29 Dec 2011

White and golden tea

Still life with tea and feathers
It all started few weeks ago, when my friend Jenn told me about a photographic competition hosted by the blog Culinographie. The challenge was to come up with a white & gold Christmasy composition.
I rarely shoot high-key compositions but I am esthetically attracted to them so I decided to give it a try.
Christmas goes very well with white naturally, think of flaky snow, powdery sugar or shining icing; white is as much Christmas as it is red. Still, I wanted to keep the color palette pretty basic and so I tried to concentrate my effort on choosing something golden to shoot as hero. Sweets were unfortunately out of the question but the necessity to have almost exclusively white props pushed me to choose tea as my main subject.
This isn't so far fetched, few things can better fill the long dark winter afternoons than a warm steaming cup of tea enjoyed while watching people freezing outside in the streets. One specific variety of tea comes to my mind when I need to pamper myself and that is the milk oolong tea.
Its scent is rich, thick and buttery, the taste lives up to expectations with sweet overtones of vanilla but still maintaining the aromatic notes typical of oolong teas. All together seems to be sipping a cup of feathers while wrapped in a warm cozy embrace.

The idea for the photography composition came to me while sipping some coffee actually: tea, teacup, steam, snow and feathers where the only props I needed but to push the golden theme I decided to use a golden spoon and few Christmasy decorations.

Styling the shoot was quite simple; I used some gum-paste feathers I have in my prop stash that I dangled in midair using kitchen twine passed through a rattan tray. The background was simply created using wax-paper placed in front of a white cardboard and some fake snow completed the set.
The most delicate part was to get the feathers in a good position from the start since they are quite fragile, the use of my preparatory sketch was quite handy in doing this.

As tea I actually use some loose milk-oolong tea that I have in my pantry but I let it stand for a while and oxidize till it turned golden in color. To enhance the theme I suspended some golden flakes in the tea itself, they also add few more points of interest to the central area.

As concerning the lights, I placed my big home-made white-balanced light on the left between 8 and 9 hours. A big silver bouncer was placed on the right completed by a little fill_light placed around 5 o'clock aimed low to lighten the dark side of the teacup and saucer. To ensure I didn't loose any light I placed a silver bouncer on the rattan tray so to bounce light back down into the composition.
To control the specular highlight in the spoon, I placed a sugar cube on it (thanks again to Jenn for suggesting this to me since I don't normally use sugar in my tea).

The most difficult part of the whole project was to stick some sparkling golden stars in the background where they would look right without damaging the feathers (or dropping them into the teacup).

As concerning the camera setting I went for a mid-depth f-stop of 6.3 on a 50mm lens, so to have the stars out of focus, and an ISO of 200.

The post processing consisted mostly on balancing the exposure in light and white balance, push up the clarity to get nice contrast in the details and blend in a larger f-stop exposure to bring back some sparkles into the stars.

While I was at it I couldn't help myself but shoot a composition using the steeped whole tea leaves and an array of white props: teapot, sugar cubes and a little dish.
Still life with tea leaves


  1. love the production notes! GREG

  2. What a fun picture! The shot came out great, good work.

  3. So simple and so perfect! Yammy! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I think the photo is beautiful, very Christmassy and more than romantic! Lovely!