George Wilson: Shooting Small Objects & Still Life While Traveling

Gw Still Life Travel Thumb

Let’s start with a scenario that no one really hopes happens. You are on a great vacation and it starts to rain. Outdoor activities like the beach, golf or horseback riding are not likely to happen with rainy weather. Perhaps you are on a cruise and you have a sea day between ports. Should you put your camera in the bag and read a book? No, absolutely not! Rainy days with overcast light are perfect for doing still life work on the road. All you need is a window and some creativity.

In the world of photography, nothing happens without light. In most cases, there are two types of light that photographers primarily work with: natural and artificial. For my own work, I prefer using natural light whenever possible and consider myself to be a natural light photographer.

One of the tools that has made the biggest difference in natural light photography (and, for that matter, studio photography) is a reflector. Travel means packing light, but it does not mean doing without. I happen to carry with me an assortment of Photoflex LiteDiscs in the 12” size. I began using these originally for close-up flower photography in tight spaces or public gardens. But because they fold neatly and fit into my camera bag or pocket, they have become a standard item for traveling and walking around cities while exploring. An oversized reflector in a crowded area can be a recipe for disaster as you may end up hitting someone or something. My 12” LiteDiscs reflectors are ideal for tabletop still life work.

The standard reflectors I carry are Translucent, SunLite, Gold, Silver, Black and White. I use the Translucent reflector for diffusing light as small specular light sources produce harsh light and strong shadows. The sun is a small light source, (I am able to cover it with my thumb in the sky). By broadening the light source with diffusion, the light is softened and shadows lose their contrast.

The SunLite surface I use for a slight warming effect. I use the White reflector for a soft neutral highlighting, and Gold is used where I want to warm up the light on a subject, like a dimly lit coffee shop or wine bar. Silver, the strongest of the LiteDiscs reflectors, is a surface I reserve for overcast days or working in Black & White.

On a recent trip we had fog, rain and some wind, which made outdoor shooting conditions less than optimum. With the weather not cooperating I made still life photography the focus.

Searching around for available items, I first found a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses from the cabinet in the room where I was staying. The champagne was a gift upon my arrival and I wanted a way to remember a thoughtful gift long after it was gone. I set the bottle on the edge of the coffee table with two glasses.

I pulled the blinds closed until just a sliver of light illuminated the scene. I then pulled out my 12” LiteDisc Silver reflector. I had to work with the light streaming in to get the desired effect because in each shot I made, you could see the reflection of the reflector in the bottle. I quickly found that I could not eliminate it, only reduce it. By holding the reflector over my head and angled down, I was able to make the shot. Looking closely at the bottle, I can still see my reflection, but I don’t think anyone will notice without me pointing it out.

I wanted the light to be a bit harder, so I took a reflected light meter reading with a hand held light meter from the gold foil on the spout of the bottle. Being roughly middle toned, this would brighten the edge of the light on the side of the bottle and the glasses, while still keeping the bottle and the background dark. At ISO 400, my exposure was f1.8 at 1/250. The wide open aperture and the low key style of the image kept the background from competing with the subject for the viewer’s attention.

For my next photo I chose a fruit bowl that was also in the room, as I liked the shapes, textures and colors. I selected an orange, green apple and a banana as my subjects.

On the window sill, I tried several arrangements against a potted plant (the vase of which can be seen in the upper left hand corner of the image below). I like working with shadows to establish contour and depth. In this image the heavily shadowed left hand side of the image helps the viewer also focus on the textures and colors of the chosen fruit. Closing the sheer blinds just a bit and including them in the corner opposite the shadow helps focus the viewer on the subject as well.

For this shot I held the 12” LiteDisc SunLite reflector above my subject pointing down. This gave a slightly stronger and warmer light on the fruit. I held my hand held analog light meter over the scene, pointing out the window to measure the light falling in for a proper exposure. My meter read at ISO 400 so I would need f5 at 1/125, to render the scene as I saw it in front of me.

Lastly, when traveling I always try to bring back currency and coins. I have collected coins since I was a kid, scanning through my paper route money. I would find silver quarters, Canadian coins, wheat pennies and so forth. Coins from across the globe constitute a great source of historical and artistic material. They can also give important information about official, religious, political and ideological thought in a particular region.

The coins in the image below came home from a recent trip to Honduras. Honduran currency is called Lempira, which finds its origins in one of the native languages; Lenca and translated means “lord of”. Upon the arrival of the Spanish in the 1530’s, a man called Lempira unified local tribes against the Spanish and by 1537 had built an army of 30,000 from 200 different villages. In 1931 Honduras renamed their currency and placed his profile on it.

The highly reflective nature of coins presents a challenge, so I tend to use coins that have already been in circulation for a while. Dents and scratches tend to make the viewer wonder about the history of the coins and the hands they may have passed through. Often, if I have one with the year I visited, it will be placed date side up in the photograph. That is not the case in this shot. Here I used the 12” LiteDisc Translucent surface to lessen the reflection of the lights above me. Metering below the diffuser, I used my hand held analog light meter to determine exposure. For this shot, I used ISO 100, f 4.5 at ½ second. A 60mm Nikkor Micro lens helped me get in nice and close.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit

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