Compose a still life photo by arranging six to ten similar objects against a background. Take a photo as you add each item. Build up an arrangement that is attractive without being too obvious or static. Note on the final arrangement the lines and shapes formed, and indicate how the eye might move around the resultant image.
Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens.
I arranged eight plain grey pebbles on a simple backdrop of dark leather, so as to concentrate on the placement rather than have the subject overwhelm the images. I actually tried the exercise a couple of times beforehand, with different objects and different backdrops, before I settled on this simpler setup.
Possibly because I’d had a couple of dry runs, I actually felt that for most of the exercise the placement of each item was reasonably good from a composition point of view – right up until placing the final pebble. At this point I actually found it surprisingly difficult to place the final one in an aesthetically pleasing way, and tried multiple options before settling on the final image.
I placed the first pebble off centre. I figured that this would be better than starting central, as this would have had an impact on the rest of the image, as it would be tempting to base everything around the central point.
Pebble number two was placed lower and to the right; I didn’t want to fall into regimented horizontals or verticals so early on.
With the third pebble I resisted the urge to make a neat triangle, instead continuing a curved line across from left to right. This is the smallest pebble so is already providing a contrast to the first two.
Pebble number four I placed lower down. A ‘Y’ shape is forming here.
The fifth pebble went higher than the others and towards the right of the frame. At this point I’m happy with the spacing and the overall layout – not so regimented that it looks contrived, but with some visual connections between the parts.
The sixth pebble I put lower in the frame, pretty much central from side to side (I didn’t actually spot that until reviewing the images afterwards). The overall impression is becoming one of an upper ‘body’ and a lower ‘tail’ shape.
The penultimate pebble went off to the right, almost central from top to bottom (again this wasn’t a conscious choice, just something I noticed after the event; maybe my mind craves order even when doing an abstract still life?). At this point I’m still happy that the arrangement is aesthetically pleasing.
What happens next is what I found most interesting; having been pretty happy with the developing arrangement with each additional pebble, as mentioned above I found it quite hard to place the final pebble in a way that I felt completed the picture. I know that at this stage I could have simply left the arrangement of the seven existing pebbles, but I found it to be something of a puzzle that I was determined to ‘solve’. So I tried various positions for the final pebble, photographing each, and reviewed the selection afterwards to decide which flowed best.
The final positioning that I settled on is the one below:
This to me is the arrangement where it all ‘hangs together’ the best. It is loose enough to not look overly staged, but contains some lines and shapes that guide the eye. There are three identifiable triangles (more if you analyse it really closely) and a loosely formed oval. In my analysis at least, the flow of the image starts with the pebble closest to the top and works in a roughly clockwise direction until it kinks out to the left to the lighter-coloured pointed pebble.
What I’ve learned:
I have to say that still life is not something that I have a lot of experience with, or am attracted to; I prefer to capture what’s already there rather than stage images. So this was outside my comfort zone (good, as that was one of my stated aims of taking the course).
I found the last part of this exercise genuinely fascinating. I was amazed at how different I could make the image look and feel simply by moving one of eight objects in the frame. The fact that I came up with ten ‘not quite right’ variants and one that looked ‘right’ to me is testament to the importance of the relative positioning of the points.