bowl of summer strawberries photographed from above

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.


phalaenopsis, or moth orchids in a greenhouse

Give Yourself A Photo Assignment II

Text and Images by Chuck Place

I have too many interests! Photography is my passion, but I also love cooking, hiking, kayaking, fishing, gardening—the list goes on. Orchids have always fascinated the gardener in me and at one point, I decided to give myself an assignment photographing orchids and local orchid collectors.

Comparison of micro orchids and lemon-sized cymbidium orchids

Comparison of micro orchids and lemon-sized cymbidium orchids

Like many editorial photographers, I find a subject that interests me and start to pick around the edges of the subject with a camera. Once I capture a few interesting files, I find a client to publish the project and then dive in head first.

Orchid collector tending plants in his shade house

Orchid collector tending plants in his shade house

Everyone has their hobbies, their causes, their passions. They all make great self-assignments.

It can be as simple as photographing a short road trip up the Big Sur Coast, or as complex as—well, orchid collectors.

Studio portraits of orchids in a lath house

Studio portraits of orchids in a lath house

My first step was to ask myself why anyone would be interested in this subject. Let’s face it, orchids are exotic creatures, the butterflies of the flower kingdom. One group even has the nickname of butterfly orchids. Orchid collectors are seemingly sane individuals who obsessively shape their world around obtaining and raising orchids. Being a photographer, I can relate to that last part easily.

orchid seedling lab

cybidium orchid seedlings are inspected at Gallup and Stribling Orchids, Carpinteria

My next step was compiling a Shoot List.

This is where I determine the width and depth of my coverage and I tend to burrow in deep. Orchid portraits would be necessary, of course, in both commercial greenhouses and private lath houses. I needed to illustrate the huge variety of orchids, from large tropical cattleyas to tiny micro orchids.

Chinese Brush Painting of orchid

Chinese Brush Painting of orchid

Images of collectors would also be critical–watering, feeding, pollinating, hybridizing and interacting with their specimens. I would also need to cover orchid shows, competitions, clubs, sales and cultivation demos. This shoot list introduced subjects that needed to be researched and a list of people I would need to contact.

Orchids for sale at a commercial greenhouse

Orchids for sale at a commercial greenhouse

Finally, what was going to be the “Look” of the coverage. It seemed obvious to me that bright colors were going to be a thread running through the images.

Orchid collector in the jungle of his lath house

Orchid collector in the jungle of his lath house

I could easily photograph orchid blossoms every day for months and still not have the visual diversity of images for which I always strive. It’s easy to get tunnel vision at this point, but that is the beauty of a self-assigned project. It forces you to move past the obvious core subjects and produce a wide range of subjects that expand on that main topic. It forces you to be creative.

laelia orchid is pollinated by hand

laelia orchid is pollinated by hand

I find self-assigned projects fall into two main categories—locations or subjects.

How about spring wildflower blooms in the California deserts—if the rains continue? Wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley? This is a subject we cover n my Location Photography Spring Workshop coming up in March. Something more challenging? How about marine mammals of the So Cal coast? Saltwater fly fishing in the California surf? Did that one already. Got really wet. Summer Solstice Parade from costume development to the actual parade?

Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

A half hour with your favorite beverage should generate enough ideas to keep you busy for the next year. Step outside your comfort zone, learn to shoot a wider range of subjects and become a much more rounded visual storyteller. Get curios and have fun.

All you need is the structure of a self-assignment. Try it out!


Location photography workshop Spring 2019.

Join A Location Photography Workshop In Spring 2019

Join professional magazine photographer Chuck Place for 5 fun location photo shoots on consecutive Saturday mornings starting March 23 in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country and Santa Barbara area. With input from Chuck, fine tune your photographic skills and develop a personal style while exploring towns, locations and events like Los Olivos, Solvang, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Figueroa Mountain and the Summer Solstice Parade or the Santa Barbara Harbor and Seafood Festival. 

Each photo shoot will be at a different location, depending on events and season. Get feedback on your images each week from Chuck and your fellow students and learn how a professional photographer approaches various subjects and lighting environments. Class size will be capped at 10 so that Chuck has plenty of time to spend with each student. See Class and Workshop Recommendations.

Tuition is $300. for all five weeks of the workshop payable at least three weeks in advance.

Cancellations two weeks or more before the start date will receive a full refund. Cancellations between one and two weeks before the start date will receive a 50% refund and there will be no refunds for cancellations the week before the start date. For more details, please e-mail Chuck at chuckplace@cox.net.