In this session, we sat down with the immensely creative Denise Love. Founder of 2 Lil Owls, Denise is a photographer, teacher, artist and creative and is passionate about helping others pursue their love of art.

Denise's photography is regularly featured in prominent magazines, so who better to show us how to turn a still life photo into an exceptional work of art? The techniques Denise shared in this session will give life to any photo and help you take your pictures to the next level, including still life setup, editing, and adding textures to your final photo.

Create the Right Shoot Setup

Bedroom Setup

For this particular shoot session, Denise chose her guest bedroom. As shown in the image below, pick a corner with a wall that is 3 feet wide. Pick any wood surface, like an old table or a photography board for the base. For the backdrop, choose a plaster and add a piece of plywood with some stencils and paint. Add some pieces of fabric or linen for some texture. Use a pedestal to add height and put some decoration pieces like a vase or a coffee mug with flowers. Place ring light to create more focus and light to the setup. This will construct your setup for the shoot. 

An important thing to keep in mind is whether you want it light and bright or dark and moody.  This is because if you have white and light surfaces, they're going to reflect light. However, with the same setup, if you add a dark wood surface, the light won't bounce. A dark pedestal, a piece of firebrick, a dark vase and the same flowers would give you a completely different look because the darkness will refrain from bouncing any light. 

But first, understand how Aperture works:

As you can see in the image below, the photograph taken is light and bright.

The shadows are very light because the board underneath is reflecting it. Now, if you're shooting wide open, it may take your whole setup as focus. However, for a photograph like that, move up closer to the subject and then take the photo to blur out the background, focusing on the flower. While shooting closer to the subject, make your aperture higher at f/4 or f/5.6. 

Pro tip: The closer you get to the subject, the higher the aperture should be. 

If you want the setup to be dark and moody, with the same setup and structure, reduce the aperture (ie. f/5.6+). You will notice that the frame automatically becomes dark with the contrast being high. See the image below for reference.

Window Setup

As shown in the image below, for this setup, the same elements have been used i.e. the plaster backdrop with stencils and paint, a pedestal and piece of fabric with a coffee mug and flowers next to an antique window. Wood dividers can also be used to create an antique window. An artificial light source like a ring light or a handheld light is used to reflect the light. This helps give light to the side that is darker and has more shadows, giving it more depth and making the scene brighter.

As shown in the image below, the photograph has the subject in focus and blur at the background. This particular image has been captured by Helios 44 - two vintage lenses.

Below there's another set in the same window, with the painting as the backdrop. The table is dark brown with some fabric and an antique silver vessel. There’s natural light coming in from the same window. No extra light has been added this time, as antique items look best in natural light. If too much light falls on it, they tend to look too shiny and new.

Pro tip: While shooting the subject, blur the background to add more focus on it. This compliments the subject with the background rather than competing with each other.

Box Setup

Shooting in a box helps you control all the light. With the bright light coming in from the window, the box controls all the light around the flowers. Rather than having a black background, a box gives depth to the shadows, instead of having a flat back card. Take a box that’s about at least one foot deep, because a shallow box will not be able to manipulate the light as required. 

This setup is accessible to everybody, even if you're stuck at home. The cheapest way to do this is by collecting some flowers, picking an empty box and fixing your light. 

Crate Setup

An antique drink crate gives a great depth and shadows to the photos because of their real wooden surface. Also shooting one type of a flower, rather than a whole bouquet, makes a dynamic photo. Here, as shown in the image below, there are lilies, along with a black card being held up with a clamp and a white foam core board to reflect the light back. 

Pro tip: An elaborate light setting up helps manipulate the light for the best photo. 

Tile Backdrop Setup

As shown in the image below, the background has an antique 10 tile, from a ceiling. It's got chippy paint on it. This is 2 feet and 18 inches wide. 

Pro tip: If you don’t like too much blur then set the aperture to 5.6 for a detailed background. 

Experiment with Colored Objects

It’s important to be careful when you have objects that are colored because sometimes that'll add a color cast. For this tutorial, a chippy side citing a tight background look of a chipped texture paper mounted on a board, with a vase, fabric and some flowers have been used.

As shown below, after the photograph has been captured, you’ll notice that the background is not as visible but the blur of the white is what makes the picture as a whole. It’s important to not take a glossy paper as it may reflect light, making it shiny. 

Pro tip: Use a tripod to refrain from any camera shake to obtain a crip and detailed photo. 

Use a Wireless Camera

Use a boom arm as shown in the image below. This was shot on Camfi with a Baby Velvet Lens. This is a wireless tethering device, so you can connect this to either your phone or ipad and see the photo in large rather than on the tiny screen of the camera, making it easier to zoom in and out. You can also click the picture from the device itself, without touching the camera, so the composition is much easier. 

Pro tip: While using a hand photo (as shown in the image below), make sure to use some hand lotion or cream so that the skin doesn't look too dry and pasty. 

Edit in Photoshop

Use presets in Photoshop and Lightroom once you have your photographs. Start by making a copy of the background and name it preset. 

Next, choose the Camera Raw Filter in the filter section, and use the presets in the camera filter. Clean off the blemishes, using a Spot Healing Tool and tweak them to get rid of any spots. 

Start sharpening the photo and then mask it to avoid making it look grainy with every single pixel being sharpened. Then, set the exposure and play in the presets. The secret to making better presets is to not include exposure, adjustment, or white balance adjustment in the preset. Then do a second round of sharpening for a high pass filter to tighten up the edges. Turn the opacity down as required. 

Put a soft overlay to tighten the edges and make it pop again. Then clean all the blemishes to begin with the texture. Go to Crave and brilliance and select a texture from there. Choose a texture based on your preferences of having the photo a little grungy or subtle or whether you want it to have it more color or not.

Once selected, make adjustments to the texture as well with regards to saturation and color tone. Add a mask and choose a soft round brush, set on black color on very low opacity. Wipe off the extra texture off your subject with a gradual transition. Finally, drag a mask and then duplicate it. 

Pro tip: To pump up the vibrance, make adjustments to hue, saturation and levels. Also, make sure to adjust the opacity of every layer.