CS178 Assignment 5 - Still Life

Vanity. Photo by Andrew Adams.


Until now most of your photos have been a kind of found art. The photograph captures something beautiful already existing in the world. This is not to say there's no creativity involved. Your interpretation of the scene, as expressed by your composition and your creative control over the camera, has been what makes the captured scene "art".

This week we'll extend your creative control beyond the camera to the scene itself. In still life photography, you arrange the scene, choose the background, and can alter the lighting however you want. You should take time with each shot to make it just how you like it. There are plenty of second chances to get the shot right with still life photography.


This assignment is similar in format to last week. There are five requirements, which you should meet by taking 5-10 photographs. The key difference between this week and previous weeks is in the selection of the scene. This week, only photograph objects you have arranged and lit yourself. Additionally, this week you should use your comments to justify your choice of background, arrangement of the objects in the scene, and your choice of lighting, in addition to justifying your choice of camera settings (ie focus, shutter speed, aperture, etc).

Before you begin, you'll find it helpful to read the final section of your course reader: "The Case of the Disappearing Glass". If you haven't looked at it yet, it's a pretty interesting read.

General Requirements

These two requirements apply to every photo you take this week.

  • Requirement 1: Background
    For every photo this week, you should carefully pick your background and must describe and justify your choice in the comments below each photo. Consider light, dark, and textured backgrounds. You can make nice backgrounds using materials like clothes, sheets, cardboard, tablecloths, etc. You must use more than one background in your assignment.

  • Requirement 2: Lighting
    For every photo this week, you should carefully arrange your lighting and must describe and justify your choices in the comments below each photo. Find some desk lamps to use, and/or arrange your scene in relation to an open window to control the lighting direction. Consider front lighting, side lighting, and even lighting your scene predominately from behind. You must use more than one lighting condition for your assignment.

Specific Requirements

These three requirements are similar to requirements from previous weeks, and can be satisfied with a single photograph each. You'll need to take multiple photographs for at least one of them, in order to reach the five photograph minimum.

  • Requirement 3: Caustics
    A caustic is a bright shape created by the focusing of light through an imperfect lens or other curved transparent object. For example, the pattern of light on a tablecloth made by light passing through a wine glass is a caustic. At least one of your photos should include a caustic. It is also possible to create caustics from curved mirrored surfaces. Hint: One of the easiest ways to get a nice caustic is to take a side-lit photograph of a glass vase or drinking glass.

  • Requirement 4: A Themed Collection
    Photograph a collection of objects that fit into one of the following categories (choose one category only): Mortality, vanity, ambition, or renewal. As this photograph requires multiple objects, you should also think about interreflections between objects.

  • Requirement 5: Portrait of an Object
    Finally, photograph a single object with some sentimental value to you. Clean it up in Photoshop using the skills you'll learn in section this week to make it look really nice.

Upload your photos and add comments.

Upload your photos using the Picasa account you created in the first week to a public Picasa album titled "CS178 Assignment 5 - Still Life". Add comments below each photo explaining how you arranged the scene, how you took the photo, what relevant camera settings you used and why, any image processing done to the photograph afterwards, and most importantly, which requirement the photo covers (all of your photographs should satisfy requirements 1 and 2).

Example Solution

We've put up an example solution to this assignment to both let you know what we expect, and hopefully also inspire you to take better photos than the TAs can. You don't have to meet the assignment requirements in the same way as we did - surprise us!

One caveat: In our example solutions we may reuse photos we already had lying around, or borrow photos from other people to illustrate a point. Don't do this - your work for each assignment should be done by you specifically for the course.

If you have questions or comments about the photos we used in the example solution, feel free to add them as comments below the corresponding photograph in Picasa Web, or to email us.


As usual, we will assign grades based on whether you met the requirements of the assignment. For each requirement, you'll be given a check for meeting the requirement, check-minus for not quite meeting the requirement, or check-plus if you do something spectacular that makes your grader's jaw drop.

Due Date

11:59PM, Sunday, May 10, 2009

Assignments are generally due on Sunday at midnight at the end of the week in which they're assigned. This leaves you free to start thinking about the next assignment during your next section. Sometimes lateness is unavoidable. Here's the lateness policy from the course outline:

Since the assignments come in rapid succession, it is important that each be completed on time. Replacing photos after the deadline is not allowed, and will be treated as a violation of the honor code. To allow for unforeseeable circumstances, you will be allowed up to two weekdays of grace for up to two of your assignments. Beyond this, late assignments will be penalized by 10% of the grade for that assignment per weekday that they are late. Exceptions to this late policy will be made only in the case of a necessary (non-pleasure) trip approved in advance by the TA for your section, or severe illness. If you do not submit one of the assignments at all, you will fail the course, even if you are taking it pass/fail. In this case, or if you believe you are in danger of failing, it is your responsibility to come talk to us before the end of the course. Incompletes are given only in exceptional circumstances.


© 2009 Marc Levoy and Andrew Adams