Half-week homework: Trinket tableaux

The January hush has fallen over the land. Visiting relatives have returned to the far-off places from whence they came, herds of festive decorations are headed for the barn, and some retail workers even get to go on vacation. Lucky folks at higher elevations are resting under a blanket of snow, but even where it’s warmer there prevails a sense of exhausted relief.

So, what’s a photographer to do when everyone—including yourself—is too pooped for adventure? Simple—create adventure right at home!

Your challenge this week, should you feel like getting around to it, is to rustle up a few knick-knacks and build scenes around them to photograph. Remember when you were a kid, and you had—nay, were compelled by some inner force—to create elaborate worlds based on whatever you happened to have around? (Truly, whatever was around: I had a deep emotional connection to a bread bag stuffed with newspaper for a period of time, after I made the mistake of drawing human features on the outside.)

Tap into that creative force, and see what kind of art you can create from the tchotchkes inevitably accumulated over the course of a life. Why not take a moment to declare, unashamed, your attachment to some figure you picked up along the way by creating the portrait it deserves? You can also put your bric a brac to work—tell a story at your own pace, without all the effort it takes to cooperate with a human model!

Recommended gear: macro lens or close-focusing compact camera; small, maneuverable lighting like a macro light or LitraTorch.

For a bit of extra drama or to focus the viewer’s gaze, this kind of “portrait” can often benefit from a vignette. The easiest way to add a vignette to any photo is by overlaying a radial gradient. (I’m using Photoshop, but many other image editing software solutions will provide the same capability.) Simply choose the gradient tool (nested with the Paint Bucket in Photoshop CC), set the transition to be from foreground to transparency, select the radial form, and make sure to check the “reverse” checkbox. If you don’t select reverse, the center of your gradient will be the foreground color rather than the transparency, working against your attempt to highlight the subject!

Add a new layer, then experiment with your placement of the gradient. Click on the center of your subject, then drag off to the side to determine the point where the gradient will reach full opacity in your foreground color. (I prefer black vignettes, generally, but you can use any color you so please.) Note that you may need to drag your end point a ways off of your canvas to achieve the desired effect!


The reason I recommend you use an additional layer—other than the inherent superiority of non-destructive editing up to the point of committing to a final product—is that the gradient will leave only the very center of the circle completely transparent. A simple gradient overlay can work, but you’ll probably want to expand the transparent section a little to make sure your subject really pops. Grab your eraser tool, then make the brush extremely fuzzy to blend the transition into the gradient. In Photoshop CC, click the brush size drop-down and lower the hardness; in Photoshop Elements, you’ll just have to select a soft-looking brush from the list (shown below—click to enlarge). Enlarge your brush as much as possible to maximize the softness, then clear the way for your subject.

Et voila—the lion can roar freely!

Another tried-and-true way to help add some emotive force to your images is to go black and white. Rather than seeing what your little curios are, your viewers are forced by the unrealistic capture to analyze the pure form of your scene. This is doubly helpful for brightly-colored baubles whose childish paint jobs might distract from what you’re trying to say.

Not that you have to say anything important, of course. Take a lazy afternoon this week and have some fun! If you want to practice your post-processing skills by making an action shot of a Lego ninja confronting an alien-toad gold robber part sepia and part black & white, you go right ahead!

Whatever you do, let the rest of us share in the fun and the stories. Please post your favorite shots on our Facebook page or on Instagram tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework. Hope to see some fun shots!

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