An approach to photographing and post processing still life black and white photographs


People familiar with my photos and my black and white photography processing method of iSGM2.0 will know that this method of processing black and white photographs is very effective and accurate and gives you complete control over your architectural, landscape or seascape photographs. The questions I get asked on a frequent basis is, if they also work on black and white still life photography, portrait photography or even for color photography. Yes of course they work for those types of photographs as well. It will work on any subject matter since my method is based on the principles of isolating and controlling light and shapes and every photograph, whether this is an architectural black and white photograph, a black and white portrait photograph or any kind of black and white or color photograph, always consists of light and shapes. They are the foundations of every photograph in the post processing phase. Please refer to this article on Black and White Photography Post Processing Techniques In The Digital Age in which I explain in detail how post processing in the digital age can be done effectively and efficiently with a superior degree of control by identifying and isolating light and shapes. And control is what is needed for craftsmanship in art.

In this article I will give an example of how to approach a black and white still life photograph using my method of black and white post processing, following the phases as mentioned in my article. I will also give insight into my specific vision that precedes the processing phase: if you don’t have an idea, a visual and imaginary presentation of how to process it, then the technique is rather useless. But maybe more importantly: I’m trying to make a case for still life photography to hone your compositional skills and to learn how to really SEE things by showing the work of some famous still life photographers and how they make the ordinary look extraordinary.

So What - Black and white floral still life photograph

SO WHAT – (c) Joel Tjintjelaar 2015

Photographing Still Life – Taking The Photograph

A few suggestions for taking still life photographs and a few examples of the masters of still life photography

Although this is obviously a very important phase, the phase in which “you choose the marble to cut off from the rock to sculpt it and bring it alive according to your artistic vision” to use an analogy from the art of sculpture, I’m only going to highlight a few aspects regarding the capturing of still life photographs, that may help you when shooting still life yourself. In this phase of course the following aspects are important:

  • Composition: since you have complete control over the arrangement of objects in your frame this will require a lot of your compositional skills. You’re not bound to a given scene like in photographing architecture or landscapes, where you would get closer or move away from the subject to get the composition that works for you. That looks like a limitation but in fact it’s liberating knowing that you can’t move a mountain or a building to enhance your composition. The given arrangement is either good, then you take the photo, or not good, you will then need to look for a better vantage point or just completely abandon it. With still life photography you’re rather fixed to just one position and it all comes down to the manual arrangement of objects for your photograph with an infinite amount of arrangement options. You could even take your objects outside. It can become quite complicated. Whatever you decide, simple is better, in my view. But a simple, minimalistic composition also makes it more difficult to create interest for your subject. You can often compensate that with interesting and dramatic light to enhance the composition and the mood. That’s what I and most still life photographers try to do. It’s often the opposite with still life painters where you generally tend to see many objects. See the small gallery below with some examples of famous still life paintings. The exception is Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers with just a flower and a vase and a minimalistic background, pretty similar to how contemporary still life photographers like Mapplethorpe would approach it. I even think he was inspired by van Gogh’s flower paintings for his own compositions. If you decide to give more interest to the image by adding more supporting objects or props to the composition, then keep in mind that you have to arrange them carefully and accurately. The more objects in your frame, the more difficult it will be to make the arrangement of objects aesthetically pleasing. It certainly helps to study still life paintings to get some inspiration.
Pieter Claesz Vanitas Still Life Painting

Pieter Claesz – Vanitas

Jacopo da empoli still life

Jacopo Da Empoli Still Life

Vincent van gogh sunflowers

Vincent van Gogh – Sunflowers

  • Lighting and lenses: you can use natural light or artificial light. Of course if you have off-camera flash like studio lights and on top of that a proper neutral background, it’s easier to light and isolate your subjects but you can get very similar effects by making effective use of natural daylight and the right lens. For example: by using a longer focal length with a telephoto lens and using a wider aperture, subjects can be isolated very easily. The trade off is of course that by using a wide aperture the depth of field will be very shallow and your subject will not be sharp overall. But it really depends on how you approach and present your still life photograph to make the shallow depth of field work in your favour or not. In any case I find shooting still life photographs with a wide angle much more challenging since you have to shoot more up close and that will result in less isolation of your subject from your background. Also the lighting will be more critical. I’ve photographed various still life using a 24mm tilt shift lens to either apply a selective focus or to have sharpness throughout the whole subject without having to resort to smaller apertures. If you do that then make sure you work with a tripod which unfortunately gives you less flexibility in composing your shot. There are pros and cons to every type of set-up and it depends on what you want to achieve. The most professional results if you want to have overall sharpness without using very small apertures can be obtained with a tripod, a tilt shift lens, one or two studio lights and a neutral backdrop. The easiest results can be obtained with a longer lens, wider aperture and nothing else. The main photo of this article, called So What, has been photographed using a 70-200mm lens. Focal length is 108mm and aperture is f/8.0. I used one key light with a soft-box and one fill light to fill up the shadows.

Below are 2 quick examples of still life photography with the tilt shift lens, straight out of the camera, using two studio lights and a background system. First photo shows use of the tilt shift lens with an aperture of f/7.1 and using the tilt feature in such a way that overall sharpness of the subjects is achieved. The second photo shows the use of selective focus by tilting the TS lens so that only part of the flower is in focus and the vase is slightly blurred.

still life floral photograph with tilt shift lens
Still life with overall sharpness with a tilt shift lens
still life floral photograph with tilt shift lens with selective focus

Still life with selective focus by tilting the TS lens

I will now introduce a few masters of photography who not only know how to capture such seemingly trivial and uninteresting subjects as still life, but also know how to bring them alive in their presentations and make it look as if there isn’t anything more beautiful. I can recommend studying their work, even if you’re not a still life photographer, just because the value isn’t in the subject matter that they’re using for their photographs, the value is in the way they see things that can make any subject extraordinary. The notion that many photographers have that you can only create a beautiful and extraordinary photograph by photographing exotic subjects or locations, is indicative for the way most photographers tend to see and perceive. It has little to do with seeing but more with a lack of imagination. The real art is seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.

The famous and iconic Pepper number 30 photograph by Edward Weston is a fantastic example of how a common subject can become something very intriguing and even mysterious when observed and photographed by a photographic master. Edward Weston’s approach to still life photography is very much straight forward, not using any additional compositional elements other than light and shadow to make his subject come alive. It’s something very commonplace made extremely unusual, just by seeing the intricate beauty of a specific subject and make it come alive using light, shadows and black and white to the subject’s advantage.

Anything that excites me for any reason, I will photograph; not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual.” – Edward Weston

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is another master of photography, well known for his often provocative nude photographs of both males and females, but also for his studies of Calla lily flowers and other flowers. His compositions of still life are more complex than Edward Weston’s photographs of still life, often times using geometrical shapes formed by shadows or by the props he’s using like beautifully formed vases or just the shape of a (book)shelf. Most of Mapplethorpe’s still life photographs is in black and white but I think his color still life work is equally breathtaking.

…My whole point is to transcend the subject. …Go beyond the subject somehow, so that the composition, the lighting, all around, reaches a certain point of perfection. That’s what I’m doing. Whether it’s a cock or a flower, I’m looking at it in the same way. …in my own way, with my own eyes.” – Robert Mapplethorpe

Another famous photographer of still life is Czech photographer Josef Sudek. He became well known for his atmospheric photographs of the city of Prague but I’m particularly fascinated by his beautiful still life photos. It almost looks as if he adopted Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment concept and applied that to still life photography. As if he came across those still life objects by coincidence and didn’t even bother to arrange them into a composition. They all exude so much atmosphere.

“I believe that photography loves banal objects, and I love the life of objects.” – Josef Sudek

anemone robert mapplethorpe still life

© Robert Mapplethorpe – Anemone

still life photograph edward weston pepper number 30

© Edward Weston – Pepper Number 30

josef sudek still life

© Josef Sudek

Post Processing Still Life – Creating The Photograph

Black and white post processing of still life – a short demonstration

Once you’re in this phase of creating the photograph, it all revolves around control of the image to create a fine-art photograph according to your envisioned image. As I explained in my article on post processing techniques in the digital age, control can be achieved after identifying and then isolating the most important shapes and light in your photograph. The subject doesn’t matter. I’m mostly known for my architectural and seascape photographs and if you read my blog on a regular basis you will find many tutorials on how to apply my post processing method of iSGM2.0 to architectural photographs. I’m going to demonstrate now, using my So What still life photograph how to process a still life to black and white using my method.

Here are the two photographs. Obviously the color photo is the version as it came out of the camera and the other one the final processed version. The version that matched my internal vision.

color original still life photograph

The original color version

So what - black and white still life floral photograph

The end result

Instead of explaining in detail how I processed this image, I do think that’s the least interesting part and besides you can find all about my black and white photography post processing method in my free tutorials on this website, my video tutorials or the book (scroll down to the conclusion to see all the links and details), I’ll try to explain how I came from the color version to a version that looks like it looks now on a conceptual level. The question I imagine many people would ask: why that specific version? What were the decisions you’ve made that lead to that version?

High Level Approach

Looking at the color photograph you will see that even though the color palette is a very interesting one and matches with the triadic color scheme, I’ve decided to not go with color but with a black and white version. If you know my architectural work and my generic approach behind black and white post processing then you would know that use of selective contrast, not global contrast, and use of darker mid grays and emphasized shadows are part of my signature style. I didn’t want a completely black background like you would see in my Calla Lily photographs but a dark mid gray background. Since I didn’t want to overpower the viewer with dynamic contrasts all over the image I chose to process the flower and vase in similar mid gray tones as the background with subtle selective contrasts to isolate the flower from the background. Subtlety is key for this image. Below are two color versions with various notes in it. Both are similar representations of my general idea but the second one contains the translation to distribution in tonal zones.

color still life with notes
  1. Lightest mid gray area
  2. Dark mid gray area
  3. Darkest mid gray area
  4. Dark shadow area (approx. zones 1 and 2)
  5. Highlights – but enclosed within mid grays and not on the edges to have the strongest selective contrast inside the flower
still life flower color with zones
  1. High contrast areas from zone 1 – 10
  2. High contrast area from zone 2 – 10
  3. The red areas have low contrast
As you can see by the hotspots the idea is to use tonal zones that are adjacent to each other with a subtle difference in light/dark across the center of the image where the subject is. The highest difference in contrast is between the white inside of the vase and its surrounding (to give it a subtle sense of depth) and inside the flower itself. The principle of using selective contrast to lead the viewer’s eye effectively inside the frame. I’ve enclosed the highlights inside the flower within mid gray tones that are close to the mid gray tones directly outside of the flower but yet different enough to isolate the flower from the background. Part of the idea is to integrate the flower within the frame in a non obtrusive way by using similar or adjacent tonal zones for adjacent areas. Areas farther away from each other can have higher contrast but again adjacent areas should transition in a subtle way into other areas to reduce the contrast. The highest contrast is therefore inside the flower to ‘lock up’ the viewer inside the flower. The overall result is a minimalistic image that has a calm, austere look and feel to it, due to the largely soft contrasts throughout the image and only high contrasts in selective areas.


Roughly speaking I needed a dark mid gray flower, a darker mid gray background and a dark mid gray vase with soft contrasts. I can add the highlights after I have accomplished the overall mid gray look of the image. Next step therefore, is to create basic black and white conversions of the image. I’ve created the following three conversions using Silver Efex Pro but you can do the same using Topaz or even the Photoshop black and white conversion feature.

black and white still life neutral

Neutral black and white conversion for the vase

black and white still life blue filter

Neutral black and white conversion with blue filter applied for the dark tones in the flower

black and white still life underexposed

Underexposed conversion for the dark background

Photo 1 is the neutral conversion for the vase. Photo 2 is also a neutral conversion but this time with a blue filter to increase the darker tones in the flower itself but with soft contrasts. It almost has a velvety look and feel to it. The dark mid gray look of every element in the frame was important and the flower needed to have the visually most appealing dark mid gray tones with only selective contrasts. Some readers may argue that I also could’ve used this version for the vase, but the vase is due to the blue filter too dark and flat. Photo 3 is the underexposed version, primarily used for the darker background only.

After this it was just a matter of applying my iSGM2.0 method of black and white post processing, using one hard selection for the outline of the flower and vase together so I could isolate it from the background and several soft selections or luminosity masks for the isolation of light. Combined with the use of layers, layer masks and both the linear and reflected gradient tool, I merged the images together and manually added the highlights in the flower using luminosity masks. I also used the luminosity masks to increase sharpness in specific areas.

In a nutshell these are the following steps I used to create the image:

  1. capture the flower
  2. analyze the color composition and create a high level approach for the black and white version: the vision part.
  3. create hard and soft selections based off the original color image
  4. create the 3 different black and white versions (or less or more depending on the result you want)
  5. merge the versions together using masks and gradient tools
  6. manually adding highlights, darkening part and create smooth transitions between the indicated areas visualized prior to post processing – this is the most time consuming part.


Hopefully you will agree with me that photographing still life isn’t a boring photography niche at all. It requires a lot of the compositional skills of the fine-art photographer and even more of his perceptive skills. The real art in photography is to see the beauty in the mondaine and make it extraordinary just by really seeing instead of just looking. Seeing in this context is a way of looking at things with higher awareness. Seeing leads to more aware perception. If you really see then subject matter shouldn’t really matter in expressing your unique view on the world. Whether I shoot architecture of flowers, there’s always the same conceptual idea, the same kind of awareness of shapes, light, shadows and how they interact to create an impression. This impression, filtered through my mind, can be the ‘marble’ I seek to cut off of this rock to sculpt my creation. Subject matter is almost irrelevant. Shapes and light matter more.

If you want to learn more about my method of black and white post processing you can read the free tutorials in the tutorials section on my website. If you want to know all ins and outs of my iSGM2.0 method of post processing a black and white photograph, then I can highly recommend reading either the 424 pages eBook From Basics to Fine Art – Black and white photography, architecture and beyond, written by me and co-author Julia Anna Gospodarou or view my latest 3.5 hour B&W post processing Speed workflow tutorial that is all about my black and white photography post processing method.

Or perhaps you’re looking for more personal (one-on-one) guidance through one of my (online) workshops or online portfolio reviews: check my workshop page for more information

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