The Art of Still | An interview with Donna Hopkins

We recently came across the still life photography of Donna Hopkins and fell in love with the simplicity, composition, and vibrancy of her art.  We asked Donna to answer few questions about herself, her inspiration, and her artwork.  Her responses are just as thoughtful as her photography...


Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into photography?

I am a former pediatric physical therapist.  I worked many years with children with disabilities. Then life intervened with abundance, the birth of our second son after many years of infertility; loss, the death of my father; and heartache, my husband’s diagnosis with cancer. With these changes, I decided to quit my job and focus my energy on my role as homemaker.

Like many parents, I measured and recorded the growth and development of my children with clicks of the shutter. But I often found my pictures were disappointing – not moving, not telling, not creative. Realizing that my lack of technological knowledge was hindering my efforts, I set out to learn the craft of photography. Working my way through camera manuals, books and online courses, I made friends with the buttons, bells, and whistles of my camera and embraced the concepts of ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

Not content to make beautiful photographs, I needed something to express. And, in the many places we call home and feel at home, I found my voice.  


Describe your creative process for creating your still life photographs. As someone who also takes a lot of scene photography for our product photography I can find it difficult after a while to keep things fresh. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I share your frustration, David. While I admire documentary pictures and straight forward product shots, I do not want my pictures to be images of something. Rather, I try to make pictures that tell a story, with context and meaning for the viewer. Your recent journal post, #frameyourwork, with photos by Joel Bear, is a great example of photos that present a product in a manner that engages the viewer – so much more than a picture of a frame – all possibility and potential.

I once read that if you want to make interesting pictures you need to lead an interesting life. And at first, that premise felt confining.  What to do if I couldn’t travel the world and have big adventures?  Was I destined to take small pictures of my small world?  But it turns out that every little thing can be interesting, even in my own backyard. My inspiration comes mostly from nature, but also from friends, books and magazines, blogs, museums, and a whole lot of everyday living. Really it’s not about finding inspiration as much as it is recognizing it when I see it.

 A lot of your photographs include beautiful flower arrangements.  Are you also a gardener?  If so, what are some parallels you've drawn between gardening and photography?

It’s definitely true that my passion for photography blossomed in the garden. And yes, I am a gardener – of the plant-it-and-see-what-happens variety. We have several flower beds with perennials and herbs native to Virginia, along with a small raised garden bed for vegetables. The stars of our spring garden are lilacs, peonies, lily of the valley, bleeding hearts and columbine.

Gardening and photography are both borne from a love of beauty in the broadest sense – where beauty does not equal perfection. Both require respect for nature, technical skill and the right tools. A camera is really a tool for capturing images just as a trowel is a tool for planting a flower bulb. Taking pictures and tending a garden are both meditative tasks. The sweet smell of lemon balm as you walk in the garden or the squeeze of the shutter with the familiar click both activate our senses and bring us into the present moment. And, whether taking pictures or tending a garden, I reap what I sow.

When you are photographing a scene, how many iterations of the same scene do you go through to get that "right" arrangement"?

If you ask my husband who is sometimes my reluctant assistant, he would say I make hundreds of adjustments to get the right look for an image. But he exaggerates (though not by much)!  Honestly, I find the process of arranging the pieces of the composition engaging and rewarding. You are familiar with the concept of flow?  This is when I step into the scene and, I can work for hours with contentment and energy.  Often the arrangement is as much about what is left out as it is about what is in the picture, and little details can shift the entire story. I stand by the advice that the best image is often only a step away, and I don’t want to give up too soon!

Do you photography your still life images your home?  Or do you have a studio?  Often with still life photography you only need a few square feet of space so it can be easy to experiment at home. What do you recommend for folks who may give it a shot at home?

I work from my home, except when I’m on location at a local farm, park or garden. I typically work in our dining room with natural light or on our front porch. As much as I covet the beautiful studios of professional photographers, I find that the constraints of working at home often work in my favor. The old cookie sheet, warped and discolored, becomes a richly textured backdrop for a bouquet of fresh flowers. The vintage apron from my grandmother lends warmth and texture to a cooking scene. My house is the home to my props and I can lay my hand on what I need in an instant because these are the treasures I live with.

(above: Donna deep in the creative process at home)

Making still life pictures is one of the best ways to get to know your camera and master your craft. You really do only need a few square feet of space.  And even light isn’t a huge issue. With a decent tripod and a timer, you can take gorgeous images even in low light. I often use my Live View feature so that I can really see what the picture will look like. Still life photography is a great way to master shooting in Manual and learn the subtleties of composition. Find photos that spark your interest and take your own version. Create backdrops from black foam board or reclaimed wood, collect and use props to help tell your story, build layers into your compositions, and play with unexpected combination and styles.  I learned still life photography online from Kim Klassen and gained a whole community of friends.  

I find that people sometimes have a misconception of still life images  . . . but still images can be truly moving.

Check out more of Donna's work on her website or follow her regularly on her blog.  





Insight interview, David! Donna is a sweet friend and an inspiration. Loved learning more about what makes her tick!

Barbara Hurst

Such a sweet women with an extra heart in her body and you can tell that from her photography. Such a creative mind and photographer.

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