Still-Life Tabletop Photography Made Easy!

still-life-photography1When it comes to simple basic Still-Life Tabletop Photography, as far as the novice ‘wanna-be-photographer’ is concerned there is often a mental block, when really it’s quite simple, so much so that if you start to do it professionally, after a few years the trick is to stay awake.

I asked UK photographer Phil Selfe why he sold his very successful studios a few years back and he answered, “I just got bored Rog”.

I remember when he was my assistant back in the seventies, I would set up the first still-life shot, then say to him, “Shoot off the rest Phil” and go out for the rest of the day.

Of course not all still-life is so mundane and in fact some still-life shots are very exacting, requiring careful planning, construction of the set and attention to lighting details, which would include running test shots to acquire the effect that was needed. Sometimes this could take a day or two to successfully complete.

If you were shooting room sets as I use to do some time back, this would require a lot more work and would involve the use of many assistants, carpenters for set building and in many cases taking days to successfully complete. You would also need some serious studio space to accomplish this type of specialist work, as I use to have.

But as UK comedian Ronnie Corbett would say “I digress”, lets get back to the basics of still-life tabletop photography.

For lighting you will need an attachment to your studio flash unit called a ‘Soft Box’. This is as it sounds, a box constructed in fabric, which is reflective on the inside, with a diffuse panel at the front, providing a directional soft defused light to illuminate the subject. An umbrella attachment is not sutible for this work as the spread of light is to wide.

If you don’t have a studio flash unit you can buy a soft box that will attach to a hammer head flash gun. If you have a second flash head you can put this to good use by simply bouncing it off the ceiling, to help fill any shadow area.

still-life-photography3What you will need for Still-Life Tabletop Photography:
  • 1. Medium Format Camera and a ‘macro’ lens (close focusing). Better still a 5x4inch. View camera, which has tilt and swing front and rear panels for ease of focusing.
  • Did you know that only one in fifteen NEW cameras sold to day, are film cameras, this means there are great bargains to be had in the use film camera market, take advantage of that right now.
  • 2. Soft Box Attachment.
  • 3. Tripod, a good solid one.
  • 4. Lighting Stands, you will need two or three.
  • 5. White Card as reflectors or as a background, size 1mtr.x70cm. from your art shop, get three.
  • 6. Background. muslin or material, off white or neutral in color.
  • 7. Low table about 2ftx2ft. 18 inches high.
  • 8. Light Meter for flash exposures.
What to do:

Set up your soft box at an angle of 45 degrees to the left or right of camera and slightly to the back of the set. This should be for small still-life objects and the light should be no more than a meter away from the subject, so you are able to stop down, (set the lens aperture), to at least f22, to get as much depth-of-field as possible so the image will be in sharp focus. If you have a second flash head, use it bounced off the ceiling to help to fill any shadow area.

Fix your reflector, (white card), the opposite side to the flash and an additional reflector the other side underneath the soft box.

still-life-photography2Use a good lens hood, such as a bellows lens hood, to keep the light from the soft box hitting the lens. It’s also good practice to fix a small piece of black card, suspended over the lens of the camera to prevent any light causing flare from the lens, taking care that the black card doesn’t clip the picture area, or effect you meter reading.

Make test exposures to find out the best result and after some experimentation, you will find the results that you want. It’s also good to “bracket” your exposures, which means to make three exposures, one at half a stop, (f.stop number), above the reading and one at half a stop below, choosing the best density of the three exposures made. Most pro photographers, even after a tests, use this as standard practice. Film is cheap and digital is nothing.

Now if you think that there is some other ‘magic’ formula that the pros use to shoot simple still life, your WRONG. This is the most used pro photo still-life set up, but of course there many exceptions to the rule and not all still life work is table top.

Final comment: The best way to become an accomplished photographer in still-life or other work, is go work for one as an assistant. It’s the way most good pro photographers make it.

Happy shooting.

To check out the story and images about Still-Life Tabletop Photography go here: Still-Life Tabletop Photography

I’m from London. I started out in the days of the Swinging Sixties and London was quite a place to be. In those days we use to shoot catalog fashion shots with a 10×8 inch View camera, so the color transparency images would be the same size as the image on the catalog page, I have to tell you right now that took quite some doing. Now I spent most of my time with my website: Pro SECRETS of Money Making PHOTOGRAPHY, writing about and teaching photography, occasionally shooting assignments.

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5 responses to “Still-Life Tabletop Photography Made Easy!”

  1. Ani meinster says:

    Hey- wonderful tips/ explanation.

  2. travis richardson says:

    thnx for the tips there very helpful expecially the f-stop i just couldnt get the depth of fill right and im just learning how to use depth of fill. nice post very good advice for beginners on still life

  3. amanda says:

    thank you for the nice guidance..

  4. Achin Biswas says:

    Nice tip…i am looking forward to do some table top stills. I need a light tent but I dont have any light tent in my area. Wondering from where I can get one.

    Kolkata – India

  5. Christina says:

    Great tips, but what shutter speed do i use?

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