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  • Writer's pictureGareth Partington

Finding beauty photos in the macabre - Part One

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

It was a cold day and lockdown was in full force in the UK in April of 2020. I was busy doing some gardening and under the bushes I spotted something black and looking quite disgusting. I reached in and pulled it out and it turned out to be a dead blackbird. My first impression was to feel sorry for the bird, I'm not sure if a cat had got it but it was quite decayed and I was about to throw it away when I thought "I wonder if can use this in a photograph?"

Creating a still life

As I studied the blackbird I instantly thought of Game of Thrones and the ravens and this got my mind thinking of the Maesters and the tables they study at. I had some old books in the garage and went about thinking how I could construct a still life.

I knew the image needed to look old and like it belonged in a painting or from a fairy tale so I needed to have textures and depth to it.

I flicked through the chapters of the books and came across a story titled "The Fox And The Crow"

"Perfect I thought", this was going to be the bases of the photo and help to influence the direction I went in.

Setting up a studio at home

As we were in full lockdown, only allowed to leave the house for one activity of excise day I needed to find a location to photograph. The idea of brining a mite ridden dead bird into the house didn't appeal to me, so I decide to set up a studio in the garage.

The space was cramped, there was not a lot of room to manoeuvre the lights and the camera position was quite limited. This still did not deter me from trying.

I had been working as a product photographer for the past five years and thought this would be an ideal opportunity to show off my skills with the camera and that I could do more than just photograph objects against a white background.

Gathering the Props

In order to create my still life photo, I knew I needed more than just the bird. I wanted to tell some sort of story, perhaps this bird was used in a ritual, it was caught by the fox in the story, or it represented loosing ones freedom like we had in lockdown.

I knew I needed different textures in order to bring the image to life. Luckily I had quite a few old books which could be used to bring shape and lines into the image. I had dried out some roses a few months ago and the colour on these was so nice, I knew I wanted to include those. I still needed something to fill in the gaps which would be apparent, so I gathered a few materials from the garden, as well as some old material and I was all set to begin creating.

Know where you are going to show your work

So when it came to this photo, before I had taken a single image, I began to think about where I wanted this image to be viewed. I had lots of different textures and I wanted it to be super detailed.

This was not a shot which was intended to just be viewed on instagram at a size of 2 inches by 1 inch. I wanted it to be printed, I wanted all of the pages to be clearly seen and the typeface of the book to legible. In order to do this I was going to have to create something called a focus stack.

Focus stacking

Focus stacking is where you take a series of images, where the camera focuses on different parts and then they are all combined to make one picture. It sounds complicated and it is. I had learnt this technique whilst working as a jewellery photographer where macro shots needed to have detail of the items clearly seen from front to back.

With all this in mind I set about constructing the image and working out the lighting.

The lighting

When I was working out how to light these photos I looked at painters and how they used predominately window light. This wasn't going to be an option for me as in order to create a focus stack I needed every single photo to be identical in terms of framing and lighting in order to then blend all the pictures seamlessly together. So I decided on a single gridded soft box to camera left and used a series of reflectors to help bounce light back into different parts of the picture.

40 - 60 individual photos to make up one image

As I began to create these focus stacked images it turned out to be a very time consuming project. In order to get the image sharp from front to back I was having to take between 40 and 60 individual photos. The flash was firing in three second increments, the camera was locked down on a tripod and I was desperately trying not to knock anything.

Because of the amount of time I was taking in setting up and taking the photos I was getting through batteries at an incredible rate.

It's really hard to see how the final photo would look as well, as I was reliant on the images been completely consistent and I wouldn't know if there were any errors until I got onto the computer to begin the edit.

The Final Photos

I ended up with three final compositions I liked. There were probably about ten in total created but something was off about the way I had positioned the bird, books, or lighting. So when it came to editing I decided to slim down the final images.

The editing process took a really long time to complete as the images first had to be stacked, aligned and blended in Photoshop. One slight knock of the camera, caused the edit to be completely ruined so I discounted quite a few of the attempts as I made quite a few mistakes.

I hope you like the final photos so here they are.

Photo 1

I feel this is the weakest composition of my final three photos but I still like it.

Look how incredibly detailed the images are, you can see every feather, word and petal.

Photo 2

I tried an over head composition and moved the lighting to camera right and loved how the beak made a shadow underlining the title of the book "The auction of souls"

Photo 3

This I feel was the most successful image out of the three final photos. The eye seems to flow nicely round the composition and the elements seem to fall into place. You can't see "The Auction Of Souls" book but the chapter "The Fox And The Crow" went well with the idea.

It's amazing how detailed a focus stacked photo can be, you can read all of the words on the pages in the image.

Still Life Photos

I was so impressed with how the images came out, they may not be to everyones taste but when printed on fine art paper they look exquisite, but that will have to be saved for another blog as this one has gone on quite long enough for today.

I'm going to explore a bit more with still life photography as lockdown continues so you may see some more posts on this subject coming soon.

Have you ever found inspiration in the most unlikely of things? Who'd have thought finding a dead bird in the garden would send me down a rabbit hole of still life creations. If you ever created still life photos I'd love to see them, send me a link to your instagram, website or where ever you show your work.

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