Expert Lighting Techniques for Photographing Still Life

Having trouble producing amazing, crisp, and exciting still life photographs? It’s not always easy to give an inanimate object substance and make it pop, but with a few simple lighting techniques and tricks, you can bring those still lifes to life, so to speak. Photographers Karl Taylor and Urs Recher show us two very different, yet effective, ways to add some magic to a still life photo:

How to Shoot Black Objects on Black Backdrops

Sometimes, Taylor says he just finds objects that look really elegant—the shapes and the textures work really nicely—like the two spoons he uses in this video. For this simple tutorial, he combines the black spoons with a matte, acrylic surface. Although the surface is also black and may seem like it will take away from the subject, the spoons blend really nicely with it, and Taylor uses  a single 30 x 120 cm softbox through a sheet of Perspex to bring out the edge lighting over the top of the spoons.

To lighten the front of the spoons, he uses a silver panel to reflect and fill the light back into the image.

The last problem he faces is the amount of sheen on the surface at the back of the display. To counter this, he uses a long, dark card to blank out the surface sheen just until he gets enough light coming onto the spoons but not hitting the background surface.

photographing still life

Lighting Setup for the Spoons

photograph of spoons

Final Image of Black Spoons on a Black Background

How to Bring Out Shape in Still Life Objects

For Recher’s still life of an eggplant, the photographer goes for a very clear rim light to bring out the shape. He wants to shoot the black shiny eggplant on a black background, but to get the lighting he wants, he has to photograph the object on a white acrylic table first and add the black background in post-production.

The trick to get the perfect rim lighting is to use a piece of black paper cut out in the shape of the eggplant, but slightly bigger, and placed under the actual eggplant. Recher then uses a single bare bulb light under the table to create a hotspot where he places the eggplant. The black paper gives him a few millimeters of black around the subject, then a nicely graduated light that reflects around it.

The hotspot is created by the distance of the light. If it is far from the bottom of the table, then the surface is more evenly lit. But, by moving the light up close to the table, it is more condensed, providing a very strong hotspot.

From the side of the table, Recher uses a broncolor Picolite with narrow honeycomb grids to highlight the green top of the eggplant, which needs its own lighting because it in not shiny and won’t catch the reflection.

He also uses a lens flash shield in the form of a cardboard cutout that he mounts under the camera which is positioned above the scene. Even with a lens shade on the camera, the light from below will go into the lens, so the black cardboard will help block it out to provide clean, full blacks.

lighting for still photo

Lighting Setup for the Eggplant

photo of eggplant

Final Image of the Eggplant/Aubergine

These lighting techniques add interest to otherwise typical still life subjects. Do you you have any other tricks for bringing “life” to still life photography?

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