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Monday, January 4, 2010

Look for Holiday Still Lifes at Home

I am one of those people that actually likes to decorate for holidays. Whether it's Christmas, Thanksgiving or Halloween or almost any other holiday, given the slightest excuse to hang some fairy lights or make an arrangement from pine cones and candles and I'm there. I'm sure this is a gift (or a burden) handed down to me from my mother who decorated the house so overwhelmingly at Christmas that we used to joke that Christmas had "exploded" in our living room. There wasn't a candle stick or banister or picture frame (or cat) that wasn't adorned with at least one red bow--and often several. What was the purpose of a holiday if not to turn the house into a Hallmark card?

I don't go as nuts as my mother did but, during Christmas at least, you would still be hard put to find a corner in my house that doesn't have some little holiday vignette. One of the nice things about having all of these little thematic nooks around the house is that they give me a chance to make some impromptu still life photos. Today, for example, while sitting at the dining room table reading mail, I noticed the pretty morning light coming through the blinds and illuminating this little candle dish and I had to photograph it. Much as I would love to ignore such moments and keep doing what I'm doing, it's nearly impossible: when a photo calls, I have to get the camera and respond.

Shooting still lifes around the house, whether it's of holiday decorations or just some interesting objects on a table or a bookshelf, is actually a lot of fun and it's good photo practice. Turning your home into a still life studio teaches you to pay attention to the lighting and to appreciate the beauty of the shapes, colors and textures of the objects that you live with every day. I don't make a big production out of these found still life shots and I try to shoot them exactly as I first noticed them. For this shot I moved a few little sparkly plastic snowflakes out of the way, but otherwise the shot is just as I found it. I shot the frame in RAW and I did ramp up the warmth a bit during the conversion process, but again, otherwise it is as I first saw it.

Most of the time with shots like this you'll be working either with existing daylight or a combination of daylight and artificial light from lamps. I shot a few frames of this scene with flash, even experimenting with using flash in a reduced-power mode (so it wouldn't overwhelm the daylight that was coming from a window to my right), but the shots made exclusively with window light were the best. The contrast from strong window light was a bit extreme and I was tempted to get a piece of white foam core out to reflect some light back into the dark side of this shot, but I got lazy and took care of the contrast later using a curves adjustment in Photoshop.

Taking photos of holiday still lifes has a few practical benefits beyond photography, too. For one, even if you're a sentimental fool (or especially if you're a sentimental fool), it's easier to put the decorations away if you know you'll always have the photos to recall how your house looked. Also, you can always turn your photos into greeting cards for the next year. Most important though, if you're the primary decorator, it's nice just to spend a few moments appreciating the beauty and creativity of your decor--even if the rest of the family teases you for turning the house into a Thomas Kinkade painting.

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