[How to Take a Photograph] The Stage

I should start off with an apology, I have been over to look at the photographs that you linked in the comments of the previous post but haven’t yet had the chance to comment on them. The weather has been unseasonably warm in Chicago, the past two days have been over 90F, without air conditioning that means that I’ve mostly been trying to find ingenious ways to beat the heat instead of commenting on blogs like I should have been doing. Thankfully a thunderstorm and some rain have brought the city back down to normal temperatures today, although the temperature in the apartment is still quite high. I have my windows wide open, despite the rain, to cool off some and I’ve been sitting on the sheltered porch watching lightning fork across the sky.

I’ll take a wild guess and say that on average my photos are 50% staged, staged meaning that what you see in the photograph has been carefully arranged into it’s most aesthetically pleasing position before being photographed. In regards to my food photos, before we moved to the new apartment the food photos were 100% staged. My kitchen in Germany had absolutely no natural light, so I would plate the food onto a decorative plate, move it to a better position and set up the scene there. Now that I’ve been taking photos a little longer and now that we have moved to an apartment in Chicago which has perfect natural light in the kitchen, I’ve made the process a little more fluid.

We have been parsing down a lot of the junk we had collected while in Germany, that includes my decorative plates and cooking items. Not that got rid of them, but that instead of keeping them to one side waiting for a photograph to be taken they are now in regular rotation and we often eat our dinner off of pretty plates whether I end up photographing it or not.

Making the process more fluid is my aim now when taking photographs. I don’t want to have to tell my family to wait before they can eat the food I’ve made, while I plate it on a decorative plate, arrange the props and light before putting it onto a regular plate so that we can eat. I don’t want to tell Mikey to stop, look up at me and smile while he’s busy playing. I don’t want to have to move a pile of clutter out of the way so that the photograph can be taken. Essentially I don’t want to feel that the presence of a camera renders anything false.

But still, there is some staging that needs to be done in order to take a good photograph of the scene. For food photographs my countertop has to be clear of mess for a start. When taking photos of Mikey, I usually set up his activity in a place that has good light or at least wait until he moves into good light before taking the photograph. I also still have to do the usual things such as moving myself into a good position to be able to capture the scene in the best possible way, judging where and how the light should fall or deciding exactly what should be in the photograph and what should be cropped from the frame.

So, I guess you could say that during my learning process and the development of my own style it has gone something like this –

  1. Starting out, taking snapshots of everyday life with little regard to the scene, light, composition. I got lucky occasionally.
  2. Learning to improve, much more rigid staging of each photograph. Learning a lot about light and composition in the process, because it’s fairly integral to a properly staged photograph. I feel as though this may have been the point where I learned the most.
  3. The two come together, I can apply what I’ve learned from staging compositions to the photographs I take of real life.

Perhaps it’s not as simple as it sounds there, it certainly took much longer to work through than it might seem by reading it. I can honestly say that I didn’t feel as though it had all started to come together until fairly recently, I am certainly aware of how much is still left to learn. And it’s also not to say that either perfectly controlled staging or lack of any staging are bad things either, I think each person has their way of doing things, this is what has helped me to learn a lot of things and to find myself in my own process. I personally still love to look at studio portraits or even outdoor portraits where presumably everything is carefully controlled and even if that’s not the way you intend to shoot it is still a wonderful way of learning different aspects of photography in a controlled environment. As I implied in the last post, I am also a huge advocate of the unscripted snapshot.

If you like, you could try staging your own scene. It’s easier with inanimate objects to begin with, but if you have a willing and patient model to shoot you can try it with a person too. Set up an entire photograph – the subject, background, lighting (natural or artificial). Take lots of photos of the same thing, moving around it to see at which angle you think the lighting looks better, watch the direction that the light falls from. Go in close and take some shots, move back and take more photographs. Rearrange the elements of the scene repeatedly and keep on taking photographs. You should be able to look back on those photographs and see which ones look best, why do you like them? Do you think you can you apply what makes a particular staged photograph look good to a photograph of something that is less staged or completely unstaged? Try it.


Photo Settings:

1. [Nikkor 50mm 1.4] 1/160 f/3.2 400ISO [Edited in Adobe Lightroom 3]
2. [Nikkor 50mm 1.4] 1/125 f/3.2 400ISO [Edited in Adobe Lightroom 3]
3. [Nikkor 50mm 1.4] 1/60 f/3.2 400ISO [Edited in Adobe Lightroom 3] 4. [Nikkor 50mm 1.4] 1/125 f/3.2 400ISO [Edited in Adobe Lightroom 3]


  1. I love a variety of staged and unstaged shots but if I can plan ahead, I’ll typically stage it. Love the way you present food above. Beautiful.

    • I was reading your comment thinking “who’s this cheeky bugger?” then looked and saw your blog address. My original statement has now changed to “Matt, you cheeky bugger.”

      Gave you a shout out on my facebook page, cool looking project! I’m just in the process of digging up your twitter account so I can RT you 🙂

      I like your method… I’m missing step 4 though. ha.

  2. staceyrw

    Love these photographs. the simplicity, the lighting. I am just now starting step 2 with my photographs! Sometimes I feel too lazy to appropriately stage/set up a shot, but also know, doing this step could really increase how many photos I actually enjoy! These were great tips and appreciate you documenting your process/progress.

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