This week we are going to explore another of my favorite styles of still life photography, soft and dreamy. I adore using flat light, so soft, so dreamy and ever so vintage in my mind, they just go together beautifully.

So, let’s get a little soft and dreamy …

The essence of soft and dreamy is the beautiful soft flat light, with almost no shadows and desaturated color — almost the exact opposite of dark and moody that we looked at in my last post. I adore working with soft muted colors — natural tones and textures are great for this — with vintage or rustic styling a perfect match. I have used a palette of soft blues, greens and gray, as well as the natural tones from the cookies and the hessian flour sack, to give a vintage feel to the series.

Choose a hero; tell a story. This is a food story. Fresh-baked cookies from a vintage style kitchen. Think raw, rustic, weathered, worn, organic, but soft. When styling your scene, it does not have to be country or rustic, it could be clean and modern too. It really does depend on your shooting style.

What is important is the light, a single side light source; I prefer to use natural light, as it is often softer. I usually place a table next to a window, but back away from it a little, for some indirect sun perhaps on a 45-degree angle.

Behind the scenes setup

If the light is diffused enough there will be almost no shadow. If you are still seeing too much shadow try bouncing a little reflected light back onto your subject with a reflector or white cardboard or foam core. If you are happy with the shadows, you can leave them there; it just makes your final image a little moody. If you are still getting too much light you can use additional black or even white foam core boards to block light down to a tiny slither. Matte, organic textiles and textures also absorb the light and prevent errant highlights. I adore using high res images of old timber tables and paneling from old homes as backgrounds which I have printed upon Tyvek or similar. Old wallpaper is another great option too.

Camera settings

If shooting with a DSLR experiment with spot metering; your camera may still see your scene light and try to make everything darker. You don’t want to darken or lighten your scene too much, but you do want it well lit. So you may need to overexpose your images to get the desired result. Not too much, try half or one stop overexposed.

You will need to set your camera to manual mode to achieve this. Set your ISO to 100 or 200, as most likely you will have your camera on a tripod anyway. Set your desired f/stop, for this kind of image I would use f/4.5 to f/5.6 and then slightly overexpose your image. How much you want to overexpose it is totally up to you. You can go so light and dreamy that everything becomes a little hazy (but be careful you do not lose all definition and details) or keep to something where the light is a little more even and flat with no real highlights or shadows.

When shooting this style, or any other, experiment with varied heights and camera angles. Move yourself and the camera in up close, pull further back, try shooting from on top, 25-degree or 45-degree angles or get down to the same level as your camera and shoot straight on. See what you prefer.

Try experimenting in post-processing, softening the highlights and taming down the shadows. Play with saturation and vibrancy; try de-saturating your colors for a timeless vintage look. Don’t add too much contrast, try dropping the blacks and highlights in a tone curve in Lightroom or a subtle S-curve in Photoshop.

S-curve to flatten shadows and highlights

The challenge …

Want your light even more flat, more dreamy and moody? Try pulling your set up even further away from the window. The further away you get the more diffused the light should get. Shoot in the shadows, as opposed to bright shafts of sunlight. Place an interesting subject in your ‘space’ … and make a little soft and dreamy magic.

If you are feeling overwhelmed (and this one can be tricky to get right), start simple. Think of three things to tell your story plus your hero; something to sit the hero on, and two things to help tell a story — perhaps a plate and a fork, or a fork and a napkin for a food story. Keep things simple until you get a feel for your light.

All images captured on the Sony a7ii with 50mm Macro lens, ISO 200, f/4.5, 1/80s.