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 alter the lighting however you want. You should take time to arrange each shot just how you like it. There are plenty of second chances to get the shot right in still life photography.


This week there are four requirements that should be met 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 may find it helpful to read the final section of your course reader, "The Case of the Disappearing Glass," which describes how your lighting interacts with glass objects to achieve varying degrees of reflectivity and transparency. Consider these lighting effects carefully, and see if you can use them to create a dramatic effect!

General Requirements

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

  • General Requirement A: Background
    For every photo this week, carefully pick your background 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.

  • General Requirement B: Lighting
    For every photo this week, carefully arrange your lighting and justify your choices in the comments below each photo. You can use desk lamps or arrange your scene in relation to an open window to control the lighting direction and lighting color. 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

The first three requirements can each be satisfied with one or more photographs. Requirement 4 requires that you post two photos.

  • Requirement 1: 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 2: 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 3: Portrait of an Object
    Finally, photograph a single object with some sentimental value to you. How does this object make you feel? Dreamy, wistful, happy, or sad? Can you capture this feeling via careful manipulation of the composition and exposure, or by post-processing in Photoshop using the skills you learned in section?

  • Requirement 4: Levitating Objects
    Now it's time to have a little fun. In this requirement, you will create the illusion that one (or more!) objects are floating in mid-air. For example, you may want to suspend fruit, a flower without a vase, a stapler and a piece of paper, a camp stove, some jewelry, etc. There are many options here, so be as creative as you like!

    There are many ways to achieve the floating object effect, but in general you may want to follow a procedure like this:

    • Mount your camera on a tripod or place it carefully on a hard surface so that you can take multiple pictures without any camera movement. (You can always use "photomerge" in photoshop to align the frames after the fact if there was some small movement between images.)
    • Choose your background, and take one picture of the background without the floating objects in the photo. This will serve as the bottom layer when you assemble your image in Photoshop.
    • Now, take another photo with the object in the scene. In order to "suspend" the object above your background you can hold it with your fingers, place it on top of a box, suspend it with a string, etc. Think carefully about how you do this, because you will end up removing these supports in Photoshop. Be careful not to obscure part of the object, or to cast any unwanted shadows.
    • Load the images into Photoshop and create a document with one photo in each layer (with the background-only image on bottom of the stack). Use a combination of layer masks, the clone stamp tool, context aware fill, and any other methods that you learned in section to remove the support and create the perfect illusion of a floating object.

    In order to fulfill this requirement, you must post two images: (1) an image showing the setup for your shot, and (2) the final "trick" photograph with the floating objects. Use the comments to describe how you set up and lit your shot. Be sure to look at the example solutions for guidance.

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.

As a reminder, we will penalize photographs with insufficient comments. You should write at least two paragraphs (ie two picasa comments) below each of your photos 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 general requirements A and B).

Example Solution

As usual, we've posted an example solution to this assignment to let you know what we expect. For additional inspiration, you may want to peruse the best CS178 photographs (as selected by the TA's and instructor) from 2009 and 2010. However, you do not need to meet the assignment requirements in the same way as these solutions do - in fact, you should challenge yourself to come up with creative, unique compositions. There are plenty of possibilities out there. Surprise us!

Please remember that the photographs that you submit for each assignment must be taken by you specifically for this course. Do not reuse old photographs that you may have laying around, even if they perfectly meet one of the requirements!

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.


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 8th, 2011

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. In such circumstances, be sure to read the lateness policy from the course outline, or contact your TA.

© 2009-2011 Marc Levoy, Andrew Adams, and Jesse Levinson