Throughout its long history, still, life has taken many forms, from the decorative frescoes of antiquity to the high art of the Renaissance.
By tradition, "Still Life" is a selection of inanimate objects arranged as the subject of a composition. Whereas, nowadays… a still life can be anything from your latest Instagram latte art to a vase of tulips styled like a Dutch Golden age painting.
Just as stated above, this form of photography also has the potential to become a powerful art form. Because it often the case that most interesting are the things that you see but don’t see every day. The simple truth of everyday objects is far more interesting than fantasy…if you can make it so.
As it happens, it all depends on the brain and the heart behind a good camera. In this genre of photography, you’re in control of everything from staging the scene to firing the shutter.
You can consider this as a playground where you can let your vision run free and create a story in a controlled environment. In this article, we’ll try to discuss "Still Life Photography" and what you can achieve in this particular area.
What is This Photography Type All About?
Simply put, "Still Life Photography" is the photographic counterpart of still life painting. This genre is used by the photographers to depict inanimate subject matter, typically a small group of subjects.
In contrast to other fields of photography (portrait, landscape) where there’s not much freedom, here a photographer enjoys more leeway in the arrangement of design concepts within a composition. As nothing moves here, you always remain in absolute control of your workspace.
It’s actually more about experimentation and trying new things…guiding the viewer’s eye through the image… creating an interesting geometric and playing within a frame. So, whatever your creative vision and artistic goals are, still life is a great place to start where you can fulfill them.
This is A Great Place to Master the Skills as a Photographer
Clicking for a splendid still-life image is an impressive skill, but just as painting a bowl of fruit is a good introduction (remember that episode from Mr. Bean?) for new painters, this type of photography is a perfect training ground for new photographers.
In a controlled environment, you’re allowed to experiment with light, materials, textures, and subjects. Besides, this is the fastest way to master the techniques of photography.
You’ll get a much better idea about how light and shadow affect a subject and the final result- how form comes into play, composition, harmony, and on and on. Texture, balance, and color interactions are very tricky to master. Still life photography lets you grow as a total photographer.
Speaking of which, the more you get comfortable arranging the proverbial bowl of fruit into an interesting composition, the better you’ll begin to recognize the patterns of shapes and colors. You’ll know in which way they go hand in hand together.
Also, you’ll develop a strong basic knowledge and see beforehand what angles the light should be coming from to get the most three-dimensionality. You’ll be able to feel it even before you press the shutter.
It’ll not be an exaggeration if I say that, you’ll get a feel whether your composition will stand out in the crowd or become just another sorry attempt.
Once you breathe in the basics, you can show off your skills and artistic flair. After all, these clicks are always a nice addition to any photographer’s online portfolio. You can showcase your skill to your clients what you’re capable of through this type of photography.
Any type of photography is an art. However, this form of photography has a huge commercial appeal to it. Just make sure that you don’t end up limiting yourself to photographing still life in a commercial way. Not that it’s bad…but still, it can poison the spirit of creating a nice storytelling image sometimes.
Types of Still Life Photography
There’re a number of subcategories which fall under this particular category. In this part of the article, we’ll be discussing some of the popular ones, one by one…
Tabletop photography is a genre of commercial product/still life photography. It focuses on capturing the objects such as food and drinks, gadgets, cosmetics, etc. that can be placed on a table and photographed.
This type of photography can be divided into three most popular types- flatlays, stylized and white background photos. Each one has its own purpose and peculiarities though.
The flatlays tabletop photography offers a nice opportunity showcasing flat objects or a great number of them. Here the photos are taken from above, in other words, at a 90 degree angle. But if the details of your object doesn’t stand out you can shoot them by tilting your camera a little bit, say 45 degrees.
On the other hand, the stylized tabletop photography immerses an object onto its natural environment.
You’ll get a nice authentic atmosphere for your object such as taking a photo of food in a restaurant. It also means that you would be on the go in this type of photography carrying your equipment with you…which can be a little difficult.
You see white background photos pretty much everywhere. They are mainly intended predominantly for commercial purpose. They don’t distract potential buyer’s attention from the product. The white background helps them evaluate the objects properly.
It’s very common to think that taking photos is a money vortex. While it’s true…well it’s also not (especially in this area of the skill) if you know your way around. With a trip to your local dollar store and craft store, you can click for stunning tabletop images for a fraction of the price.
A big kudos to social media! Tabletop photography has moved away from the lightbox and toward more authentic setup. Just keep in mind that the simple is always the best option to go for. Hence, try not to get fancy with your background. Also, don’t let it to be boring.
It doesn’t have to be super complex or involve lot of materials. Have a background with enough light that offers an interesting atmosphere for your objects.
Last but not least, don’t limit yourself to a table! You can always take your setup to your patio or yard. Hopefully you’ll find some sweet indirect shaded light to work in.
Nowadays, everywhere we go and everywhere we look from the webs, magazines or brochures to outdoor advertisements, we encounter product photography.
As people say, a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to product photography, photos can be worth thousands of dollars. It tells a lot about a product about its size, shape, colors, and sometimes… even how it is used.
Product photography is about making a statement about a product through the camera lens while it stands out as much as possible. In other words, this form of photography has the goal of presenting a product in the best possible photographic representation.
Attention to detail is paramount in this area of the skill. You can describe every single detail of your product as much as you want. But there’s a little assurance that doing so will truly get the message across to the customers.
So, take time to get every single important detail in your shots. It’ll ensure that your customers will get a complete idea of what the photographed product has to offer. Don’t leave anything to the imagination.
Always shoot your objects in a manner that you have to spend less time editing them. Try to shoot for the edit instead. You should also put your work into the context. That way, your prospective customers will be able to envision themselves using your product.
When it comes to photography, lighting plays a very vital role. Product photography is no exception either. There’re at least two possible ways in which you can apply lighting. One is the studio lighting and the other is natural lighting.
While natural lighting work really well for featuring edible items, clothing; studio lighting goes well with products having small details that are used indoors or being sold on Amazon and Google shopping. Besides, don’t forget to use the humble tripod to boost the quality of your photos.
Social media… especially Instagram, have taken food photography to a whole new level. But it would be wrong to think that food photography is merely a social media material. Actually it’s been widely used in the advertising industry way before Instagram was invented.
Let’s try to define this genre. Well, food photography, much like product photography is a specialization of commercial photography which is used in advertisements, magazines, packaging, menus or cookbooks.
There’re three main sub-categories of food photography: packaging, advertising, and editorial. The first one is usually a bit technical and tedious type. It emphasises on whatever the subject is in the best possible light.
Here, the food should be as clear as possible and should have as much detail as possible.
The second one is advertising. However, they’re not just for ads but also for menus, brochures and bill boards. Sometimes the photographers may feel a little uncomfortable because of the restrictiveness of the layout parameters this area has.
But shooting for editorial is fun! The photographs are often more about cooking related products than food itself. Hence, the photographer enjoys a little freedom here.
Now, what makes a food photograph great? Well, it’s all about letting the food speak for itself…its backstory, its ingredients, its process and most importantly (may sound a bit silly), its relationship to the surrounding and the people.
The reason is that, when the food is devoid of story, it doesn’t tell anything about its presence other than its decorative appearance. To make it water your mouth and your eye as well, try to capture the true essence of food through the lens. Make your food photographs more enticing and engaging.
Found object photography
In modern art, the term ‘found object’ is used to describe an object found by an artist, which with minimal modification, is represented as a work of art. This has become a staple in the artistic community and shows the diversity of artists and art lovers alike.
The thing is, they can be easily translated into photographs.
In the very same way, all across social media this peculiar genre has gained its popularity overnight. Why wouldn’t it? It’s fun, it’s challenging and, most importantly… it’s all about the level of creativity.
So, this area of photography is based on the recovery of lost, unclaimed or discarded items. These items are kept by a photographer because of some intrinsic interest he/she sees in them.
Typically, found objects include both natural materials and man-made items. So everything counts from stones, shells, curiously shaped pieces of wood to photographs, piece of glass, fragments of scrap metal to a bicycle handlebars.
Now, it may seem easy to simply find something ugly and throw a few filters on it to make it more appealing. But to be really successful with this particular aesthetic, and to stay true to the found object philosophy, try to create compositions that have interpretation or history behind them.
Try to look for interesting objects in odd places. But the objects should have at least a bit of creative act in itself. The rest depends on your creativity.
While creating your compositions, cancel that object’s familiar purpose by presenting it not in its natural habitat. In the end, add an interesting title to provoke and stir the thought process of the viewers.
The Equipment You’ll Need for the Skill
In the very beginning of this article, we talked a little about how the whole photography thing is kind of a money vortex. But in this genre, that’s not exactly the case. You don’t need much to start “Still Life” photography.
Hence… if you’re just starting out, your studio can be any place that is close to a light source.
Since it’s mostly about experimentation and trying new things, good results will gravely depend on your creative skill and how unique and eye catching your arrangements are going to be.
Trust your artistic intuition and work with what you already have…this should be more than enough for the time being.
As you begin to get a hold on to this area and gather more expertise, it’s obvious you want to up your game. This means you’re going to be competing with the pros. You can’t just simply take out your camera and click anymore. To compete with the pros you’ll need some necessary equipment.
When it comes to still life photography equipment, it’s better to start with the lighting stuffs. It’s vital to convey the desired message or mood of the photograph. Also, it’s the single most important factor when it comes to photography regardless of any genre.
Before getting hung up on the technicalities of the lighting gears, I just want to mention a thing or two about how important it is to experiment with the equipment.
Move the lights to see how it changes the composition. Move the light in. Move it away. Add lights. Take away lights. In other words, modify your setup as you see fit.
Never cease to try a lot of different things. Invest your time and energy experimenting and learning to “See” the light. It’ll improve your photography even if you’re a street shooter or a landscape photographer.
Okay… now let’s talk about the lighting equipment. We’ll be discussing the important gears only like, light reflectors, speedlight and strobes, and softboxes.
This is a simple tool that reflects light. However, it’s important to realize that a reflector, unlike a flash doesn’t create light. It merely redirects the existing light and sometimes manipulates the light from a flash, studio strobe or natural source.
They’re available in different types and colors. The color of the reflective surface determines the color that’s going to be bounced back.
Now, a typical white reflector basically bounces the light, and that light is nice and soft. Whereas, a silver reflector doesn’t change the color of the light that much, but it’s a bit brighter than the light reflected off a white one.
Take note, gold reflectors are designed to change the color of the light by warming it up a bit with an orange tone.
Reflector is primarily used to fix shadows or highlighting the textures in a composition. But they can be pretty versatile too. In flat lighting they can create a different atmosphere by adding drama and flair to the shot.
Many reflectors have a black side. You can use them to block out light instead of to reflect it. They also come in handy for bouncing a flash when there’s nothing around to bounce off of.
Not only they’re easy to use but also they’re very cheap. For example, there’s this 5-in-1 collapsible light reflector that’s available for about $20. It includes white, silver, gold, translucent, and black surfaces.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking a DIY solution, you can easily make your own reflectors using tinfoil and cardboard.
Speedlights and Strobes
Shooting indoors, in low-light environments or against a strong contrast is always a difficult task for any photographer.
You’ll face myriads of problems including wrong kind of light falling on your object, excessive noise and loss of shadow detail. A speedlight or a strobe can really come in handy in this type of situation.
A speedlight known as hot shoe flash can be triggered to fire with the camera’s shutter when it’s inserted into a standard hot shoe on top of a camera. It comes with a number of controls.
You can control the spread the light and ensure the correct spread and intensity of light that you want for your composition.
This particular gear is very transformative and beneficial. This affordable photographic accessory is an essential item for every still life photographer out there who wants to create stunning and better images.
On the other hand, strobes produce a short burst of light in a similar way to on-camera flash. The differences are, however, that they're brighter, produce extremely short bursts of light, and recharge quickly.
Despite being a little more expensive strobes offer a few more features. They will enable you to adjust the light’s intensity by changing their settings and they typically have a built-in modelling light that’ll help you to figure out where to place the strobe to get the desired effect.
In short, strobes give you more power at the cost of size, weight, and cost whereas, speedlights are more versatile, convenient, and affordable, but you’ll end up sacrificing a lot of power in the bargain.
Want perfect lighting for your photos? Then having a softbox in your lighting arsenal is a must. This is a light-diffusing box installed on a studio light to cast a soft yet dense light on the subject.
The inside of a softbox is lined with reflective foil, which amplifies and projects the light in a more powerful beam. It has a series of diffusers in front of the light that diffuse the light, making it a softer light casting softer shadows.
Softboxes can create dynamic areas of light and dark, just as dynamic as with hard lighting, but with a much smoother grading from light to dark. They also greatly reduce spill light and help with directing your light in exactly the way you want thus giving you more control over your work.
There’re two common types of softboxes — the square box, which projects more of a square, framing light, and the octodome, which casts a more circular light. The octodome is known for casting a more “Natural Light” and can be put to more uses.
No matter what you use, a speedlight or strobe, you should always use softbox for shots to avoid harsh shadows.
Lenses Needed for still life photography
In “Still Life Photography,” your camera and lenses don’t have that much to do than just sitting there waiting for a photo to be taken. Because the main work, the creation of magic happens far away from them… that’s you arranging your subjects.
So, don’t get hung up on the matter of buying a perfect lens. Just buy one that works for you, because amazing still life photos can be taken with the most basic lens and camera.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to consider few things while buying a lens like, subject’s dimension, lighting set up, your set and distance from your subject.
There’re really only two main things a still life photographer needs from their lens. To be sharp in the f8-f11 range which most lenses can offer and to be the appropriate focal length for your subject.
The thing is, in still life photography you’ll mostly be shooting very little things. So, you won’t be needing any high-end wide-angle lens. A good and proper 1:1 macro lens will do just fine. Every macro lens can take excellent sharp photos.
Not to mention, this lens helps the photographers get creative with the perspective of their object. They can get as close as they want to their object creating entertaining compositions.
Besides macro lenses, telephoto lens is also a good choice for still life photography. The narrow angle of view they offer helps to properly fill the frame with the subject.
Also, the extremely shallow depth of field creates a very specific point of focus, such as focusing on a particular part of your subject.
Types of Cameras You Need for the Job
The modern digital cameras offer tons of features that you probably won’t need while shooting still life objects in your studio. As you have more control over your scene in this genre, you can work with any camera since you can change and tweak every single equipment and element regarding your composition.
Good photos can be taken with the most basic cameras that are available in the market. You don’t need to spend big bucks in this occasion.
Just mind a couple of things while choosing your camera… If you’re shooting professionally, look for the details that the camera will provide. It also should have several focus points and be able to handle noise. If it has tethering feature, great. If not, no problem whatsoever.
Now, you just have to decide which type of camera you’re going to buy. Is it a full frame camera or a cropped sensor camera?
Although full frame camera is more preferable, but in my opinion, for still life photography a cropped sensor camera would do just fine without compromising the integrity of your shots.
Shedding Some Light on Cropped Sensor Cameras
First things first, crop sensor cameras are cheap. Professional results are absolutely achievable with this. The key lies in mastering the fundamentals of how to properly utilize a camera and understanding the relationship between sensor size and its real-world applications.
Remember that the focal length of the lenses will be different on a cropped sensor camera. For example, on a full-frame camera, a 50mm will behave like a 50mm.
Put that same lens on a camera with a cropped sensor, it will behave more like an 80mm. Your shots will be nowhere near as wide.
That’s exactly what you need, not wide. You want to fill your frame with the subject. If the angle is wide, unnecessary objects or the background might distract the viewer from your subject. It would defeat the whole purpose of still life photography.
Some Friendly Tips to Remember
Before you get busy with all the conundrums of still life photography, try to remember the things that are going to be discussed in this part of the article. Hopefully you’ll implement them in your work to have better results.
From time to time, photography tends to get very technical due to its complex nature. Because of that, we sometimes lose sight of the artistic side of it. Play with your subjects and composition. Try different layouts and arrangement. Tweak and adjust your set up to fine tune until you become satisfied.
Hence, always take your time to plan your shoot and think about the story that you’re going to portray with your composition.
The next important thing is light. Don’t just limit yourself to the studio set up. Shoot both in studio and in natural light. 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. While shooting indoors it’s better to avoid shooting with the traditional overhead lights in your home.
You can add drama and mood to your shots by using light from the side. 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.
You can also add elements of motion to your photos. Add motion. Reach your hand into the shot and move something mid-photo. Or slow down your shutter speed and catch motion blur with a spinning ballerina music box. Go mental!
Experiment with depth of field. Consider focal length and focus on one small point rather than having the entire frame in focus can change your composition dramatically. Cameras are mostly designed to focus on the human face, so you might want to use manual focus instead.
In terms of background, you have to be very careful. It shouldn’t be too dull or too attractive. If it’s too attractive, it can divert the viewer’s eye. If it’s too dull then it might result in a bad composition.
So, it would be wise to stick with neutral or subtle colors that won’t overpower the subject. For that reason, white, greys, black, and browns work well.
Still Life Photography Ideas at the End
In this age of social media, everyone is a still life photographer. It’s all about how you can create an interesting photo with your own style. But sometimes we run out of creative ideas, it happens to all of us. Here’s some ideas about still life photography that you can use or take inspiration from.
Compose your photo with diverse texture and materials. It can be anything from a handful of random objects from your home or curated collection of sterling silver candlesticks. You don’t have to stick with the traditional subjects like fruit in a bowl.
So, try to get creative when choosing what objects to use.
Old objects are always interesting subjects for still-life photography. The more beat up and worn out they are, the better. Antique furniture, lamps, clocks, old books, postcards and other vintage objects can conjure up wonderful feelings of nostalgia in the viewer.
So, whether it’s a raggedy pair of boots or a dusty old book, see what interesting old items you have kicking around.
The natural world has endless subjects that can be used here. Next time you’re out on a walk, keep your eyes peeled for small subjects that you could photograph. Look out for leaves, stones, flowers, feathers etc.
Low-key images can create moody photos. However you have to shoot in the studio. It involves dark-colored scenes that emphasize light on specific areas. That way you can bring all the attention to your subject.
In the end, you can always scour the internet. It is full of ideas. Just don’t be afraid to have fun while shooting. The more fluid and organic your thought process is, the more interesting your photos will be.
Because, this genre is one of the most satisfying genres in the world where it simply connects with one’s soul, if clicked with love and passion properly.