion in the area instead.  If the leopard was around, he was hiding and would not be seen.

Here is the beautiful young male leopard perched high in an elephant pepper tree:

Leopard of the Day

Leopard of the Day

We not only encountered one male lion, but two!  His brother also emerged from the distance and joined him for some bonding and lazing before the night‘s hunting commenced.

Here is one of the stunning Cheli Pride males we encountered:

Surveying

Surveying

The day after we met the dominant males, we encountered numerous members of the pride, minus the males, feasting on a zebra kill the next afternoon.  This was another ‘first’ for us, as we had hitherto never seen lions feasting on a kill.  It was quite a sight, as this wider image shows:

Feast

Feast

The next day, we spent a dramatic afternoon with the Cheli Pride again, firstly as we encountered one of the mothers on her own, out in the open, calling for the pride.

Here is an image I captured of the lioness in the warm afternoon light:

Cheli Mother

Cheli Mother

Before long, a mighty rainstorm descended upon us, which made the big cat uncomfortable, as well as presenting challenges for us.  As the rain began to subside, camera shutters sounded like rapid gunfire as we captured action shots of the lioness shaking the water from her head.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

Towards the end of the trip, we spent one day further south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we experienced yet another first.

So far, the one species of African big cat we had never seen in the wild was the cheetah.  On that trip, we finally encountered wild cheetahs.  It was an exciting experience to firstly see them from a distance, and then drive to position ourselves optimally to be ahead of where they were headed.  It became more exciting as the cheetahs got closer, and I had a few opportunities to photograph the family, which consisted of a mother and four sub-adults.

Here is one of the nicer images I captured of these amazing big cats:

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

It had been a long wait, but finally we spent some time with wild cheetahs.

Our next morning in the Mara consisted of a portrait shoot with Maasai tribesman called Baba, with whom we travelled to Mario‘s Tree, where we shot some dramatic silhouette portraits of him as the sun rose on one of our final days in the Mara.

Here is one of the more striking images I captured during the session:

Baba the Maasai

Baba the Maasai

Our final evening in the Mara brought something we could have never predicted, and something which is quite rare to see: mating leopards!

At first, we spotted a young female leopard high in a tree during the warm afternoon light, but within a short time, a large, amourous male emerged from the thicket, and the two leopards began (or continued with) their ritual of rapid, exposive mating sessions, which can last for days.

We spent the rest of the drive witnessing this amazing sight, and the following image captures an intense moment as the female expresses her displeasure at the male’s advances:

Growl of the Leopardess

Growl of the Leopardess

The next morning was our final, somewhat subdued game drive in the Mara before we would fly back to Nairobi for a night and another day before departing Kenya.  We were fortunate to encounter a small pod of hippos in a watering hole, where I had the opportunity to capture some relatively close-proximity images, such as this large hippo on the bank, less than 30 metres away:

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

Before too long, this amazging photographic journey came to its conclusion.

After the intensity of our Mara trip, and my generally low photographic output before the trip, it was not surprising that I did not shoot much afterwards.  In fact, I shot only one more image for the remaining six months of the year!

The one image I did capture was a macro image of some red and orange roses to commemmorate our anniversary.

Fifth

Fifth

And so concludes my photographic journey for 2015.  It indeed was an intense and focused year, with Kenya dominating my photographic output, but with a few other images here and there.

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2014 Retrospective: Low-Output Year, but Such is Life

While we’re not quite done with the year 2014 yet, it’s close enough to publish a retrospective of the year from a photographic perspective.

Firstly, it was my most low-output year on record; but with other commitments and interests, and a waning interest in photography, I can live with that.

I only published 32 images shot this year.  2013, despite two overseas trips, was also low in output, with some 50 images online.  In the years before, I had a much higher output rate.

For a number of years, seascape photography was my main interest.  This year I didn’t shoot a single seascape, and I’m not too bothered by that.  I did it for years; everyone’s doing it, and I cannot be bothered any more.  It’s always there, and I can always return to it if the interest re-ignites; but for now, it’s dormant.

The year 2014 started with a trip to Adelaide and the McLaren Vale wine region — it was a wine trip, not a photography trip; but I shot a few images at the Penfolds Magill Estate winery.

Penfolds Magill Estate Winery

Penfolds Magill Estate Winery

Also early in the year, we headed to the Australian Reptile Park, where I shot one decent image of a Tasmanian devil.  It was more of a fun day out with some close friends, but I dragged a camera and a few big lenses along, and shot in dreadful light.

Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian Devil

Around Valentine’s Day, the macro lens came out of hibernation, and I shot some very pleasing images of Xenedette’s rose.

Petals

Petals

My next photographic adventure was a weekend-long landscape photography workshop with Peter Eastway and David Oliver, where I shot some pleasing aerial images of the Hunter Valley.  The trip was organised through the Focus Photographers group, and it was a great weekend away with like-minded photographers.

Hills of the Hunter

Hills of the Hunter

In May, Xenedette and I headed away to Jenolan Caves for a mini-getaway, where we toured six caves, and where I opted for low-light hand-held photography using my fastest prime lenses to capture the ‘ambient artificial’ light highlighting the magnificent decorations in the caves.  I also got in a bit of architecture photography during the trip.

Shawls of the Lucas Cave

Shawls of the Lucas Cave

In August I headed away with the Focus Photographers group again, also to the Hunter Valley, for a weekend of landscape and natural-light portrait photography with David and Clare Oliver.

As always, there is something to learn from these masters of photography, and I gained an appreciation for natural light from south-facing windows, which produces very soft, flattering portraits, and which is consistent throughout the day, making shooting very easy, as the light is always soft and even.

Father and Daughter

Father and Daughter

Finally, I bought a new 400mm f/2.8 lens for next year’s wildlife safari in Kenya, and in the mean time, dabbled with a few images of near-full moons in September.

Waxing Gibbous Part II

Waxing Gibbous Part II

All in all, 2014 was undeniably a low-output year in terms of photography, but I did gain some new images, new experiences and new contacts; and delved into some of the photographic genre I shoot, as well as a few other less-frequent subjects.

Photography is a pursuit I view as one which can have its peaks and troughs, and for me, I’ve been in trough territory for much of the year.  That’s completely fine, as it’s always there, and I learned long ago to read the signs and go with the flow, seeking images and experiences when the desire makes itself known to me, and not forcing productive output when it’s just not in me.

Photographically, next year will be quite different, with the trip to Kenya being the highlight, but who knows what other photographic experiences I will gain…

And so ends a retrospective of my 2014 photographic year.

Glowing

Here’s a still-life image I shot back in 2008, but which I only published recently:

Glowing

Glowing

This was from a series of wine glass images I captured.  At the time I only published one image, but I liked the drama and contrast in this different version of the same subject.

The lighting setup was quite simple:

  1. Canon Speedlite 580EX II at 1/64th power and 24mm zoom, positioned behind the subject, outside a light tent with a blue backdrop, and triggered with a PocketWizard PLUS II.
  2. Desk lamp with fluorescent light globe at 90 degrees camera left.
  3. Desk lamp with tungsten light globe at 90 degrees camera right.

Photographing Guitars is Difficult

Photographing guitars is difficult, as I discovered during a frustrating, but ultimately fruitful excercise in photographing one of my guitars today.

Why are guitars difficult to photograph?

Well, they make great subjects, and are rich with beautiful colours, patterns and details; but many of them are highly reflective, which makes lighting them, or capturing them in ambient light, quite a challenging task, as distracting or detail-diminishing specular highlights tend to be quite a hindrance.

Having recently returned to playing music, and having recently bought a new guitar to add to my lineup, today I decided to photograph it and feature the awesome Aged Cherry Sunburst finish on my new Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster’s ash timber.

Here is the image I captured:

Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster in Ash

Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster in Ash

Lighting this guitar was quite difficult, as the reflective surface could often result in too much reflection, or an unappealing highlight.

I hand-held my Canon Speedlight 580EX (diffused by a softbox) at 45 degrees camera left, pointed it downward on a 45 degree angle, which resulted in an appealing, but subtle highlight along the curvature of the guitar.  Featuring the beautiful timber grain and the Aged Cherry Sunburst finish was crucial to the image.

I initially used a reflector to bouce light back into the right side of the guitar, as there was too much deep shadow.  However,  had difficulty with this approach and wasn’t able to bounch enough light into the shadows, so I decided to shoot two identical compositions, but during the second shot I held the light on the right side, and in post-processing I blended the two images.

Normally I’d use a second light, but by this stage I was frustrated and wanted to get the shoot finished.

A Special Wine for a Special Time

This afternoon I decided to shoot a still-life image of a prized possession.

A Special Wine for a Special Time

A Special Wine for a Special Time

This is the rare and much-coveted Penfolds Bin 620 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2008.

This particular ‘Special Bin’ wine has only been released twice in Penfolds’ history: the first vintage was 1966, and the second and current is the 2008 vintage, released in late-2011, and depicted in this image.

In my experience, the Penfolds reds from 2008 are superb, and we’ve amassed a collection of Penfolds wines from that year, with more to come.

It was a difficult vintage, with a record heat wave of two weeks worth of 40-degree days.

Fortunately, Penfolds harvested before the heat wave hit.

Bin 620 is very limited in supply, and high in demand. It consists of extremely high quality cabernet and shiraz fruit solely from the Coonawarra region, from very low-yielding vines. We were fortunate enough to procure a bottle.

It is a powerful wine (although I have not tasted it), and one which needs many years of controlled cellaring for it to develop its complexity and realise its potential.

It is indeed a special wine for a special time. What that occasion will be for us is yet to be determined. It could take us 25 years to decide; but with a wine like this, there is no hurry.

Luxurious Hydration

Lately we’ve been buying and drinking a lot of wine.  Tough life, I know.

The cellar — actually a climate-controlled refrigerator specifically for wine — has got rather full, and I have lately felt inspired to photograph some of the good stuff.

For inspiration I had been looking at other marketing-style images of wine, and I had an idea of the kind of image I wanted and how I would light it, so last week I went shopping for some ‘studio’ supplies (backdrops).

This afternoon, I set up a ‘studio’, grabbed some Grange and Bin 707 from the cellar and set about photographing it.

Being the fussy sort of photographer I am, I mucked around a lot with lighting and positioning, as well as my studio set, to achieve the kind of result I wanted.

And here it is:

Luxurious Hydration

Luxurious Hydration

The background consisted of black cardboard, which I had bent to form a seamless background.

The key light was a Canon Speedlite 580EX II shot through a softbox positioned at 45 degrees camera right.

For separation lighting, I positioned another Speedlite behind the wines and pointed it at the backdrop.

The last source of light was a white reflector dish placed to the left of the subject to bounce some of the key light back onto the bottles to provide some fill in those deep shadows.

I used my PocketWizard PLUS II triggers to fire the flashes wirelessly.

All in all, I am happy with the result.

The wines, by the way, are spectacular.

Hawaiian Mercury

It has been a few weeks since I’ve been out for a photoshoot, and this afternoon I felt a desire to create an image.

I decided to re-visit water drop macro photography, so I set about rigging a ‘studio’ to shoot some water droplets of water.

Here’s the result:

Hawaiian Mercury

Hawaiian Mercury

In my initial setup, I placed a tray of water on the loungeroom coffee table, and used one of my cymbal boom stands to suspend a ziplock bag of water over the tray.

Using a needle, I made a small hole in the base of the bag so that water could drip at a consistent rate and in a consistent position.

I set up one of my Speedlites, attached a PocketWizard PLUS II to it and the camera, and placed the flash at 45 degrees camera left, pointing at the backdrop.  I wanted a colourful pattern to backlight the subject, and used my Hawaiian shirt, which produced a pleasing result.

My initial plan was to shoot the water droplets landing in the tray of water, but I found that my setup just wasn’t working well, so I changed my approach and set out to suspend the water droplets in mid-air.  I moved the ‘studio’ to the bathroom, and used the bathroom sink, with the tap serving as a water source.

I repeated the setup with the flash and Hawaiian shirt backdrop, and shot many frames to capture a pleasing water droplet formation.

The lighting and staging wasn’t a huge challenge, but achieving sharp focus on the dripping water was particularly difficult.  I shot well over 500 frames (probably closer to 600).

The problem is that even after achieving focus on the water emanating from the tap, the thickness of the water increases as the drop falls, which means it’s difficult to accurately gauge focus, as the subject’s proximity to the focal plane changes subtly, but enough to become out of focus!

The difficulty is further compounded by the use of a macro lens, to which I had also attached a 1.4x tele-converter, so the depth of field and margin for error was even narrower.

I never quite landed the tack-sharp result I wanted, but I am still pleased with the image.

Water drop photography can certainly chew up a few hours and incite frustration, but when one lands a pleasing image, it’s worth the effort.

It’s been a few years since I dabbled with this sort of photography.  Macro in general is enormously challenging for me (I’m predominantly a landscape photographer, which is worlds apart), and the challenge is increased by the use of water, which introduces timing and focus issues on top of the inherent focus/DOF challenge macro photography presents.

There’s plenty of creative image making to be achieved using water droplets as a subject.  There is more reading and experimentation ahead of me, and I suspect some frustration too, but it’s all part of the process.