Still Life with Nuts

Have you ever seen pecans still in their shells? Until last week, I hadn’t. Somehow I am in my mid-40s and had never managed to see these gorgeous things. Recently I was wandering our local grocery store, and these lovely, shiny, red baubles caught my eye . . . along with the wonderful textures and shapes of the almonds, walnuts, filberts, and hazelnuts in the bins next to them. Perfect for a still life photographic study.

Here are all the components I started with for this study:


And here is what I ended up with:

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So this is where I talk about how I got from there to here.

I started out focusing a bit on composition—adding and subtracting elements. Quickly figured out that two pomegranates was overkill and that the scoop was just too small…and too shiny. The nutcracker was also a bit shiny (I would have given anything for an old nutcracker with a bit of an antique patina), but after taking some shots without it, I decided I needed it for the “story” I wanted to tell with my still life. I thought that with careful lighting and composition I could probably de-emphasize some of that shiny newness the nutcracker exuded.


I tried a few different lighting styles while I was still figuring out composition. The shot above was lit with a 50-inch softbox above and behind, as well as a bare flash bounced of my white ceiling. I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention that my studio is completely white, except for the floor, which is a nice warm wood laminate.

I tried a few other compositions and perspectives with the same light and added a white card diagonally out front, camera right.


I also tried feathering light from the softbox by turning it away from my subject. I was surprised by how flat the light seemed.


So far I was unimpressed. I was looking for something a bit more dramatic. I like the little wood tray I had been using as the surface for my subjects, but I wanted something darker that would complement the woody texture and look of the nuts. I pulled out a rougher, darker false table top and then to add some drama to the light, I added black cards behind and to the right. Also tried taking off the scrim in the soft box just to see what the hard light would look like. Definitely more dramatic, but the hard light was too…hard. So I took the softbox off my stand and turned my speedlight to bounce off the white wall to the left of the subject and got this.


This was definitely closer to what I was looking for, but the light was still a bit too hard. Those pecans are quite shiny! So to soften the light a little bit, I added a scrim. I also added a CTO gel to see if I could warm up the scene.

And voila…I got the light and drama and warmth I was looking for. Here is a behind-the-scenes shot taken some time soon after I decided this was the light setup I wanted to stick with.


After finding the light I tried a few other compositions—made some minor shifts and also tried some closeup shots of the walnuts and pecans.

Here is an attempt to make a walnut into a bit of a hero. I also experimented with a white card (white card in the first image, taken out in the second):

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I kind of like it without, though the white card definitely lit up the inside of the bag a bit more nicely.

In the end I decided to stick with one of the closeups and one that featured those gorgeous red pecans a bit more prominently. And here are the final images one more time…

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