Still Life Photography Ideas…The Cloud Tank
One of the toughest things with all genres of photography is being creative. More to the point, coming up with unique concepts and then implementing them effectively. That last part is the hardest. I see a lot of people producing “unique” and creative product photography, and I applaud them for attempting to do so, but sadly they fall short. As we all know, it’s a fine line between genius and madness. Still life photography ideas are hard to come by and even harder to pull off. Here, I’m going to take you through a couple shots I took of Dove Body Wash using a technique called Cloud Tank.
Briefly, I do not wish to discourage anyone! If you’re attempting new things and they’re not quite working, then I would suggest one of two things. Firstly, you’re not ready to take this step and need to hone your knowledge of the fundamentals. Secondly, perhaps you didn’t manage to produce that idea you had floating around in your head because your planning and preparation was not up to scratch. It’s a big step which should not be ignored.
What The Hell Is A Cloud Tank?
From memory, the Cloud Tank technique was first used in the film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, directed by some unknown by the name of Steven Spielberg (never heard of him). You can see some photos of the tank and crew in question by clicking here. As you can see, they had a slightly larger tank than me.
The point of this was not simply to muck around with a massive fish tank, but to create clouds which were then added into the film. Back in the days before CGI, things had to be done the hard way. Having seen a video about the use of Cloud Tanks in Indiana Jones, I became inspired. Typically, this technique involves creating two layers of water one of which is heavily saturated with salt. With the two layers formed, liquids are injected and remain suspended on the top layer, creating clouds. I knew that wouldn’t work for me but I had other things in mind.
Getting Creative, Dove Body Wash Photography
My version of the Cloud Tank didn’t involve salt water at all but I did want to create “cloud-like” shapes which could then be manipulated. You’ll see what I did with the RAW files later. I used evaporated milk, food colouring and large syringes to inject the milk into the water. One random tip, I found that briefly heating the milk in the microwave made the clouds a little more smooth. No idea why that thought came to me.
Aside from heating the milk, getting good clouds take lots of practice, the right ingredients, and the right consistencies. Once you’ve done a few injections you’ll have to empty the tank. Otherwise, it becomes far too murky and very difficult to separate the clouds from the background. I purchased a cheap drill pump and hose pipe from Amazon to speed up the process of emptying the tank. Can’t recommend that enough.
Still Life Photography Ideas, Photographing The Bottles
Photographing the Dove Body Wash was by far the easiest part. In the rear view you see above I have; two blacks cards either side as negative fill, and one white card in front to lighten the base.
In total, three lights were used to light the Dove Body Wash. Two had gridded reflectors on them and acted mostly as fill light. With the third light, I used a small strip box pressed up against the two scrims. The effect of that was to create two equal gradients down both scrims, which in turn illuminated the bottle.
I knew that a lot was going to be done in post here, so I wasn’t overly bothered with making this shot “perfect”. All I wanted was a decent base image to work from. Something relatively flat which I could then manipulate however I chose to in Photoshop. You can see the RAW file below. Bear in mind, I also focus stacked this shot using Helicon Focus to ensure sharpness from front to back. Find my review of Helicon focus here (as well as a little discount).
With all the RAW elements assembled it was a case of putting them together in Photoshop. As you can imagine the process was quite extensive and took some time. That said, decent still life photography ideas, in fact good ideas of any kind, may take you a long time to accomplish. Don’t be afraid to spend a few days editing an image.
My editing process is always the same and doesn’t involve any steps which are beyond the abilities of most people. I’ve written a whole article on the subject of workflow which you can find here. The most challenging aspect here was creating the wings.
To do so, I first combined multiple images from the Cloud Tank. With a large cloud trail to work with, I used a combination of puppet warp and liquify to manipulate them into the shapes you see above. I then used curves to add contrast, sculpt them and add shadows.
Summary, How To Have Unique Still Life Photography Ideas
I think the biggest piece of advice I can give is to be open. I get inspired every day by things that I see. It might be a photo from a fellow photographer, a music video, something on the street anything. The key is, once you have your idea you MUST write it down. If you are anything like me, you will forget. Other than openness, I return to the beginning of this article; you need a good grasp of many things before you even attempt something like this. You need to know photography and Photoshop very well. Thankfully there’s so much education around these days that it’s easy (ish) to learn.
Photigy is a great place for learning product photography, and they even have a course on Cloud Tank photography! Check it out here.
One of the ideas I have floating around in my head right now involves a sieve type object and gold paint. Think gold rain surrounding a perfume bottle. That’s all I have right now but it’s a start. Good luck coming up with your own still life photography ideas.