Photographing an urban Still Life

No Loitering 

Framed flowers & Alarm

Afternoon Lines

Still life in Red & Yellow

Shadows and Light


Reflecting cups

  Rope cleat

wood planes

In the Art classes that I took in college we would gather all sorts of interesting items to create what the instructor called “a still-life”, each week we would build a new still life to help us learn how to draw shapes, shadows, and reflections. We would compile a menagerie of odd shaped objects in some corner of the drawing studio and then place lights from different directions to produce interesting and unique shadows.

I enjoyed the art classes with all the creative mediums and imaginative people, but when one of my teachers suggested I try photography everything changed. Photography with it’s almost magical processes both behind the camera, and in darkrooms with their chemical filled trays, reached out and grabbed me and there was no going back.

Those original photography classes included a few sessions with live models, and sometimes mannequins, but I missed those long classroom discussions and the quiet periods of contemplation that accompanied those simple arrangements of objects in those art classes.

I wanted my photography to be something more than just a record of the world around me. Looking to do something other than scenics or portraiture, I decided it would be fun to join classmates that were into street photography. They wandered urban areas, pointing their cameras at scenes that included unsuspecting people in their hectic environments to create engaging images that suggested different stories to each person that viewed their pictures.  I enjoyed their compositions comprised of light, shadow, architectural features and, of course, those unsuspecting people.

I tagged along with them because I liked hanging out with photographers, enjoyed walking, and discovering the city, but always ended up either making posed pictures or excluding people all together in favor of some lamppost, architectural feature, or drawing on a wall. More often than not I’d wander off from the others to explore some alley or stairwell, searching for some more intimate features that were always part of, instead of the complete scene.

I did then, and still do, include people in some of my cityscapes. I like looking at the street photography of modern photographers, but the people in my “street” images are really nothing more than additional elements that fill a space that could as easily be occupied by any other object. I suppose my interest in still-life changed from drawing to photographing one.

I admit to photographing almost everything. I am pretty indiscriminant when it comes to the subjects I point my camera at, and without hesitation will photograph as creatively as I can, what ever moves me at the time.

And I like to think I adhere to the words of famous documentary photographer Elliot Erwitt who said, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

My process, while wandering in search of still-lifes, is to never be on any direct course as I forage for another still life and my photographs rarely show the whole. I photograph those parts that catch my attention; the still-life might include an interesting door, railing, or even window frame as I review and how the light touches them.

Drawing a still-life in those classes was much easier than hunting one with a camera. After all a photographer is forced to problem solve those found objects. I suppose one could move things around, but that’s kind of cheating. I like the search and the discovery and the process of thinking through how to make the original image. Sure, there is a lot one can do in post, and that’s just fine with me, but photographers still have to find the raw elements to begin with.

As always, I appreciate your comments.

Thanks, John

My website is at

What Does “Composition” Mean?

Cat & Rule of Thirds  White horse in field  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life offers itself to you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative.”    I included that quote by famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, because he used the word “composition”, and it is that word and how it is currently being used that I have been recently thinking about.

The word composition gets thrown around a lot when discussing photographs.  I’ll read forums where responses to posted images might say something like, “great capture, good composition,” or sometimes, something as meaningless as “I love your composition”.

I know the posters don’t actually mean composition as a photographic technique. I think it has just become an alternative word that means “picture”.  Modern photographers seem to hesitate referring to a photograph someone has posted to an online site as a picture. They want a more modern word, and I guess using the word “composition” instead of “picture” has become that word.

That came to mind, when a young photographer said to me, “I don’t really know a lot about photography, but what I do know is that I am really good at is composition.”  That was one of the few times I have been left speechless.

Photographic composition is defined as, “the selection and arrangement of subjects within the picture area.”  And unlike those who replace the word picture with the word composition, I use composition and compositional guidelines to help me enhance a photograph’s impact.

Photographers are limited by the actual physical appearance of the subjects they are photographing, and depend on camera position, the perspective created by different lense’s focal lengths, and the elements that make up a picture to communicate to viewer’s what they saw when they made the photograph.

I think about what is important and how I want to arrange my composition, and I consciously subtract those elements that I think are unimportant or distracting. When setting up a composition I usually think about and apply the ‘Rule of Thirds’ wherein we divide the image into nine equal segments with two vertical and two horizontal lines. The Rule of Thirds says that you should position the most important elements in your scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect, and by doing so, adding balance and interest to one’s picture.

I looked up composition online where there are page after page of composition tips. I decided I’d add my own, “apple technique to proper picture making and composition”.  Here goes!

While driving along and finding an inspiring scene.   Don’t just point the camera out the car window!

1. Stop the car.

2. Get out.

3. Leave the camera in the camera bag.

4. Get an apple and eat it as one looks at the inspiring scene. Think about what is likeable about it, and make some choices as to how compose, or arrange, the features within the picture area you photographing.  Photographers should ask; what would someone like to say about the scene to the viewer?

5. Finally, go back to the car, get the camera, and make the picture.

Elliott Erwitt, American, documentary photographer wrote, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

My website is at