The 4 Piece Photo Challenge

Text and Images by Chuck Place

It’s raining outside, you can’t go out and play and you’re developing cabin fever. What to do? Assign yourself the 4 Piece Photo Challenge! Sounds silly, I admit, but it’s a great tool for building up your photographic creativity.

The Photo Challenge works like this.

Pick out 4 objects or sets of objects in your home and use these to create interesting still life images. This is an exercise that I find often results in portfolio-quality photographs.

Let’s walk through the steps of an actual shoot–the strawberries at the top of this post. Item 1 was a basket of fresh strawberries. Item 2 was a bowl of complimentary color from my kitchen. Item 3 is an antique fork, also from my kitchen, and item 4 is a napkin. You can probably guess where I found that. The surface is a piece of slate I found at a stone yard. It was cheap but it weighs a ton. I think the guy discounted the price just to see if I could pick it up.

Photographs from directly above

Photographs from directly above produces a more graphic image

Food photography is one of my main specialties, so I tend to create food still lives with a slightly modern feel. Anything will work for this Challenge however—cut flowers, old glassware, your baseball trading card collection, Pez dispensers—anything. A few support items, in this case a bowl, fork and napkin, and any surface that works with your main subject and you’re in business.

Essentially you are creating a photo set.

For lighting, I like window light. It’s soft, directional and I can manipulate it quite a bit. Pick a window with indirect light flowing through it. There should be no direct sunlight passing through the window. This should give you soft edged shadows and large highlights.

Photographing strawberries at a low angle

Photographing strawberries at a low angle produces an intimate viewpoint

If you want darker shadows, move your set farther from the window or place a black sheet of matt board or foam core board on the room side of your set to block any ambient fill from the room. If you want lighter shadows, move your set closer to the window or add a white board to the room side of the set to provide fill light.

The shooting angle will also have a big impact on the success of your final image.

Placing your camera directly above a set creates a rather graphic look to the image while shooting from a lower angle, say 45 degrees, produces more intimate visual. In either case, make sure you are getting good highlights on reflective surfaces.

Change some props and the surface

Change some props and the surface to create a new set of photographs

If you want to push yourself a little, change a couple props and create a new set of images.

In any case, drop a sheet of white paper in the very first exposure and then remove it for the rest of the shoot.  This gives you a target so you can neutralize the usually cool light from the window in post-production.

These are basically composition exercises, but I always try to imbed a storyline into each still life. The top image has the feel of a warm spring day eating the first strawberries of the season. It’s challenging but also lots of fun. And no matter how my images turn out, I get to eat some of the props. I’ll have to start shooting desserts.