BY MARCUS CLACKSON

I’ve been collecting found bird feathers on walks over the last couple of years and recently decided to create a project photographing some of them. The results are an interesting, eclectic set of photos with a strong graphic style. 

To my mind, the feathers take on a different character from when they are worn by the birds, whether that’s due to the effects of the environment after they have fallen off or the fact that owner and feather are apart – either way they become standalone objects which make great photographic subjects.

I find shooting still life a fun and rewarding process and it doesn’t have to be ridiculously complicated; pick something you like and think about how to shoot it in a different way…whether it’s an apple, a pair of scissors, or a bottle of Gin, just play around and have fun! Working with light in layers can create some wonderful results whether you’re using constant light sources, daylight or flash.

My process for still life photography

I like to shoot still life in a really simple graphic way using very little extra lighting. It’s amazing what subtle and intricate details you can achieve with a little experimentation and the simplest of set ups.

To begin with, you need to give the object you are shooting some space, just to get a feel of how you would like it to look. Whether you are shooting in your own studio space (as I was) or on the kitchen table, you’ll need space for the simple reflectors and any light sources you are going to be using.

There are so many different ways of looking at something, but when taking photographs you have the ability to control everything. From the lens you’re using, the lighting, backgrounds and everything else, deciding exactly how the results appear is in under your control.

I wanted my found feathers to be completely isolated, floating in a sea of black to create a striking burst of colour and detail which really draws attention to the subject itself.

For my setup I used a simple scalpel on a clamp, with each feather carefully placed on the blade. This would mean a minimal amount of retouching in post-production. I generally try to get as much of a final photo ‘in-camera’ as possible, which is probably a throwback to my days using film. You didn’t have the flexibility of digital photography or software to improve your results – it was all about getting the best possible shot on a sheet of film.

With the subject in place I added a black background – a simple sheet of card from an art shop held in place on a stand with a grip. You don’t necessarily need a stand, just use anything you have to hand. I’ve frequently used cans of hairspray or a handy vase, basically anything that’s available…sometimes you have to go a bit Heath Robinson!

From here you need to get the camera locked off on a tripod and then get some light onto the subject. I used a simple ring light and LED strip light (available from all good online retailers) but whatever light source you go for it’s always best to try a few test shots first and work one step at a time. Don’t be too precious, it’s just a starting point and you can always tweak little bits of lighting or add reflectors as you go. It’s definitely a good idea to try moving things about at this stage, experiment with different lenses and positions so you get an idea what does or doesn’t work for your shot.

Equipment

I used the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4 IS PRO lens teamed with both the E-M1 Mark III and E-M1X during the couple of sessions I did for this set of photos. The 12-100mm is a superb studio lens (it’s great for landscapes and outdoors as well too!). It’s just so sharp, definitely one of my ‘go to’ lenses when I need pin sharp, crisp product or still life shots. Although technically not a macro lens, you’ve still got the ability to zoom right into the shot and capture so much detail.

Shooting using High Res mode on the E-M1 Mark III or E-M1X produces a very large file with super high resolution; perfect when a detailed result is what you are after.

As I intend to print these images big (up to A1+ size so they can be framed) detail is really important. I want the viewer to see every minute detail of the feather. Every single barb is actually a feather within a feather with a little shaft and little barbs all of it’s own!

For the shooting process I tend to tether the camera to my laptop where possible so I can view a large version of the photo on my screen – this helps finalise the lighting process. Using the USB tether cable supplied with your Olympus camera and a tether tools extension cable you can view directly on your PC or Mac with the Olympus Capture app. This way you get a live view of what you are seeing through the lens and you can even control the camera shutter from the computer keyboard if you wish.

Each frame I shoot is then imported into Capture One (my preferred image processing software) where I can process the files.

Shooting settings for these images were as follows: F8 at 1/50 sec ISO400 as a starting point.

I opted for a strong directional effect from the LED lights as I wanted crisp strong detail in the feathers. As the feathers were fairly flat, I didn’t need a big depth of field to get everything in focus so F8 was a good starting point. On the odd feather that was very small and had a lot of curvature I increased the depth of field to get all of it in focus and increased the shutter speed to allow for this.

After taking the first shot I could see how much light was hitting the subject and made small changes depending on what I was seeing. If the feather contained a particularly colourful or shiny texture, I moved the lights slightly to bring out the best detail. By adding reflectors (small bits of white or silver art card are good) I could bounce more light onto the subject and for real kicks of bright lights I used small shaving mirrors (inexpensive options are available from most homeware or chemist shops).

These basic shooting methods can be used for virtually any still life subject with a little experimentation. You might swap continuous powered lighting for daylight from a window to give a softer overall effect and then add in reflectors as discussed previously. Or if you have flash strobes (either small speed lights or bigger studio strobes) try using a modifier dish or opaque diffusers to create different light sources.

Try lighting through opaque backgrounds or backlighting your subject and reflecting the light back into the subject. The possibilities are almost endless – just pick something that you like and with a pretty simple set-up you can create slick and smart advertising-style images from virtually anything.

Since finishing my ‘found feathers’ project and relocating to the coast, I’ve started collecting a selection of Oyster shells from the beach which have great detail and texture…time for my next still life project perhaps! What will you choose for yours?

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