This exercise builds upon the single point, grouping objects together such that they are linked attractively, in a relationship that is active rather than obvious and static. The group of objects implies a network of lines and, by implication, create a shape. The exercise requires the build up of a still-life arrangement using 6-10 similar sized objects against an unfussy, but not plain, background resulting in a final grouping, which is not so obvious as to be boring (avoiding regular shapes), but which hangs together visually. As each single object is added a photograph is taken. The camera is to be fixed in one position aimed down at the background; this calls for the use of a tripod or similar. The composition should be controlled by rearrangement of the objects, not by changing the framing within the camera. The final photograph calls for a sketch to be drawn indicating the ‘lines’ that relate the objects and any basic shape(s) that they form.
I contemplated this exercise for a lengthy period as I did not find it the easiest of tasks to get my head round; probably something to do with self belief in being creative. As usual the first port of call was Freeman (2007) followed closely by Prakel (2012). Whilst both these publications covered the ground in varying degrees I did not find the explanations and examples sufficient to provide the clarity I was seeking in order to carry out the exercise. The technical aspects were straightforward, it was producing a final grouping “not so obvious as to be boring” and “hangs together visually” that presented the greatest challenge to me and I craved more explanation and examples. There did not appear to be any pertinent information in any of the other course books so once again it was the internet. Of course there were many examples from other students on the course and it was heartening to know that others have found this exercise a challenge. Most of the sites I visited were concerned with selecting multiple points from an existing scene rather than building a still life. Even looking at sites which were from the artist’s perspective did not prove much help as they seemed to be more concerned with the arrangement in side elevation rather than plan view. I considered a range of objects such as buttons, confectionary, nuts, coins, earrings and pebbles; as well as shape I considered texture and tone with the conversion to B+W in mind as I intended to produce both colour and B+W images. In the end I selected pebbles for their shape, texture and varying tones. For the background I selected a wood, in keeping with a natural theme, and the potential for the grain to provide some interest.
The set up was done in a conservatory so as to provide plenty of natural light but I did wait until it was overcast to avoid harshness. I mounted the camera on a tripod with the column at 90 degrees (beware the balance of forces!) to effect a plan view of the composition. All the shots were taken using a 105mm f/2.8 lens with camera settings of 1/60 sec at f/5.6, ISO100 with a custom white balance derived from using a grey card and I used a cable shutter release; the camera settings were taken from a hand-held light meter. I also found it best to use the Live View mode which made it much easier to make composition changes and see the effect in the frame.
When I began the build I had no idea where I was going with the composition and had many attempts, looking for inspiration, always nagged by the directive to not be boring, avoid regular shapes and find something that would hang together visually. Finally as I was laying the pebbles down in a diagonal line my mind went back to my shots of the moon in the previous exercise and the thought of stars in the night sky – after all had man not looked up and deduced shapes from the objects in the sky; this led to my final arrangement and the end to a good deal of frustration. Whilst some may challenge the fact that it does not conform to the remit to avoid regular shapes I would invite viewers of that opinion to consider the definition of ‘regular’ – if, perchance, there are two or more spaces of the exact same dimensions then that is pure coincidence and says much for my calibrated eyeball!
This exercise has been a challenge and not one I can say I enjoyed in all respects; the technical elements I found enjoyable but building the still-life not so. Why is that? I think it stems from entering into a completely new arena of arranging a still-life with strict rules applied; I felt as if I was completing a process rather than composing a photograph that I found pleasing to view as, after all, the final shot is to illustrate the lines and shapes therein and thus prove a grasp of the concept (my interpretation). Perhaps I should have used different objects to try to bring it to life. I have to say that I did not find the notes in the manual particularly helpful and there seemed to be a paucity of information to support this exercise elsewhere which led to a good deal of frustration on my part. Also I cannot say that still-life photography is something that I have ever had an interest in so perhaps there was degree of negativity at the outset which I should have recognised and addressed.
In terms of the end product, I believe it illustrates the complexity of composing a still-life and I have been able to identify lines and shapes that confirm the theory. By producing both colour and B+W images I have been able to further my understanding of the subtleties of grayscale; in this instance I feel that there is not a great enough tonal difference to make the image stand out and work in B+W albeit that may be due, in part, to my knowledge of the software I used. I have tried to make sense of the “vectors” in the arrangement and have found it difficult to make a reasoned conclusion apart from there appear to be four lines of direction pulling outward according to the placement of the four pebbles near the edge of the frame; given that they are all of a similar size I can only deduce that the lines with an object nearest the edge are the stronger; this is certainly an area I think needs face to face tuition to fully understand the subject area. Whether the composition meets the criteria set is, in my view, open to debate; on the one hand it should be “not so obvious as to be boring” whilst on the other I have been exulted by my tutor to compose my images such that the intent is immediately obvious to the viewer. I hope that the arrangement of the objects gives the viewer the impression that there is meaning to the composition, even though they may not be into astronomy, perhaps in the same way as those who constructed Stonehenge did so with reason, or so we think! It is all in the eye of the beholder, is it not?
Freeman, M. (2007) The photographer’s eye: composition and design for better digital photos. Lewes: The Ilex Press Limited
Prakel, D. (2012) Basics photography 01: composition. Second edition. Lausanne. AVA Publishing SA