Still life photography is all about photographing inanimate objects and subject matter. It includes a range of subjects and styles and is seen from fine art to commercial photography. Try these portfolio-worthy shoot ideas to get your creativity flowing.
When most people hear the term “still life”, it probably conjures images of the Renaissance and Dutch golden age paintings most of us have seen at some point. These feature tables with things like fruit, books, flowers, and other inanimate objects, with the objects carefully selected to tell a kind of symbolic story.
Still life photography today can include contemporary versions of this type of art, but it’s also a much broader category. As product photography has become increasingly central to the success of many businesses, it has become increasingly creative and artistic. Some types of architectural photography can also be considered still life.
The best still life photographers today work across different fields of photography, ranging from fine art to commercial. If you love making the ordinary look extraordinary through photography, and you generally prefer controlled studio settings where you can adjust elements of your shot until everything is absolutely perfect, then still life photography just might be your thing. Check out these examples of still life photographers to gather scroll-stopping inspiration for your own portfolio.
10 Still Life Photography Ideas
The best way to get a sense of just how much variety there is within the category of still life photography is to see how different photographers approach the genre. Whether you prefer film or digital, representative art or symbolic art, creative photography or commercial photography, you’ll be sure to find inspiration here.
1. Explore Different Materials
Still life photography allows you to draw attention to things that aren’t normally noticed, such as the unique properties of different materials. AnimusJ’s still life portfolio is full of explorations of different materials and textures, and even though the objects photographed may be ordinary, they’re presented in a way that evokes a distinct moody ambiance. You can start experimenting with this kind of still life photography right away, since it’s all about creating art out of ordinary textures and materials.
While still life photography implies that the subject matter is only inanimate objects, you can still incorporate curves that evoke the human form, or even renderings of the human form. This still life photography example feels very human even though it only contains decor items. The two vases in the shape of a female form and the image of a face on the candle vessel create a sensual mood, and the candlelight implies someone just outside of the frame.
Still life photography doesn’t necessarily have to be representative of real objects or real scenes. If you’re more interested in fine art photography and creating symbolic rather than representative works of art, you can push the boundaries of still life photography to create images that look more like digital renderings or color explorations. These types of images can explore themes in a less literal way, and would be perfectly at home on the walls of an art gallery.
4. Create Artistic Compositions With Ordinary Objects
Much of advertising and commercial photography today evokes the traditional still life style that originated in those old European paintings. You don’t have to be a professional product or advertising photographer to develop the skills to create these kinds of images. By taking ordinary but beautiful objects, such as perfume bottles, and creating compositions around them, you can create ad-worthy portfolio material.
Photo Credit: Amanda Sellem
5. Zoom Out In Your Still Life Photography
Another way in which today’s still life photos draw on the old artistic tradition is that they are frequently a kind of tablescape. The composition will include an arrangement of objects or a surface or table, and the frame will be closely cropped around the scene. However, you don’t have to follow that rule in your still life photography. By zooming out and capturing more of the scene, you can provide the viewer with more context and more of the story around your image.
While architectural photographers will typically approach their subject by trying to capture the essence of an entire building or room, a still life photographer will be more inclined to find smaller scenes that exist within the larger context of the room and to focus on those. If you love exploring architecture, try viewing it through the eyes of a still life photographer and see if influences how you shoot.
Many photographers working in commercial product photography do double-duty as production designers. If that’s not your thing, consider partnering up with someone who does have that skillset. Designing the set for your product photos opens up a world of conceptual possibilities because you can design the set to create a specific context for the item. These space-themed crocs have been placed in a set that looks like the otherworldly green of another planet, a perfect, playful set for the product.
Photo Credit: Cody Guilfoyle
8. Step Up Your Photoshop Skills
Your still life compositions can be even more eye catching with a little post-production magic. Images like this don’t even require particularly complicated products, props, or equipment, but they can be really impactful in your portfolio. With Photoshop you can create surreal, magical compositions that would be much trickier to create right out of the camera, making it a worthwhile skill to practice.
There’s plenty of room for playfulness and humor in still life photography, and you don’t need particularly complex tools to see your concepts come to life. The key to this kind of imagery is spending a decent amount of time on the pre-production part of the photoshoot. While photographers love being able to pick up a camera and start shooting, spending some time brainstorming creative concepts first can result in very strong images.
As with all types of photography, lighting is key to a strong image. Different lighting scenarios create completely different final products. With still life photography, you can get anything from a dreamy, diffuse final image to a sharp, severe one like this example, by changing the lighting. Whether you prefer natural light or studio light, experimenting with different light scenarios is a good way to change up your still life photos.
You don’t need a complex setup to come up with new, portfolio-expanding still life photoshoot ideas. There are lots of still life images you can capture by just walking around with your camera, and if you do want to do a bit of production design or product styling, you can use ordinary objects you already have to create new still life scenes.
1. Follow The Light
You don’t need to create complex scenes to take memorable, portfolio-worthy still life photos. When you start looking, you’ll find that there are photo opportunities all around you if you know how to see them. Interesting light and shadow interplay can make great subject matter for still life photographers. As light changes throughout the day, so will the still life images that you can capture.
One of the recurring themes in traditional still life painting is the ephemeral nature of our time on earth and the inevitability of death. Heavy themes, we know, but since they’re so baked into the genre of still life art, exploring them in your photography is an effective way to connect with the tradition while making it your own. This photo series includes objects like dried flowers and bones, which frequently appear in still life paintings, but are presented in a thoroughly modern way.
Still life photography can provide a lot of information about an object. In this example of a wine bottle, the dirt, berries and herbs around it serve as a decorative frame but also give you an idea of the fruity and herby terroir that the grapes grew in. One of the challenges of this type of product photography is keeping the image aesthetically interesting while also making sure the components are relevant to the story you’re trying to tell.
Even traditional still life subject matter, like the vegetables in this photo can be made into something extraordinary by the way they’re arranged. Here, inspiration is taken from the Japanese art of ikebana or arranging flowers. Instead of flowers, common produce like, kale, tomato, and ginger are used to create a beautiful composition. This theme of turning the ordinary into art comes up again and again in still life photography.
If you want to set up an inexpensive still life photoshoot idea in your own home easily, you don’t necessarily have to create artful ikebana compositions. Even the most mundane foods, like this peanut butter and jelly sandwich, can get the still life photography treatment. Through the lens of a still life photographer, it becomes a beautiful (and mouther-watering) combination of textures and colors. You really don’t need food styling skills to recreate this kind of image.
Your still life photoshoots can be studies in individual rules of composition. In photography, balance refers to the arranging of different elements in a photograph to give them equal weight. This photographer pushes the theme further by balancing the actual subject matter—a tower of rocks and a supplement bottle—into a perfectly balanced tower. You can create this effect with some supportive props holding up the rocks and a bit of Photoshop magic.
Some still life photographs immediately make the viewer think of everything that is implied outside of the frame, or that might have just happened before the photo was snapped. This cinematic, story-focused approach to still life photography involves ensuring that the elements in your shot can be taken together as clues about the wider story. Here, the two glasses, matchbook, and lipstick stain suggest a romantic liaison just outside the frame.
With the right lighting, you can achieve a surprisingly deep and moody still life image of objects that might not immediately seem very dramatic. Food is the perfect subject matter for this style of still life since it can carry themes of sensuality and indulgence. The trick to achieving this kind of still life is to use dark backdrops — a chalkboard is a good prop to have on hand — and to amp up the contrast and shadows.
A good way to build up an interesting still life photography portfolio and to challenge yourself with fresh still life photoshoot ideas is to explore areas around where you live where you might be able to find new, unusual textures and objects to photograph. In this way, you don’t have to worry about creating scenes in your home or studio. Instead, you just have to look for subject matter that is out there, waiting for you to find it.
If you have a macro lens or a macro attachment, you can capture small details and textures in much more detail than with regular lenses. This macro approach to still life photography is very popular when shooting cosmetics products, where texture is one of the major selling features. To get this ultra-glossy, perfected look, you’ll probably need to do a bit of post-processing in Photoshop to smooth out irregularities.
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