Control the light
Still-life shots need extra care and attention to detail
Auto mode might seem like the easy option, but manual mode will be simplest in the long run
Still-life subjects can produce some beautiful pictures, but also some unexpected exposure problems. The fact is that the light meter built into any camera can only measure the light reflected from your subject. It can’t tell a pale subject from a dark one, so it has to assume everything you shoot has a kind of average grey tone. So if you’ve ever wondered why your bride’s wedding dress has come out grey, or why a soot-stained loco comes out a muddy mid-tone rather than a dense black, this is why.
There is another issue. Every time you rearrange your props or swap a dark subject for a light one, the camera will recalculate the exposure, even though the lighting hasn’t changed. The fact is, once you’ve set up your scene, you only have to measure the exposure once. From then on, you can keep using that same exposure. Auto mode might seem like the easy option, but manual mode will be simplest in the long run.
Manual mode becomes even more useful when you start experimenting with your own lighting setups. Our main image was shot using the light from a window, but you can also light your subjects with LED lamps, flash or any other kind of light source you have to hand. You can even light your subject and your background separately to create vivid contrasts of light and colour. This is where your camera’s exposure meter may start to struggle. It is possible to use the spot metering mode and some mental maths to work out the correct exposure – or you could take the simple option, switch to manual and use trial and error.
The beauty of digital photography is its flexibility. You can shoot an image, check it on the camera’s LCD display, make any necessary adjustments to the exposure settings and shoot it again.
■ Sometimes it’s easier to choose exposure settings which are more or less right, then change the distance and the angle of your lights to fine-tune the strength and balance of the lighting. You can only do this in manual.