Still Life Photography

In today’s photo tip, we begin a study of still life photography techniques. We’ll start out with a still life photography definition that will describe the two main areas of still life photography.

fruit still life photography

“Gala Apples” captured by Jamar L. Cotton (Click image to see more from Cotton.)

Learning how to shoot still life photos should make you start jumping up and down with joy. Why? Getting good at the various still life photography tips and techniques is the absolute fastest way to total mastery of photo techniques.

You’ll get much better at seeing how light and shadow affect a photograph–how form comes into play, composition, harmony, and on and on. Texture, balance, and color interactions play big parts, too. As you get better and better at shooting great still life subjects, your other photography will improve as well. In other words, it’s not just a bowl of fruit. It’s a terrific training ground. Actually that’s why so many of history’s master artists did so many still life paintings.

If you can figure out how to arrange the proverbial bowl of fruit into an interesting composition–and get comfortable doing it–you will start to recognize which shapes and colors work together. You’ll start to see what angles the light should be coming from to get the most three dimensionality. You’ll start to get a feel for which textures will make a stunning photo and which ones will turn out to be nothing but a big blah.

Types of Still Life Photography

Let’s start with a still life photography definition explaining the two types of still life. You have the found still life and the created still life.

When most of us think of a still life photo, we generally think of a created still life where we build the entire composition–from choosing the most photogenic bowl, to what fruit to use, to how to position and light all the other elements. (By the way, still life photography is much more than just fruit. I’m only using a bowl of fruit as an easily understood example.)

But, when you are walking down your favorite mountain trail and run across a fallen leaf sitting on a particularly attractive rock, that’s a still life, too. If you photograph it as is, without making any adjustments, it’s a found still life.

Found Still Life

While most of our articles discuss the created still life, it is important to recognize that there is a difference, and at the same time to realize that the characteristics that make a stunning created still life are the same characteristics that will make an effective found still life. The only differences are that in a found still life you run across it naturally rather than set it up.

still life nature photography

“Untitled” captured by Mark Prest (Click image to see more from Prest.)

Even more important, you are now more aware. You will now recognize that there is a stunning photo sitting there, rather than just trample the leaf underfoot and keep walking.

Here is an assignment for you: Consider this still life photography definition and take a stroll this evening when you get off work. Bring your camera and try to find ten found still life photos. Take the shots and file them away in your photo notebook. Later, after you’ve studied the still life photography tips and techniques articles, pull out your notebook and see if you still think they are worthy images.

Created Still Life

One major benefit of the still life photo is that you can create absolutely amazing photos whenever you want. It is a learned skill rather than something that requires you to be in the right place at the right time. Forget crawling out of bed before dawn to get the right light. Heck, with still life photography, you can shoot at midnight!

Your choice of subject matter is going to determine everything else that follows, so it is an important one.

Every subject of every still life photo has some sort of appealing feature. It might be the shape, or possibly its color. Sometimes it is the object’s function, its texture and so forth. There is something interesting. As an artist, it is your job to figure out what that something is. Or, if you just can’t find an intrinsic “interest factor” you need to create one with lighting or positioning and so on. Of course the goal is to do both.

When you are searching for still life photography ideas at home, here is a challenge that can help improve your creative eye: Pick an object that appears to have no photo appeal at all. Then set up a still life photo using it and keep working it until you find a way to make a stunning photo.

Try showing the entire object in the frame, then move closer and show only a part of it. Try getting even closer and do a micro close-up. Try positioning it at various angles, try different lighting patterns and colors, and different backgrounds. Keep going until you have a shot that you are proud of. Then pick something else and do it again. It’s hard and probably the most rewarding exercise you can do.

still life photography

“Baking Christmas Cookies” captured by Mia Bauer (Click image to see more from Bauer.)

If you stop to think of it, basically all the product ads you see in magazines are really nothing but a still life photo. And let’s face it; a lot of those products aren’t exactly photogenic.

When selecting your subject matter, I suggest you start with one item. Every additional factor in your set adds to the problems you need to solve, and you will improve faster if you start off simply and build on your skills and successes.

Another area to avoid in your first few photos is a reflective surface. Reflective surfaces create another set of issues we will be covering in future articles.

When you are selecting multiple objects, they all need to work together in some sort of common theme. You should be making selections of similar shapes, or colors, textures, uses, etc. There are an unlimited number of artistic choices, but the first is to make sure all the factors in your still life tie in to a common theme.

color in still life photography

“Still Life – ‘Hot-Sweet-Chili'” captured by Anthony Zeder (Click image to see more from Zeder.)

Still Life Photography Setup

Once you’ve made the decision to do a created versus a found still life, and you’ve selected your subject matter, it’s time to start building the set.

First, find a table of some sort that you can use to create your still life photography setup. It seems silly to mention it, but be sure it is a table you aren’t going to need for a while. I know from experience how irritating it can be to spend several hours getting everything tweaked just the way you want it, only to have the family come in and start clearing the table for a meal. Or worse, if you are shooting a bowl of fruit, to leave the room for a minute and come back to see someone eating your masterpiece! Like I say, it seems silly to say it, but experience has shown it is necessary. Make sure you will have access to your set for as long as you need it.

I suggest selecting a backdrop before you actually start adjusting and moving your still life objects into place. For some reason, when you are seeing it in completed form–with the backdrop–it is easier to get effective compositions. At least it is for me. Depending on your subject matter, your background could be as simple as a sheet of colored paper or a piece of poster board. If you want to go fancier, it could be a hand painted piece of canvas or some other material.

One of the little known still life photography tips and techniques is to take an old photo that you like, blow it up and use it as the background. As part of your still life photography setup using a photo enlargement could be your secret weapon. Most photographers never think of it and it’s perfect. Your background can be anything! Don’t forget textured walls. Bricks and stonework can be the perfect complement to the right subject.

botanical still life

“Because We Believe” captured by Ivan Pena (Click image to see more from Pena.)

Most photographers tend to add the background almost as an afterthought, but it is worth the effort to make sure it “fits” with your subject matter. Dark materials tend to add more drama and intensity whereas light backgrounds are more light and airy. They soften a composition according to National Geographic. The whole look and feel of the finished photo can be altered and controlled by your background choices. Most still life photographers say that the background should blend with the subject matter. It should be a slightly different tone, but similar colors will help to emphasize the subject. With light subjects it should be slightly darker and with dark subjects it should be a bit lighter.

Here is your assignment: Find a bowl, vase, or something that you want to shoot as a still life. Next try to find a backdrop that will make it look like it is one of those master paintings from the 1600s. Then find a backdrop that will make it seem to be modern and upbeat. Next, find three more backdrops and ways of presenting your subject.

The more effort you put into the still life photography setup, the faster you will start getting ooohs and aaahs when people look at your work.

Still Life Composition

As photographers, most of our interest and attention naturally goes to the light. In landscape photos, it can make or break the image. In portraits it can magnify or disguise facial flaws. In your still life photography setup, light is still important, but we study still life photography tips and techniques to learn composition. Composition is king.

We’ve discussed how your subjects could be chosen for their color, texture, shape, era of creation, size or many other qualities. We’ve discussed how we need to study our subject matter to find the story. What makes this subject worth taking the time to create our masterpiece? We’ve discussed choosing a background that will enhance our story and help us visually get across the factor that drew us to the object in the first place.

black and white still life photography

“Session” captured by Tony Taffinder (Click image to see more from Taffinder.)

Now we come to the whole point of doing still life photography: to master composition.

You won’t have much in the way of compositional options if you only have one object to choose from. You should have a bunch of objects that fit the theme you are going for. Pick and choose which ones to add and take away. The more options you have, the better.

All of the composition rules come into play here; that’s why still life shots are so valuable as a learning tool. You have the rule of thirds, leading lines, diagonals, geometric shapes, and visual weight (determined by either the object’s size or color). You could even have issues with a level horizon if you show one.

Pick a few of the great master painters and go online to locate a few of their still life photos. Try to figure out what and how many compositional rules they employed. How did the colors and shapes work together to make it a great composition? Did they break any rules? What kind of backdrop did they use? Why do you think they chose it? Could you duplicate the shot? Try it! That’s a pretty fast way to learn a ton about composition.

Still Life Lighting

Lighting in any photo genre is vital but in still life photos it is an amazing learning opportunity.

In landscape photography, there isn’t much we can learn about how to set up and control light. We generally have to work with what is there and about the only control we have is the time of day. In portrait photography, we have all the lighting options: main light, fill light, background light, hair light, accent lights and so on, but we are restricted on the amount of time we can take. If we tweak and adjust too long, our subject will get tired of waiting and leave.

As in the composition arrangement, one of the main benefits of the still life photography lighting setup is that we can take as long as we want. We can tweak and fiddle until it is perfect.

creative still life photography

“Still Life” captured by Alex Lewis (Click image to see more from Lewis.)

Studio lighting equipment can get expensive in a hurry, so we try to work with as few lights as possible and employ a judicious amount of reflectors. With still life photos, we can take our sweet time setting up the lighting and mirrors, white cards, and so on until we have totally and completely learned how to work with a minimal lighting investment. For those of us that don’t have any studio lights, we can put our set next to a window and use the sun. In no time, this knowledge is going to spill over into your portrait work.

I can’t over stress how important still life photography is to mastering lighting.

In portrait photos, we have six basic lighting setups, all of them designed to minimize flaws and accent the good features of our subject. In landscape photography we are mostly concerned with the directionality and color of the light. All of these concerns will come into play in a still life shot. We not only use directionality and color to beautify our subject, but to direct the viewer’s attention to what we want them to see and not see.

Use side lighting to accent texture and shadow. It’s the shadows that will make your photo look three dimensional and come to life. Use colored gels on your light to accent and harmonize. Use rays of light to direct the eye to various compositional elements. Whatever you do, avoid using your on-camera flash. Straight-on harsh light will ruin your masterpiece.

Go through your favorite photo books and magazines and pick out ten different still life photos that are appealing to you. Study the lighting setup and try to determine how many lights were used, where they were positioned, and why. How could you improve the photo?

About the Author:
Dan Eitreim writes forĀ ontargetphototraining.com. He has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years. His philosophy is that learning photography is easy if you know a few tried and true strategies.

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