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  • Writer's pictureGareth Partington

Finding beauty photos in the macabre - Part Two

This is a sad story that resulted in some more still life photos centred around the death of a bird.

Throughout the spring of lockdown 2020 I had worked very hard to create a safe space for birds in my garden and hung out bird feeders, put up nesting boxes and made sure there was water in the bird bath. We were visited by some Cole Tits who took up home in one of the nesting boxes and the weeks passed and we had some chicks who fledged the nest.

We were enjoying them in the garden fluttering around and growing rapidly when suddenly I heard a thud. I went to see what the noise was and lying on the floor was one of the baby birds, lifeless and still. I was shocked, it had flown into the kitchen window, not seconds ago it was bouncing around in the trees with its siblings.

A photo opportunity

As sad as it was the bird has just commuted suicide flying directly into the window I decided I would make the most of its death and use the little bird in some photos.

I had really enjoyed creating the still life photos with the black bird so decided this was the approach I would take again.

The garage was once again converted into a make shift studio and the lights were set up in the same way I had photographed the black bird.

There was a gridded soft box to camera left, reflectors to camera right and I did also attempt to diffuse the natural sunlight coming through the garage, to see if I could create the photos without using the flash.

A woman of moods

Looking through my old books I came across one book titled "A woman of moods" and a passage stood out to me.

"And now the spirit of the wicked White Lady haunts the castle, and has done for many a day, until her wretched spirit is set free by some enormous piece of self-sacrifice being imposed willingly on the owner of the place or their belongings"

Perhaps the little bird had in-fact been a sacrifice which was talked about in the passage. If this wasn't the case it was still a good place to start in constructing my still life.

Focus stacking

As with the previous still life I wanted to try and convey a feeling that these photos were timeless in their appearance and I wanted everything to be in focus, so I would need to employ the focus stacking technique again to achieve this.

I had learnt a lot on how to improve this technique since I last did it, so the camera was firmly planted on a tripod with added weight to the bottom so it didn't move.

When Photoshop creates the blend there is quite a lot of the edge of the image which turns out blurry and needs cropping off, so when I was framing my composition I needed to take into consideration. I would loose perhaps 3% of the image around the edge.

As you can see in the above image the camera was set to take sixty individual photos in order to make the one single, final photo.

Composition one

The first composition I tired, was using some old keys with the dead roses I had dried out. My idea was perhaps these were the keys to the castle mentioned in the book but I think they looked too modern .

The detail of the image was amazing once I got it into photoshop, but I didn't feel the Cole Tit was clearly seen, you could not see the amazing colours of its belly and so I went back to the set up to try again.

I did like how the beak was pointing to the line "I hope her poor soul will be released."

Composition two

The second set up required me to completely deconstruct the props and go for a more face on view. I wanted to see if I could use the books to lead the eye around the picture and bring texture into the image with the use of the flowers and some garden foliage.

I loved the way the light was falling on this set up and the bird casted a shadow upon the book. You could see some of the yellow around its neck and it felt like it had more depth to the image.

I still wanted to see if I could improve so I started to alter the composition of the elements in the image. They were only subtle changes like changing the background books or opening up pages but I wanted to keep working on the image until I was happy.

Bird position two

In this one I moved the bird onto its side so you could see more of the yellow belly. It felt very odd moving this dead little creature into different positions, but if I could capture one good image at least its life will live on in a photo.

I changed the background book and tried to have the pages of one book falling open. The idea was to lead you to the book in the background which was about birds in folk tales.

This technique is so time consuming but the detail is just mind blowing.

Bird position three

With the final set in this series I moved the bird onto its side and added more roses in the top right. These were only little changes and they do all look very similar but sometimes its the small changes that can make a big difference to the final image.

When I was teaching I would try to encourage my students to keep working through an idea and not give up at the first image created. I had spent perhaps a couple of hours trying to perfect this set up and so decided to move on and try one last thing.

Composition three

In the final composition I decided to focus just on the bird and remove the words from the books. I think these feel so sad without the context of a story.

The dead roses showed that everything in the image was devoid of life, even the conifer branches were dying and turning brown.

When you look at the Cole Tit close up in all its detail you can see it hasn't quite developed its adult feathers. It was a very macabre thing to be doing, photographing this poor creature but I was finding it fascinating at the same time.

Bird position two

For the very final set up I decide to try moving into a portrait format.

Trying to create a compelling composition so close up was very difficult, but I used the books to lead you into the image and made sure the books and wood were all of a similar red/brown tone.

The final destination

As I said in my previous post when I was creating the still life photos, I was very aware that I didn't want these just to end up on instagram at a tiny size.

I had brought myself an A3 printer but I had not really used it all that much so this was the perfect excuse to dust off the ink and get it running. Printing is an art in its self and I could write another lengthy post about printing, so for now I will just show you the image of it coming out of the printer.

Th image was printed on to Fotospeed Smooth Cotton 300 paper and it gave it a wonderfully painted look.

When you compare it to the original photo on the computer the print is lighter and looses some of the contrast but I can promise you when you look at the image on fine art paper it looks so incredible and I much preferred it to the screen version.

This project was so much fun and I learnt so much in terms of shooting, lighting and editing. Sometimes it really is good to move out of your comfort zone and experiment. I think I have found a new appreciation of still life photography from the two I have created so far.

Which was your favourite composition I created or did you find the subject matter to be too dark and macabre for you? Either way I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via direct message. Have you created still life photos and how did they turn out? Who was your inspiration for doing so? If you can recommend any painters I should be looking at please let me know.


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