Still life is a unique genre of photography. One thing that makes it so special is that often the subjects aren’t very interesting. They're just ordinary objects that you normally wouldn’t pay much attention to.
That means that to be successful at still life photography, you need to find ways to make your photos interesting. That also means it’s a great style of photography for learning new skills.
By experimenting with different arrangements, lighting, and compositions, still life photographers can breathe life into their subjects.
If you’re interested in trying it yourself, you’ve come to the right place. This guide to still life photography will tell you everything you need to know to get started.
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You’re probably familiar with still life in art—those paintings that depict a bowl of fruit or flowers in a vase. Those are classic examples of a still life. But even when you’re familiar with the concept, you might not know exactly what makes a still life a still life.
In a nutshell, a still life is a work of art that focuses on inanimate subjects. Usually, the subjects are commonplace objects. That can include both manmade objects (such as vases, items of clothing, and consumer products) and natural objects (like plants, food, rocks, and shells).
The major advantage offered by still life is the freedom to arrange the objects any way you want. Still life photography follows the same philosophy. A lot of emphasis is put on the arrangement of the items, the lighting, and the framing. That makes it a great genre to experiment with and it can help you become a better photographer.
Still life photography makes it easy to experiment. In contrast to portrait and landscape photography, you don’t have to deal with live models, and you don’t have to search out an interesting location or photo opportunity. Instead, you can create your own interesting composition using common objects you have or find nearby.
By giving you complete control over every aspect of the scene, still life lets you try out different compositions and lighting setups to see what works and what doesn’t. So once you understand how to create great still life photography, you’ll be well equipped to create better photo compositions in any situation.
Still life is also a great way to show off your skills and artistic flair, making still life shots a great addition to any photographer’s online portfolio. By taking commonplace objects and turning them into interesting works of art, still life photography is the perfect way to show potential clients what you are capable of.
Still life photography encompasses a variety of subcategories. Here are just a few of them:
Tabletop photography is the most common type of still life. It’s what most people think of when they hear about still life photography. This category is all about shooting objects that are small enough to fit on a table. The objects can be anything the photographer desires, as long as they’re inanimate.
Another example is product photography. Since it involves shooting inanimate objects, it can be considered as a type of still life. However, where the two categories differ is that with product photography, the main goal is to show off a product.
These photos usually focus on providing a clear image of the product without distractions. In contrast, still life shots are usually more artistically driven and offer more opportunities to be creative.
Food photography is another subcategory of still life that is closely related to product photography. Often, the main goal is to depict food in an attractive way. However, when compared to product photography, food photography often also involves setting the scene by arranging other food items and tableware around the subject.
Photos of found object art can be considered another branch of still life, although found object art also usually involves modifying an object or placing it in an unusual context. For example, check out this series of photos that use cheeseburgers in interesting ways.
Another example is this photo series where the photographer used common food items and balloons to create surreal and thought-provoking images. While they do fall under the umbrella of still life, they also go a step further to make viewers think about the subject in a different way.
Another benefit of still life photography is it doesn’t take much to get started. If you’re going to try it out for the first time, your studio can be just a table by a window.
Since the arrangement of objects is an important part of still life shots, you can begin experimenting with arrangements using your existing equipment. There’s no need for a top-of-the-line camera for that!
But when you want to start capturing professional-looking still life photos, that’s where the need for some new gear may come in. The most important of which is lighting equipment.
Lighting is of particular importance in still life photography. When your subject is an ordinary object, lighting is one of the best ways you can create a mood or add interest to your photos.
Light reflectors are one of the most affordable and easiest ways to start taking better photos. A simple light reflector will let your start manipulating the natural light in your scene, without the need for additional lighting equipment. Whether you are trying to soften some shadows, better illuminate the subject, or highlight the textures in your composition, light reflectors can help.
They are also pretty easy to get your hands on. For example, this 5-in-1 collapsible light reflector is available for about $20 and includes white, silver, gold, translucent, and black surfaces. Alternatively, if you are seeking a DIY solution, you can easily make your own reflectors using tinfoil and cardboard.
A speedlight or strobe is the next piece of equipment you’ll want to look into. By having an off-camera flash or strobe to light the scene, you won’t have to rely on natural light from a window. Instead, you’ll have more freedom to light your subject from any angle. In addition, a powerful light source like a speedlight or strobe will give your photos a more professional look and let you create interesting effects such as low-key photography (see more about low-key photography in the “Still Life Photography Ideas” section).
A speedlight (sometimes called a flashgun or hot shoe flash) is a great place to start. They are more affordable than strobes and will be more than enough for most still life photographers’ needs.
Strobes are more expensive but offer a few more features. They will enable you to adjust the light’s intensity by tweaking their settings and they typically have a built-in modeling light that will help you figure out where to place the strobe to get the desired effect.
Softboxes are another important piece of lighting equipment. Whether you choose a speedlight or strobe, you should consider picking up a softbox for shots where you want to avoid harsh shadows. Softboxes can diffuse the light from your flash or strobe into a soft and even light.
They also greatly reduce spill light and help with directing your light in exactly the way you want. For more information on softboxes and how to choose the right one for your needs, check out this introduction to softboxes.
You don’t need a wide assortment of expensive lenses for still life photography, but it’s good to have a couple of quality lenses to choose from. One thing to keep in mind is you probably won’t need any wide angle lenses. That’s because in still life photography, the subjects usually don’t take up much space. So if you’re shooting with too wide of a view, you’re going to capture a lot of unnecessary space that you’ll probably want to crop out.
Besides that, here are a couple of other tips for choosing still life photography lenses.
Close up and macro lenses will help you get creative with the perspective in your still lifes. By offering low minimum-focus distances, they’ll let you get as close to your subject as you want, which results in more interesting compositions.
Telephoto lenses are a great choice for still life photography. For one, the narrow angle of view offered by telephoto lenses will help you properly fill the frame with your subject. Secondly, the extremely shallow depth of field will let you create a very specific point of focus, such as focusing on a particular part of your subject.
For example, let’s say you’re shooting a classic still life of a bouquet of flowers in a vase. With a telephoto lens, you could choose a particular flower as the focal point and have other flowers out of focus. In this way, a telephoto lens gives you more options to experiment with your still life compositions and achieve interesting effects.
Still life photography isn’t very demanding when it comes to your choice of cameras. When compared to just about any other type of photography, still life offers more control over the scene. For instance, you’ll probably be shooting indoors and be able to take your time setting up the scene and adjusting the lighting.
That means there’s no need to invest in a top-tier camera that boasts features like heavy duty weatherproofing, rapid continuous shooting modes, or the ability to handle challenging lighting situations.
While cameras with full-frame sensors are usually preferable, this is less important in still life photography. That’s because one of the major downsides of cropped sensor cameras is how they affect the focal length of lenses.
For instance, a 50mm lens used on a cropped sensor camera will behave more like an 80mm lens—your shots won’t be a wide as they would be on a full frame sensor camera. But since the subjects in still life photography typically aren’t wide, this is less of a problem. And since cropped sensor cameras are more affordable, they can offer a good choice for still life photographers on a budget.
These tips will help you avoid the most common pitfalls, so keep them in mind when you’re planning out your first still life photo shoot!
Plan out your shoot. Still life photography offers lots of freedom, and if you don’t have a plan it can be easy to lose direction. So it’s worthwhile to spend a little time planning out the type of image you’re aiming for and brainstorming some still life photography ideas. Think about the objects you’re going to use, some different ways you can arrange them, what type of lighting you’ll use, and what mood you want to achieve.
If you plan on shooting next to a window, choose a window that isn’t exposed to direct sunlight. Otherwise, the light will be too harsh.
You’ll get the best natural light on overcast days as the light will be soft and even. But if you’re trying to shoot on a bright day and find the light is too harsh, you can hang a sheer white curtain in front of the window as a makeshift diffuser.
Use a tripod. Having your hands free will make it easier to rearrange the objects and lighting between shots. It will also come in handy for shots that need longer shutter speeds.
When choosing objects to use in a shot, try to pick things that work together visually. For instance, if one of the objects is an antique, keep that theme consistent by only including other old-fashioned items. Also consider using items with complementary colors, or items that are related in some way (such as a book and reading glasses).
Lighting from the side tends to result in more interesting shots than lighting the subject head-on. It will help bring out the textures in your subject. Also, side lighting can create a bright focal point on one side of the image that helps lead the viewer’s eye through your composition.
If you want to make sure no attention is taken away from the subject, you can always go the plain white route and use some white cardboard or a tablecloth as the backdrop for your still lifes. On the other hand, if you want to get creative, there are a lot of possibilities.
For instance, using painted canvas as your backdrop can add some flair with some nice texture and color. However, the last thing you want in still life photography is a distracting background.
So the trick is to stick with neutral or subtle colors that won’t overpower the subject. For that reason, white, greys, black, and browns work well.
If you think you’re ready to get started but are looking for some inspiration, here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
You don’t have to stick with the traditional subjects like fruit in a bowl. There are plenty of great still life photography examples online that use objects you might not have thought of. Just a few ideas include leaves, tools, moldy food, a melting popsicle, and the surface of oil and water. So try to get creative when choosing what objects to use.
Old objects tend to be interesting. The more beat up and worn out they are, the better. These objects often offer interesting textures with their rust, cracked and flaking surfaces, or signs of damage that make you wonder what they’ve been through. So, whether it’s a raggedy pair of boots or a dusty old book, see what interesting old items you have kicking around.
Try creating some flat lay compositions. This style involves arranging objects on a table or other flat surfaces and shooting directly from above. This type of composition can help simplify the process as all of the objects will be on a single plane, and you can position everything exactly where you want it—with no need to worry about gravity.
Try taking some low-key images for moody results. Low key photography involves shooting dark-colored scenes that emphasize the light in specific areas. These shots can also put all of the viewer’s attention on your subject as there will be nothing but pitch black as the background.
Low key images can look like they must have been taken in a professional studio, but you can do it almost anywhere. The trick is to set your camera to use a very fast shutter speed, low ISO settings, and a narrow aperture. This will keep out the ambient light so the only light visible in the final image be from your flash. Try using this technique to shoot some flat lay compositions against a black background and it will look like your subject is floating in a black void.
Now you know what still life photography is and some of the techniques that will help you succeed at it. Once you start taking some still life shots that you’re truly proud of, don’t forget to upload them to your online portfolio website.
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