Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Experimenting with still life and portrait DSLR photography

Well, my intro class in digital SLR photography at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa will soon be finishing (sigh). I have really enjoyed this class and am grateful for the DSLR Nikon D40 camera that a friend of mine loaned me so that I could take this class and see if photography was an art form I would enjoy prior to going out and purchasing my own DSLR camera (which can be quite an investment).

It’s clear to me that I still need a lot more time to work on the mechanics or technical aspects of shooting, but at least I think I have pretty good natural instincts for composition and story-telling. It’s figuring out those exact settings (the specs) I will need for a given shot that still seems to trip me up. You can always tell a seasoned photographer from a newbie by the former’s facility with rattling off the expected shutter speed, F-stop and ISO that will be needed for a shot. I guess I just need to be patient and practise, practise, practise. And, perhaps invest in a Dummies book for some remedial training.

As you may have noted from my previous posts, landscape photography is a passion. So is black & white photography. I also find people fascinating and would really like to learn to shoot portraits both in a studio (posed) and non-studio/street (unposed) setting. I find studio photography trickier though, since you require a fair amount of equipment, and importantly, you need to understand how to adjust/manipulate light and shadow. Studio is a lot less forgiving than outdoor photography, with the former requiring more technical skill, in my opinion.

We did two classes in studio: one with still life (objects) and one with human subjects (portraits). I preferred the portrait session probably because I’m generally more interested in human subject matter than inanimate objects. (Not surprisingly, any past career testing I had done revealed I was not someone who would be terribly well suited to engineering or related fields.)

This wine glass was deceptively tricky to shoot and get the rim lighting just right. I tried to do some correction in Photoshop, but still couldn’t bring the stem outline out. The background is also too dark. (Argghh!)

As I listened to my enthusiastic photography teacher’s tips during our two studio sessions, I couldn’t help but think how much more interesting and less intimidating high school Physics classes would’ve been had the teachers used real-life ‘case studies’ (like is routinely done in problem-based learning curricula in the health sciences). An illustration of how the principles of Physics are applied to real-life problems would’ve made learning Physics easier for people like me, who are stimulated by story-telling and who don’t visualize well in 3-D and are also mechanically-challenged.

For example, studio photography could easily double as a lesson in Physics (with the manipulation of light and shadow) or Mathematics (especially Geometry with the calculation of angles) — and Shop class, if you have a MacGyver-like inventor/photography teacher like I do! 🙂 There are also potential teachable moments for Biology, if you do macro-photography (e.g., use of a magnifying lens to make bugs look big and allow one to study nature up close) and Chemistry, if you do food photography (e.g., adding drops of glycerin to an aqueous liquid to simulate water drops or adding effervescent tablets to make beer look frothy).

This still life set-up was kind of random, but it was a team effort. I threw my watch into the scene and declared it a re-interpretation of Salvador Dali‘s “Persistence of Memory” painting.

So, all in all, I found the evening of shooting still life kind of frustrating. Fortunately, when we did portraits the following week, everyone shot the same models, so we had some real-time group-think on what shutter speed and F-stop to try. (ISO remained constant.) I was generally more pleased with the portraits I had taken, but still had some trouble toning down the shiny slot box in the background of photo # 2 (below) in Photoshop. Again, I guess it’s just a matter of practice and getting more familiar with Photoshop…

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2 thoughts on “Experimenting with still life and portrait DSLR photography

  1. Some great portraits – well done !!! I think you now need to go out and buy your own DSLR 🙂

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