Category Archives: Still Life

Today’s Nautilus

I’ve been photographing split Nautilus shells yesterday and today, these make such lovely spirals. Check out the monochrome version first:

Nautilus February 20 2014 © Harold Davis

Nautilus February 20 2014 © Harold Davis

It’s hard to think of another still life subject that is as classical and inspiring as the chambered Nautilus. I am looking forward to photographing a whole shell that hasn’t been split in the next few days. Here’s my recent color version:

Nautilus February 20 2014 © Harold Davis

Nautilus February 20 2014 © Harold Davis

Do you prefer today’s Nautilus in black and white or color?

Related story: Nautilus by Halves.

Nautilus by Halves

To make this image, I photographed two split halves of a Nautilus shell on a mirror placed on a black velvet background. I lit the composition using natural light and a silver metallic reflector. The wonderful bright and luminescent quality of the shell in contrast to the black background is partly due to the lens I used, my Zeiss Otus 1.4/55mm.

Nautilus by Halves © Harold Davis

Nautilus by Halves © Harold Davis

I really enjoy photographing shells with spirals, such as this image of my Nautilus in Black and White and this Architectonica. If shell spirals intrigue you, also check out this playful version, Spirals!

Brush Tool

I’m getting more interested in explicitly painterly effects in my digital imagery. At times I am presenting myself as a painter who uses digital photos for my materials (although of course I am not offended if you call me a photographer!).

 

Brush Tool by Harold Davis

Brush Tool © Harold Davis

I’m also experimenting with printing on canvas—and maybe even working the surface of my digitally-printed canvases by hand.

So things seem to have come round in full circle. It seems like a good time to break out the tools of my first love in art. Some of my old paint brushes are shown in this photo.

I don’t suppose I’m likely to go back and start doing a great deal of physical painting—I enjoy my virtual tools so much. Digital tools are powerful, and I have mastery of my craft.  But still it is good to acknowledge painting with paint and non-virtual brushes as part of what I do, and one of the disciplines at the root of my current work.

Architectonica Spiral

Commonly called the Sundial shell, Architectonica is small. The specimen shown in this photo is probably less than an inch across.

Sundial Seashell 1 by Harold Davis

Sundial Seashell 1 © Harold Davis

Turn the shell over, and there’s a tiny spiral formation going down into the core of the shell. This spiral looks like a staircase—but don’t forget how small it is. The version shown here is greatly magnified, probably twenty or thirty times life size.

Architectonica Spiral 1 by Harold Davis

Architectonica Spiral 1 © Harold Davis

 

Workbench

Over the winter holidays I took our boys on a “field trip” to Fort Ross State Historic Park. Fort Ross marks the furthest point south of the expansion of the Russians down the California coast in the early 1800s. It was erected as a counter-point to the burgeoning Spanish colony of Yuerba Buena, later to become San Francisco.

Part of the natural defences of Fort Ross lie in the remoteness and rugged nature of the Sonoma Coast. This is beautiful country, and I plan to come back for some extensive photography when I don’t have four boys in tow!

Workbench by Harold Davis
Workbench © Harold Davis

Fort Ross has been extensively restored. The ongoing effort is a jointly financed venture with a Russian organization—a very good thing considering the service reductions at California state parks.

The artifacts within the buildings are not all from the original fort, but they are from the right historic period, and make a natural subject for High Dynamic Range (HDR). I particularly enjoyed photographing the workshops and this workbench.

As with Agaves, I tried to achieve an effect closer to that of an etching than a conventional black & white photo when I photographed the workbench. I shot seven exposures at shutter speeds ranging from 1/8 of a second to 25 seconds. I used a tripod, and made each exposure at 46mm, f/9, and ISO 100. The exposures were combined using Nik HDR Efex Pro and hand-HDR layering Photoshop. Then I converted to black & white using Nik Silver Efex Pro, Photoshop Black & White Adjustment Layers, and the monochromatic presets in Nik HDR Efex Pro.

Multi-shot HDR photography does take a bit of care, not to mention some time. So I was lucky the boys were happy playing in the fort, and clambering on and off the canons. They are shown with one below.

Davis Boys at Fort Ross by Harold Davis

Boys at Fort Ross © Harold Davis

Glass Spiral

The image above was shot through a magnifying lens straight down on a turned-over glass. You can see a bit more of the magnification in the shot below, showing various glass circles.

Both images used the post-production techniques I showed in Scabiosa Pods and Fern and HDR is technique, not style. Time permitting, more to come!

Circular Magnification 1

HDR is technique, not style

Among the many misconceptions about HDR (High Dynamic Range) image creation is a big mistake: the belief that HDR represents a style, or a particular look.

Photographers who subscribe to this particular misconception, whether they are for it or against it, tend to think of HDR imagery as bold, highly colored, and unrealistic—often represented by over-the-top sunsets or hardcore and gritty urban environments.

Goblet

In fact, HDR is a technique, or rather a set of techniques, that can be used to extend the range from light to dark in an image—and how that range, called the “dynamic range” of an image, is mapped into the final version of your image. Here’s a comparison that may help you wrap your brain around this concept. The world around us is three-dimensional, and it is not physically possible to show three dimensions in a flat, two-dimensional print. But perspective rendering, and the way our brains work, make it so that we visually pick up the cues in a two-dimensional photo (and some paintings)—and “see” the subject of the photo as three-dimensional. In the same way, HDR is a technique that allows image creators to render apparently coherent a greater dynamic range from light to dark than in a normal photo.

That HDR is technique and not style is made abundantly clear by the wealth of options in the leading automated HDR programs, Nik’s Merge to HDR Efex Pro and HDRSoft’s Photomatix. Automated software is not the only way to extend dynamic range—I often prefer to multi-process my RAW files using Photoshop’s
layers, masks, and blending modes. I’ll also often hand-layer captures shot at differing exposure values rather than letting Nik or Photomatix handle the exposure blending. But getting back to my point, even within each of the automated HDR programs there are literally thousands of choices that one can make that change the visual style of the result.

Glass Medley

With the images of glassware shown along with this story I wanted my final results to look like old-fashioned etchings or pen-and-ink drawings. I shot each image using a mirror placed in front of a lightbox. The technique was pretty similar to what I’ve often used with transparent images of flowers.

I bracketed shutter speed in a wide range, and ended up putting four or five of the bracketed versions through Nik HDR, using a custom preset I’ve developed to enhance the etching look. I also did some hand layering in Photoshop, and some post-processing to add sepia tonality, retouched some problem areas, and bumped-up the painterly effect.

Certainly, these images were constructed in large part using HDR shooting and processing techniques. In look and style, however, they are pretty far from the way HDR is conventionally supposed to look. HDR is a toolset, not the result—with the result only limited by your imagination!

Cruet

Glass Bead Game

Glass Bead Game

Glass Bead Game, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

One of the great things about the Crooked Creek Research Station, nestled high in a valley in a desert mountain range east of the Sierras in California, is the curatorial eye of Tim, the caretaker.

Tim collects interesting things, and leaves them around for one to look at, or to photograph. What more could a photography workshop ask for?

These glass beads were in a small, wooden box. I photographed them straight down in the shade of subdued natural lighting using my 200mm macro lens, and captured the full dynamic range of this macro subject using six exposures. Each exposure was at f/16 and ISO 100, with shutter speeds between 1/8 of a second and 20 seconds.

Red and Blue Splash

Red and Blue Splash

Red and Blue Splash, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

This is a shot taken in Scott Dickson’s garage. In the grand tradition of American garage tinkerers, Scott has constructed a number of devices used to create stop-motion photos involving liquid. In some cases these gadgets were built using parts from toys his kids have discarded such as K’nex wheels.

To make this photo, the glasses were filled with colored water (using food coloring) and placed on a sliding table. When the table was released, it triggered a time delay circuit that then fired a strobe at the moment the table hit a barrier—which sent the liquid up in the air.

As in much of photography, timing is everything: if things were working as they were supposed to, the strobe fires just as the liquid flies, as in this photo.

Great fun indeed!

Rose with Wood Background

Rose with Wood Background

Rose with Wood Background, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Ever since my daughter Katie Rose was born a few years ago we haven’t used our fireplace for fear the wood smoke would irritate her already compromised lungs. This means that I’ve got a big pile of fire wood in the basement, perfectly cured and ready for use as photographic backgrounds.

Setting up this shot was simplicity itself. I found a piece of wood that seemed to contrast nicely with the rose bud. I took the wood and the blossom out to the dappled sunlight on the front porch. I moved things around until the lighting was right, using a white card to reflect some extra light at the bud. When satisfied, I snapped the photo with a macro lens, using a low-to-the-ground tripod.

This kind of simply put together still life composition can work—but only when the composition itself is simple, and also elegant.

Compass Rose

Compass Rose

Compass Rose, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

A compass rose is a figure on a map or nautical chart used to display the orientation of the cardinal directions. You’ll find compass roses in functional devices such as, well, compasses—but also decorative compass roses have been around since the time of the Romans. Indeed, a beautiful compass rose helps give maps their visual allure.

I made this attempt at a compass rose from seashells, primarily two sea urchins and a marine gastropod. The gastropod was flipped horizontally and vertically to create the cardinal compass points. I then assembled the shells and their rotations in Photoshop on layers.

Hot Bouquet

Hot Bouquet

Hot Bouquet, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

The morning has some real autumnal crispness, and there was frost on the ground when I walked the boys to the school bus stop—unusual for coastal California. So if you want to imagine feeling hot by comparision with the weather outdoors, consider taking a bite of one of these babies. Photographed with my 85mm perspective-correcting macro on a mirror with a black velvet background. And best wishes staying if not hot, then at least warm!

Snake Skin

Snake Skin

Snake Skin, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

On Friday, I drove out to the historic Coastguard boathouse on the tip of Point Reyes to give a weekend Creative Close-Ups workshop under the auspices of Point Reyes Field Seminars. I’d unpacked and organized when a park ranger came by and told us that there was a gas leak and the building was unsafe. So we all packed up again, got in our cars, and drove through the gathering dark to the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center on the other side of Drake’s Bay.

Despite this inauspicious start, it was a great workshop with very congenial and accomplished participants—the kind of group that makes teaching the weekend workshop a pleasure, not a chore.

The Clem Miller facility has any number of interesting natural specimens around, great for close-up photography. I shot this snake skin on a light box I’d brought along to demonstrate the technique of shooting for transparency. In Photoshop, I converted the image to LAB, and inverted the Lightness channel to show the contrast of the translucent snake skin against a black background.

I’ll be giving the close-ups workshop again on Point Reyes Friday, April 29 to Sunday May 1, 2011. It’s pretty far in advance, but my workshops do tend to fill up. Here’s the registration link.

Related link: My Creative Close-Ups book on Amazon.

Nautilus Shell and Rope

Nautilus Shell and Rope

Nautilus Shell and Rope, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Like the previous still life I posted, I made this composition during my recent still life and macros workshop. I asked everyone to bring some artifacts to photograph, and I brought a box of goodies that Phyllis helped me carefully pack.

This Nautilus is one of my favorite things to photograph and play with in the Photoshop darkroom; here the golden afternoon light though a dirty, antique window pane provided luminous illumination against a pile of old nautical rope in the historic boathouse.

Workshop Gods

Boathouse Still Life

Boathouse Still Life, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

The Workshop Gods were with me last weekend. The weather was stunning, never to be taken for granted on the tip of Point Reyes, and the spring wild flowers were lucious. The participants were strong photographers, and a socially compatible group—neither of which is a workshop given.

This workshop covered both improvised still life photography, like the grass in a vase shown against the background of the old Coastguard boathouse. The photo above is an example of simple still life photography using natural light and based on observation and placement, with beautiful afternoon sun coming through an antique window angled into a dusty room.

In terms of the outdoor macro flower photography—it was hard to miss with the carpets of flowers in a majestic landscape of rugged cliffs and ocean.

Point Reyes Spring

View this image larger.