Still-life photos come in a wide variety, from the typical bowl of fruit from art school to the creative and rather provocative digital masterpieces you find online these days. Still life photography can fit into almost any genre of photography, making it a fundamental skill that any shutterbug should try to master. Whether you want to get started with still life photography or to hone your skills, here are 15 great tips to master.
#1. Start with Subjects that Speak to You
As a photographer, what you shoot is entirely up to you. When starting out, it’s wise to look around your house and find something simple but interesting that you can start with. Don’t feel compelled to take pictures of flowers or fruit just because everyone else does so. Try thinking outside the box, taking care not to be too ambitious.
As you move out and about and you spot something that catches your eye, you can bring it home (just don’t steal it!) or create a reminder to try shooting it in a still life context. Since you’re just starting out, avoid shooting reflective surfaces like metal and glass, as they can be difficult to handle with regards to lighting. When you master these single object shots, mix things up, for instance, by combining objects of contrasting colors, shapes, and texture to see what you can come up with.
#2. Get the Right Lens
Just as with any other photography genre, it’s essential to have the right lens to suit the subject you intend to shoot. Fortunately, you don’t need a huge assortment of lenses to do still life photography – a couple of lenses will do just fine. For those shooting on a full-frame camera, consider starting with a 50mm. You can do tablescapes and flat-lays or even straight-on shots with this lens.
Keep in mind that a 50mm lens is considered wide-angle in still life photography. So, if your subject is small, you might have too much background in your shot, meaning you need to get closer to the subject to avoid things you don’t want in your photo.
To shoot still life straight on, a 100mm macro lens will be a better option. Macro lenses are not just meant for close-up and tight shots. Shooting with a longer lens means you only see the subject and the surface it’s placed on. Moving farther from your subject will make for great portrait style shots.
If you’re on a tight budget, a 24-70 zoom lens will be great to have in your kit. Once you hone your skill or are serious about selling your still life images, you will need high-resolution shots. Here’s where the more expensive lenses come in.
#3. Leverage Lighting
For product photography or food photography, you’ll most likely need artificial lighting. For editorial style photography, natural light will probably be more than enough. You don’t have to invest in a lot of equipment to get your footing in still life photography. You may actually never need to invest in a lot of equipment. It will all depend on what you intend to achieve. Many excellent photographers in all genres work with natural lighting.
The key here is learning how light works. What you want to build as a skill is how to sculpt light to work for you. To make the most out of natural light, consider working with bounce cards and reflectors. You‘ll want to redirect some of the light back to the scene, and natural light tends to fall off rather quickly.
#4. Try Painting the Image
When it comes to shooting still life, it’s helpful to think of them as more of a painting than a photograph. For most people, though, a photograph is something taken in a fraction of a second. But as we all know, a painting takes time to create. Everyone can appreciate that a painter will control exactly what he/she paints onto their blank canvases. This is perhaps the essence of still life photography.
If you find yourself struggling with composing, lighting, or structuring your shot, you need to find some inspiration. Where’s better to look for inspiration than the original still life masterpieces of the yesteryears? Just do a basic online search for renaissance still life art and check out the elements of the pieces.
Looking at these paintings will help you form better perspectives about the shades, form, and how colors work together to create the art. This will give you some inspiration or a few still life photography ideas on how to shape your work to create strong yet engaging images.
#5. Take all the Time You Need
There’s absolutely no reason not to get your still life photography images right. You have as much time as you need to make sure you get it right. Unlike portrait photography, your subject isn't going to get bored of keeping still for extended periods of time; and unlike landscape photography, light isn't changing rapidly.
Take advantage of this – set up your camera, backdrop, lighting, and the subject, try shooting a few shots, move things around, and then have another go. Once you get to a point where you feel like things aren't working out, you can leave everything all set up, make yourself a cup of coffee, and then come back refreshed to try shooting again.
Another major perk of being a still life photographer is that there’s no excuse not to produce sharp and clean images. So, be sure to take your time to get the focus and lighting just right. If you can get your hands on a macro lens, it will be ideal for this kind of work. Otherwise, you can try choosing macro mode on your camera to get the best chance of capturing close up details on your subject.
#6. Compose your Shots Appropriately
To make sure your work is unique and engaging, how you compose your still life work is absolutely crucial. Consider the rule of thirds and how you can leverage it in your shoot to create a strong composition. Make sure that there are no distractions within your frame; it should be just the subject and the backdrop.
During the shoot, try varying the subject matter composition and think outside the box. Where do you intend to lead the viewer’s eye within the image? What are the unique or defining features of the subject? Are you making the most out of the negative space, or could it try filling the frame? Does the subject work as a standalone object, or can you put it into context?
#7. Use a Tripod to Ensure Consistency
When it comes to shooting still life photos, working with a tripod is more than necessary. Why? Well, still life is a rather slow and deliberate process of assessing and building accordingly. You want to place your subjects onto your set, evaluate the composition of your still life photo, see how lighting is hitting your scene, and then make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes, this means taking away or adding an element and tweaking the composition.
Using a tripod essentially frees up your arms to work more efficiently and carefully. It also allows you to maintain your position from shot to shot. This is absolutely important, especially when working with a series of still life images.
Ensure you move your tripod around the space while experimenting with different angles. Just because you’re working with a tripod doesn’t mean you should have it in one place all the time. Be sure to try different angles and heights, moving it around your set as needed, being careful not to cast a shadow onto your scene.
#8. Consider Getting Helpful Accessories
A remote shutter release is an accessory that can significantly improve your mobility around a shoot. It doesn’t have to be fancy – if you do an online search, you can easily find many inexpensive options available for most cameras. Newer cameras may even have apps available that allow for remote control from a smartphone.
A remote shutter release can come in handy when shooting in natural light, where you may have to use slower shutter speeds. Keep in mind that even while on a tripod, pressing the shutter could create some tiny vibration, which could result in your images not looking sharp. A shutter release will be effective at eliminating this.
You can also consider getting a tripod extension arm. This will allow you to hand your camera over your flat-lays setups. Overhead shots will generally have more graphic quality and can be great for fitting several elements onto a scene. The angle ideally flattens everything and reduces depth.
#9. Look for Unique Props
Using the right prop can significantly increase your still life photography ideas. It’s likely you already have lots of household items that you can use as props – unique teapots, old books, or glasses. Shots of fresh vegetables or antique cutlery are examples of still life props that are perfect for kitchen prints.
Check around your home and figure out the kind of items you have and how you can put them together to make a story. Ensure that your props work together visually. For instance, when going for a vintage look, make sure everything stays vintage looking.
Flowers can sometimes be considered a prop, where they add a touch to lifestyle-based photography or flat-lays. They can actually be shot on their own to create gorgeous floral still life photos. Don’t forget to think about the colors and textures when selecting props. Try keeping most of your props neutral as they’ll work together for many shots, and you could get a lot of use from them. When a prop is too colorful, it can potentially draw the eye from the main subject.
#10. Learn How to Shoot Shiny Objects
Reflective items can serve as wonderful props or subjects, but they can also make your life much harder. Shiny objects will reflect anything nearby, including those things you don’t want them to reflect. Your camera, your lighting, and yourself will likely make unexpected cameos in your final shot. Be sure to take your time to move things around to avoid such problems.
One great solution is using Krylon's Dulling spray, which keeps the object clear but reduces the amount of reflection on it. As such, it’s worth finding a can you can use for those times you just can’t get the reflection to behave.
You can also remove accidental or distracting elements in post-processing. It’s almost always easier to get it right at the shoot or in the studio, but if you missed something, you could clear it up using the cloning tool. However, don’t forget that reflections make some of the harder elements to duplicate realistically in post.
#11. Get the Background Right
Whether you’re shooting straight-on or overhead, you need to have the right background for your still life photographs. While there are companies that sell professional backgrounds for still life photography, you can make them on your own with a bit of ingenuity and elbow grease for a fraction of the cost.
This is another place where you can unleash your creativity; there are endless possibilities. As a rule of thumb, you should go for backgrounds that are in subtle or neutral colors that won’t overpower your subjects. This will also ensure that you can use your backgrounds in other different ways. White, black, and gray are good options, as well as shades of blue or brown that are not too bright.
#12. Plan your Shoot Well
Photography tends to get technical. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose sight of the artistic side. Be sure to take your time to think about the kind of visual story you’d like to tell and the best way to execute it. Consider drawing sketches or writing down your photo ideas.
All this is to help you have a rough idea of what you want your final photo to look like. A certain vision could mean having to source or buy fabric, props, or botanical elements, so be sure to account for it. Alternatively, it’s always fun to grab a few random items and figure out if any of them work together to create a visual story.
#13. Develop an Eye for Still Life Scenes
The best way (and perhaps the only way) to get good at something is to practice as frequently as possible. Find a quiet day in your schedule and set some time aside for practicing. Try to set up your backdrop and camera by a well-lit spot next to a window and shoot.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, get more creative, and experiment with lighting angles, camera angles, and different light sources such as lamps and candles. You could even get creative with apertures and use f/1.8 prime lens to try creating artistic shallow focus. It doesn’t have to be flowers or fruit – just find something unique and/or inspiring and get snapping.
For inspiration, study the painting of the Old Masters, observe textures in the world around you, and notice the lighting in the compositions of Cezanne or in the works of Caravaggio and Vermeer. Study the form, shades, and colors used in still life paintings to find ways you can improve your game. Improving your visual fluency entails careful and constant observation.
#14. Consider Black and White Still Photography
Many photographers still consider still photography in black and white as a post-production adjustment. Expert black and white photographers just shake their heads. What many forget is that monochromes are an artform. When you rid a composition of its color, other elements jump in to fill the gaps. Textures, contrasts, tones, and shapes become more imperative.
To get the best results, it’s usually best to decide to make the black and white photographs from the beginning. This way, it will guide your creative choices from the beginning to the end of the project.
#15. Be Creative in your Post-Production
There are no rules for still life photography composition, and post-production is no place to begin imposing them. Of course, the editing routine you choose will be entirely up to you. While many photographers (purists) like to do as little as possible, others prefer reforming the entire composition digitally.
No matter where you stand, working with pictures even after the shoot should not feel like a chore. It should be fun. Photoshop’s actions are a great time saver, especially when you consider that they allow for repeatable workflow. Rather than having to work through all the steps from scratch per image, action gives you a set of choices that you can tweak until your image is perfect.
If you’re to take any lesson from this post, it should be that you should always take your time. Still photography is not something you want to do under pressure. When in doubt, keep everything simple. Remember that sometimes the most stunning compositions are the most minimal.
What’s your experience with still life photography? Would you like to share another useful tip with us? We’d like to hear from you in the comment section below.