Still life presents a wealth of opportunity to turn regular objects into a fantastic photographic piece. Here are five great still life pictures to get you inspired and how you can create your own masterpiece!
Why Still Life?
Artists have favoured still life since its popularity rose in the west, in late 16th century paintings. These images would depict inanimate groups of objects posed or positioned in a pleasing way; typically things like flowers or food.
Product photography could be considered a form of still life, as could setups without models that are often seen in magazines or newspapers. If product and commercial photography doesn’t appeal, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t enjoy still life. It affords much more flexibility than many other types of photography as you’re in complete control of each aspect: you can arrange your own scene, choose what will be in the picture, how you’ll light it and so on.
What You Need
As still life can vary, depending on your subject and vision, you don’t really need specialised kit in order to be able enjoy this type of photography. We’ll take needing a camera for granted, so here are some other suggestions you might find useful:
Reflectors are great for bouncing light around or softening it. Walls and ceilings can make great reflectors, or if you'd prefer something more portable, they’re cheap and easy to make if you don’t want to buy any. Try cardboard and tinfoil for a quick fix!
Flash Gun, Speedlight or Studio Lights
Hopefully you’ll have plenty of natural light, but if not, using a flash or some small lights (think macro/product studio lights) can help you light a small scene with little fuss. Team it with the reflectors you just put together and you’ll be lit up like Blackpool.
This is the really fun bit because anything goes! Raid the fruit basket, pick flowers from your garden, browse a flea market or charity store for weird and wonderful bits – the world is your oyster. Try to get things that go well together in terms of colours and textures.
A Good Subject
As with anything in photography, you need a good subject as the focus of your image. Not everything looks great in monochrome but the brilliant thing about shooting in digital is that you get the chance to make that decision later. Still, it pays to think about what you’re shooting, in advance.
Coffee beans are a weirdly satisfying thing to take
pictures of; the texture and warmth they exude is great. The photographer here
has teamed the beans with a white cup, which contrasts nicely with the warm
woods and hessian bag. I think it would have worked better without the metal
spoon and scoop, but it’s still a great combination of items and works well.
I love the simplicity of this, it’s a great example
of how ordinary items can become a really interesting photographic subject
without anything else involved. The composition plays perfectly to the rule of
thirds and the shallow depth of field highlights our pointy subject perfectly.
Flowers are really popular still life subjects and it’s no wonder when they brighten up any scene. Using a window with the out of focus flowers appearing as bokeh in the background adds a soft, cool and clean feel to the image. The warm colours of the flowers contrast nicely with that. Putting the subject in a china cup rather than a vase or glass is a nice touch and works well with the clean surroundings.
Food is another popular subject
for still life photography. This is a good example of having a theme for your
objects. You can’t look at this picture and not see ‘dairy’ immediately. It
helps that the colours all work well together too and the plain background
helps the image not to look too cluttered despite its many subjects.
Still life doesn’t only come
through your own set up, you might be out somewhere and see the perfect scene.
The lighting in this photograph highlights the main subject but also casts a lovely amber glow through
the beer, which warms the scene.
Knowing what to group together can be tricky but as long as you have a theme, the image should look good. The theme doesn’t have to be related items either, it could be based on colours, textures or shape, for example.
If you’re new to still life, or photography itself, then it might be best to avoid things that reflect or shine, as these are harder to photograph correctly.
Try and avoid placing ‘anchor’ objects in the middle of the frame. This could be the biggest object, or the lightest in colour for example. Unless you’re deliberately aiming for a central composition (like in the flower and teacup picture earlier) then you should try and avoid placing objects that will immediately draw the eye in the middle. Don’t be afraid to move your objects around if your shot still doesn’t look quite right.
A bad background can ruin a great still life. Think about things that compliment your subject. If you’re shooting coffee beans, for example, warm hues and rougher textures (like hessian) should work well. The great thing is you can try out as many different combinations as you like, it’s all in your control.
You don’t need an expensive studio style background to get a great shot. Try making your own using scrapbooking paper, wallpaper, cloth or canvas. Generally, you should try and use a dark background for lighter coloured objects, and vice versa.
You could also try the ‘chiaroscuro’ technique. Use dark boards (like an old chalkboard) to block off all but one route of the light, so your subjects are directly lit. Essentially, this creates something very high contrast and harks back to a Renaissance painting style.
Use Soft Focus
Stopping down your lens can create some lovely out of focus backgrounds and bokeh. If you are using a wider aperture, you might need a longer shutter speed and in turn, this might require a tripod to be sure you don’t get blurry shots from camera shake.
Keep it Simple
It can be tempting to go a little creatively crazy when you have full control over your scene. Suddenly you’re pulling every craft item you’ve ever bought out of storage in the hope of creating a masterpiece. Simple, usually works better and it will save you a huge amount of time and effort, and probably frustration!
Avoid detail in your background so as not to clutter the scene or distract from your subject. Natural-looking backgrounds such as walls and fences work really well when teamed with flowers or vegetables.
Think about telling a story with your images, what is it you want to convey? You could take several similar images and turn them into a visual story using diptychs and triptychs.
Try an interesting angle when shooting. You’ll be looking to fill the frame with your subject(s) but that doesn’t mean you have to shoot straight on. Try getting some height by standing on a stepping stool, or get down low and point your camera up to distort feelings of size.
There’s also a technique called ‘flat lay composition’ where you place your items with the intention of shooting from above, down on them. This can provide a refreshing new perspective on everyday objects; tea in a cup for example rather than only seeing the cup from its side. Geometric shapes are fun to play with from this angle.
Diffuse Your Light
I mentioned earlier about using flash or extra lights on your scene. A diffuser will help soften this so that you don’t get harsh shadows. If you don’t have a softbox or diffuser, try using white muslin or a similar light cloth to drape over windows or lights. Be extra careful when putting anything near a hot bulb though; avoid direct contact.
Shadow is as important as light and obviously one impacts the other, so think about how harsh and ‘present’ you want your shadows to be.
Macro (or close up) is a great way of getting still life images from a whole new perspective. It does require a bit of extra kit, but not necessarily a macro lens. Getting in close means using less objects in your composition but it’ll be far easier to fill the frame. Use other parts of the object, thrown out of focus, as your background. For example a close-up of a small flower in a bunch, with the rest of the bunch falling away behind it.
Finding interesting subjects and items that work well together can take a bit of practice. If you’ve not got a great deal of patience you could initially try going out and finding subjects rather than composing your own. Next time you meet a friend for coffee, try arranging the cups, sugar, and milk on the table to create a pleasing still life.
Look for inspiration online, see what others have done that works well and try to replicate it with your own spin. Eventually, you’ll come to know intuitively what will work and what won’t. Until then, be patient with trial and error. You might even get some unexpected and fun results.
Top Tips to Getting Still Life Shots
- Choose objects that are thematic or ‘tell a story’.
- Use diffusers to soften your light.
- Keep backgrounds plain and simple.
- Use a wide aperture to fade away the background.
- Opt for a unique composition, try looking down on your subjects instead.
- How to Get Started with Collections Photography for Fun and Profit: Working with sets of objects will get you thinking about light and imagining new ways to photograph
- How to Create Compelling Lifestyle Product Photographs: In any lifestyle product photograph, the context is as important as the product. Your pictures illustrate that all-important promise.
- 10 Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography: When photography originated, it was necessary for exposures to be quite long, so photographing static objects was the ideal subject matter. As technology developed, the fascination for capturing still life has remained and is still one of the most viable photographic professions today.
Still life photography is a great opportunity to get really creative with your images. It’s a welcome break if you’re looking for something different than your usual theme. I’ve often set up a still life after the frustration of not quite nailing a landscape shot. There’s something very satisfying about moving from something where you have little to no control over the factors, to something you can manage from start to finish. It’s this that makes it great inspiration for a rainy day, too.
Deciding on your subjects can be tricky at first: what goes together? What are you trying to say with your composition? Keep things simple and think thematically; not just in terms of whether those subjects work together in real life but even colours and textures. Trial and error is a natural part of the process and can even produce some great and unexpected results.
It might be easier to begin by finding still life compositions out in the world before you try creating your own. Places like cafes are great places to get some initial inspiration with objects that have been tried and tested many times before.
When creating your own compositions, remember to keep big, obvious items out of the centre of the frame (unless that’s deliberately what you’re going for) and think about how you want to light the scene. Diffusers will help soften and even out the light but if you want high contrast then try directional light and dark backgrounds to create a really dramatic feel.
Shoot from above in a flat lay composition which will present its own challenges but can be really rewarding. Use this technique as a platform for showing objects as we never usually see them.
For interesting close-ups and shallow depth of fields, try a macro lens or alternative equipment to really throw the background out of focus and show a new side to your subjects.
life really lets you flex that creative muscle and have a greater control over
what you produce. If you’re looking for an excuse to get started, why not
consider turning the finished result into a print or canvas for your home? That
way you can think about colours, textures and themes that match the room you’d
like to hang it in – that’s a great starting point.