Some of the equipment used to shoot objects and still lifes is pretty standard stuff that you probably already own. However, certain shots will require some specialized equipment. If your dream is to enter the world of product photography, you'll need a highly specialized setup that goes far beyond the basics. This kind of photography is beyond the scope of this book, although you'll find some resources to help you in Appendix B.
You can use lenses you already own for most object and still-life shooting. Telephoto lenses will let you shoot from greater distances, which is often desirable when shooting closer up might throw shadows on your subjects or otherwise disturb them. Wide-angle lenses exaggerate perspective but let you work closer.
Many object and still-life pictures are taken with a fairly wide aperture to knock out foreground and background images. You can avoid using an artificial backdrop by using a long lens (135mm and longer) and a large opening (f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8), which will drop the background completely out of focus. Closeup shots are taken with smaller apertures (f/16 to f/32), which provide some depth of field for these highly magnified images.
Shooting objects close up requires lenses with focusing ranges that allow you to fill the frame. Macro lenses are designed to render life-size or nearly life-size images on film by making it possible to get super close to your subjects. They come in focal lengths ranging from 50mm to 200mm, which means they can also be used for regular photography. Macro lenses with longer focal lengths let you work at a greater distance.
True macro lenses will produce life-size images on film (meaning that a half-inch bug will measure half an inch on the negative). This one-to-one reproduction ratio, however, comes at a price. Lenses that reproduce images at one-half to one-fourth life size are less expensive. You can still get life-size images with them by using the following accessories:
An extension tube. These devices mount between the camera body and lens and let you focus more closely by moving the lens farther away from the film inside your camera.
An extension bellows. Extension bellows use the same principle as extension tubes, but you adjust them by turning small knobs. They're more expensive than extension tubes and can be difficult to use.
Closeup lenses. These accessory lenses screw or snap onto the front of your regular lenses. They are labeled by strength, with the weakest being +1 diopter. Usually a +1 or +2 is all you will need.
If you love photographing flowers as you hike through the countryside, using a true macro lens is far more convenient than using closeup attachments. You might take a picture of a large plant and then quickly come in for a macro closeup to capture just a single flower. Having one lens that easily does both is a big advantage.
If you don't have a macro lens, you can shoot closeups by reversing a normal or wide-angle lens. Simply reverse the direction of the lens and attach it to your camera body with a special lens-reversing ring or macro adapter. You can also try holding it in place in very stable conditions, such as indoor shots with the camera set on a table.
If you're not taking a super-close shot, a 100mm lens will allow a working distance that minimizes perspective distortion. If you don't have a lot of room and you're shooting a large object, a wide-angle lens will work. However, shooting too close to the object (less than twice its depth) with a wide-angle lens will result in forced perspective. This means the parts of the object closest to the lens will loom large while those farther away will seem to recede into the distance. This produces a dramatic image, useful in some cases, but not as factual as an image in which a normal perspective produces more realistic lines.
Your lens choice will also help you avoid distortion in object or still-life shots or add it should you want to. Using a wide-angle lens and backing away from the subject will let you place the camera higher (to show the top surface of the object) and keep the camera closer to level (pointing toward the horizon rather than down). If necessary, you can crop out the top of the picture when you have the image printed. Distortion can also be lessened by moving farther away from the subject and using a longer lens (longer than 100mm) to keep the frame filled. These seem like contradictory solutions to the same problem, but both methods are based on the physics of perspective.
If you're photographing a model car, getting close with a wide-angle lens will mimic the distortion that viewers expect when seeing a photograph of a life-size car. Viewers also expect to see a life-size car sharp from front to back, which means you'll have to stop way down (f/11 or smaller) to increase your depth of field.
A tripod or another sturdy camera support is essential for object and still-life photography. First, it minimizes camera motion and makes your images sharper when you're shooting with narrow apertures and slow shutter speeds. In addition, a nonmoving support allows you to set up your shot, check it through your viewfinder, and adjust the lighting without continually having to reframe and refocus each time you make an adjustment. If you're shooting a series of similar objects, using a tripod will ensure the same camera angle and relative size, just by placing each successive object on the same spot. If you have a series of objects to photograph, sequence them in order of size.
An accessory flash unit will let you try various lighting schemes when taking object and still-life shots. Flash also freezes the action when you're taking pictures of flowers and other natural objects outdoors, and it pops them out of their surroundings by darkening the background. If your flash has variable power control, you can also use it for closeup work. If it doesn't and you plan on doing a lot of closeup shots, you might want to buy a ring light or macro flash. These special flash units circle the lens and provide uniform, shadow-free illumination.
White cards are useful for reflecting soft light onto the front of objects or for lighting transparent or translucent objects from the rear. When shooting larger items, larger reflective devices will provide more even lighting. Professionals use large softboxes with strobes or hot lights, but you can achieve a similar effect with a less expensive setup. A white shower-curtain liner lit by sunlight, flash, or floodlights can make a very good large, diffuse light source. White foam-core board is another good reflective device.
Many object and still-life pictures are taken with the objects in their natural surroundings or posed in settings that are arranged to look natural. There are times, however, when you don't want the background to distract from your subject.
Poster board is cheap, widely available, and flexible. Choose a piece that's long enough so you can scoot some of it under whatever you're shooting. Then curve the rest of the piece upward so the top of the board is higher than your camera angle. Making the curve tighter and bringing the board closer to vertical will change the gradations in the backdrop. When photographing closeup objects, such as flowers, a small piece of colored poster board can be held by an assistant behind the subject to isolate it from a distracting background.
Countertop material is flexible but far sturdier than poster board, so you can use it over and over. It's also available in some interesting colors and textures. Check with a local fabricator or a large building supply store — remnant pieces are often available for a song.
Be sure to anchor your backdrop securely, especially if you're shooting fragile objects. Clamps, tape, even rocks — if their shadows won't show up in the picture — will all work. Don't use anything that will ripple or cause bumps in the board; you want a smooth, seamless surface.
Fabric backdrops range from manufactured backdrops made of muslin or canvas used by professional photographers for studio work to household linens and shower curtains. If you take the time to get them positioned correctly, there's no need to buy expensive background things. You can even buy canvas or muslin and paint it if you like the look of those expensive backdrops.
You can avoid having to use a backdrop entirely by shooting with a long lens (135mm or longer) and a large opening (f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8), which blurs the background nicely. This is an excellent way to isolate your subject from any distracting surroundings. The effect it creates distinguishes the images of many professionals from the photos taken by amateurs who use the wideangle or normal lenses that come with their cameras. You can use a piece of white material or shower curtain liner over a window to diffuse too-direct light coming in. Poster board also makes for a cheap reflector in a pinch.
It often takes some creative sleight of hand to get good pictures of objects both in the wild and in controlled settings. Photographers who specialize in object shots rely on items like the following:
Tweezers. For rearranging or removing things like leaves, twigs, and pieces of hair. Long tweezers are often easier to work with than short ones. You can find them at hobby stores and some hardware stores.
Soft paintbrushes, makeup brushes, cotton swabs. For removing such things as dust, dirt, and crumbs.
Double-sided tape. For sticking things together and stabilizing small objects. Fine-art clay is also a good thing to have on hand for keeping objects in place.
Duct tape. Where would you be without the stuff? Not only will it adhere to almost everything and stick almost anything together, you can use the roll to elevate objects in a still life.
Water bottle. For spraying flowers or adding condensation to other objects like glasses and bottles.
Paper towels. For drying objects off or mopping up spills. You can also use paper towels for handling shiny objects without leaving fingerprints.
Small butterfly clips or straight pins. For holding fabric folds in place.
The tonal range (from white to black) of light-colored flowers is a fabulous palate for creating black-and-white images. Start with a flower that's not fully open. Keep it alive in a vase, and photograph it over the time it takes to open, capturing it in a variety of lighting and phases.