There aren’t any photographic practices that date back further than still life photography: when photography originated, making a picture required very long exposures, so static objects were the ideal subject. However, as technology developed, the fascination for capturing still life has remained, and continues as one of the most vibrant photographic arts —and lines of photographic work—going.
At the top end, still life photography can be lucrative business, as magazines, catalogues, art galleries and websites all require product shots. There are many advantages to working with still life that are often underestimated, so hopefully after this tutorial you’ll be able to see it’s scope for creativity and get started with taking some shots yourself!
Getting Started: Go Slow
Contrary to common perceptions, you don’t need a studio or a fancy location to make a start with still life photography. You can begin by simply using a space at home, such as a table placed by a window, along with a simple backdrop and utilizing a couple of lamps.
It varies greatly to landscape or portrait photography, in which you are provided with the subject matter, for example, a stunning mountain scene or a model, which come with a huge amount of variables, but the creative content is there in front of you.
With still life photography there are far fewer variables. As the photographer you have complete control over the situation, including the subject matter, but you need to think extremely creatively in order to capture it in an interesting and engaging way.
1. Choose Subjects that Speak to You
What you photograph is completely up to you. Have a search around the house to see if you can find something simple but interesting to start with. Please don’t feel like you have to take photos of fruit or flowers just because everyone else does: think outside the box without being overly ambitious.
If when you’re out and about something catches your eye, take it home with you (don’t steal it!) or make a note of it so as to remember to try photographing it in a still life context. Try to avoid reflective surfaces such as glass and metal to begin with, as they will be extremely difficult with regards to lighting. Once you’ve mastered the single object shots, try mixing it up, combine objects of contrasting shape, colour, texture and see what you can come up with.
2. Get Comfortable with Light and Lighting
Lighting doesn’t have to be expensive. I know certainly for me that a set of studio lights aren’t really within my budget, so for still life shoots I need to utilize all the light I can get my hands on, and that often means sunlight.
Remember that you have full control over the shoot, so if you want, find a room in which you can block out all natural light by using shutters or curtains, this way you will have complete control over the light upon your subject.
Using standard table lamps can work extremely well if used effectively. Be sure to try multiple positioning set ups, not all light has to come from the front of the object, side and back lighting will add interest, shadows and depth to the shot. Alternatively, choose a room that is well lit via a window, and use this to your advantage. The natural light from one side will comprehensively light your subject and you can compliment this with a lamp or reflector.
3. Get a Good Tripod and Work Your Angles
Depending on your lighting situation, you may or may not need to use a tripod and shutter release. I would recommend using these as they will allow you to observe and work with your subject matter. This set up will also allow you to use slightly longer shutter speeds than usual to ensure a small aperture allowing the image to be in focus front to back, if you so choose.
However, please don’t let a static camera stifle your creativity, it quickly gets forgotten that your camera has been sat in the same position for the whole shoot. Be sure to vary the angles and heights at which you are shooting. Otherwise, before you know it, you’ll have a whole collection of shots all take from the same point with little or know variation. Mix it up a bit. Try shooting at the level of the subject or try a bird’s eye view, looking down onto the subject, but be careful if you are moving around not to cast any shadows on your subject!
4. Get the Backdrop Right
Having a suitable backdrop for your subject matter will play a crucial role in the overall success of your shots. It’s best to keep it nice and simple, so it doesn’t interfere with your subject. A plain painted wall or a large sheet of white or plain colored paper would be ideal.
Think about how your choice of background contrasts the subject, do you want a neutral background, or are there tones that may work in complimenting the shades within your subject. For smaller objects, you may not need a backdrop as such, but instead require a surface to place the items on, for which something like black velvet is ideal, as it absorbs light and looks like a solid black surface.
5. Compose the Shot
The compositional element of your still life work is an absolutely crucial part of ensuring that your work is engaging and unique. Consider the rule of thirds, how can that be applied to your shoot to create a strong composition. Ensure there are no distractions within the frame, just the subject and the backdrop.
Be sure to vary the composition of the subject matter through the shoot and think outside the box. Where are you leading the eye within the image? Are you utilizing negative space or might it work to try and fill the frame? Engage with the subject, what are its defining features? What is it used for? Are you able to put it into context or does it work as a stand alone subject?
6. Take All Day Over It, If You Need
I often find that my mentality surrounding a shoot is dependent on the reason for the shoot. If I am simply taking photos for pleasure or for myself (as opposed to being assigned work by somebody else), I will be less stringent with ensuring that all the aspects of the shoot are as well executed as they can be. This is obviously a bad habit that am aiming to shed, but when it comes to still life photography, there is no reason not to get it right. You have as much time as you need to do a good job!
Unlike a landscape shoot, the light isn’t rapidly changing and unlike a portrait, you’re subject isn’t going to get bored of keeping still for long periods of time. Take advantage of this, set up your subject, lighting, backdrop and camera, try a few shots, then move things around a bit and have another go. If you get to a point where you feel like things aren’t going quite right, you can just leave everything set up, make yourself a cup of tea and come back to it refreshed later on.
Another advantage is that there’s no excuse not to have clean and sharp images, take time to get the lighting and focus just right. If you can get your hands on one, a macro lens will be ideal for this sort of work, however, if not, try selecting macro mode on your camera to give you the best chance of capturing the close up detail in your subject.
7. Get Inspired by the Masters
If you’re struggling with the lighting, composing or structuring of your shots, then you need to find some inspiration, and where better to look than to the original still life masterpieces of years gone by. Have a search online for renaissance still life artists and observe the elements of the pieces.
Studying these paintings will help you to think about form, shades and how the colors work together and will hopefully give you a few ideas on how you can shape your photography work to form strong and engaging images.
8. Develop Your Eye for Still Life Scenes
Now it’s time for you to have a go yourself. Find a quiet day in your schedule and set aside some time to practice. Try setting up your camera and backdrop by a suitably light spot next to a window and get snapping!
Once you’ve mastered the basics, try getting creative, experiment with camera angles, lighting angles and alternative light sources such as candles and lamps. You could even try getting creative with apertures and use a f/1.8 prime lens to achieve an artistic shallow focus. However, if you take one thing from this tutorial, let it be this: still life photography does not have to be of fruit and flowers! Find some unique and inspiring subject matter that gets you excited and start shooting!
9. Perfect Your Post-Production Process
Working with your pictures after the shoot shouldn't feel like a chore. It should be fun!
Photoshop actions are often touted as a great time-saver, but to my mind the biggest advantage they give you is a highly repeatable workflow. Instead of having to work through all the steps from scratch, and action makes a set of choices for you, then you teak and adjust to make things perfect.
Here's a short example of an action in action, from the set Actions for Food Photography from GraphicRiver (no longer available):
10. You Can Make a Living With Still Life Photography
There is plenty of demand for still life photography, particularly now that it is so simple for photographers to provide images for stock photography libraries. Once you’ve got your shots, don’t be afraid to share them online! You could even try selling your pictures on PhotoDune, Envato’s stock photography market. So each time you set up a shoot, work as if you are on assignment, you never know, your still life work might even make you a few bucks along the way!
Still life encompases a lot of subjects, and many photographers specialize in sub-genres: food phography, product photography, architectural photography, and catalog work are popular ones.
If you're interested in doing still life professionally, Dave Bode's course, Fundamentals of Still Life and Product Photography, is a great place to start.
Never Stop Learning!
As the oldest of photographic traditions, still life has a rich and extremely varied history. There's no end to inspiration, and no end to the learning you can do simply by engaging the world around you with your camera. Here are a few still life tutorials to explore next:
- Finding Macro Inspiration at HomeMarie Gardiner07 Aug 2014
- Make, Find, and Improvise: Creative Backgrounds For Still Life and Macro PhotographsMarie Gardiner09 Nov 2014
- Focus Stacking for Extended Depth of FieldMarie Gardiner20 Aug 2014
- How to Calibrate Color Profiles for Photos With a Reference CardJeffrey Opp28 Oct 2021
- Photograph on a Purely White BackgroundJeffrey Opp27 Jan 2015
- How to Photograph Paintings and Prints with Copy LightingJeffrey Opp22 Dec 2014