Photographing still life has a long history that dates back to the beginning of photography itself. Photography once required long exposure times to produce an image, so using still life was the appropriate subject material. To date, and with many technological advances, still life remains a popular genre of photography. It's the art of creating imagery rather than capturing a moment in time. When compared to other genres, still life has many advantages for both the new hobbyist and professional photographer.
The lack of complication in this genre allows for great control while also setting the stage for spontaneity and artistic exploration. Photographing the beauty of still life can happen in the privacy of your home against a simple backdrop. Subject selection and arrangement is an easy process, so you won’t need to stress over using a model, or making a long trip to a distant location. For all its simplicity, still life photography yields a lot of creative power.
This style quickly reveals a wide range of imagery potential. Working with objects such as pottery, jewelry, or even an old pair of shoes, in natural light can produce stunning images. Be flexible with your approach, because you’ll be structuring the elements of your photography from subject material, lighting, and background. Working with still life is a great way to learn about lighting and composition. So if you're ready, take a few shots and see for yourself.
How To Approach Still Life Photography
Many beginners will arrange their objects on a table top next to a window or plain wall. However, when considering object selection and arrangement, remember this is just one part of the process. As you work with your arrangement, you must take your time, adjust the lighting, and experiment with different elements of your composition. You will need to consider how color, lighting, shadows, angles, and still life create an overall context. You will experiment with bringing these all elements together inside your composition. Keep in mind, the key to producing great still life photography is thinking creatively. Try to bring your own point of view, opinions, and values to the table.
Many still life photographers commonly work with flowers and fruit, but don’t limit yourself to just that. There are many ways to produce a great still life photo, so make your object selection and arrangement unique and fun. You can keep it simple if simplicity motivates you. But don’t rule out using old shoes, broken shells, and even stones from the outside garden as subject material. Unexpected items can create compelling photographs.
If you’re having problems finding subject material around your home, take a short trip to a thrift or antique store. There are many unique, inexpensive items for purchase. Find items that inspire you. If it catches your eye, make a note. If you love it, use it.
Backgrounds And Backdrops
A good background or backdrop can make for a beautiful still life photo. For the advanced photographer, you’ve likely collected more than a variety of backdrops, over the years. For the new hobbyist without access to a backdrop, use fabric, paper, or an existing wall. These are good options too. If you use fabric, iron it to remove any wrinkles. Many artists use pale, white or black background colors, as they are a good place to start. Don't be afraid to experiment from there, though. Working with different colors will affect your composition in a variety of ways. You’ll learn over time what backdrops and colors augment the beauty of your images.
Using natural lighting is convenient, so practice with this light source when you’re first getting started. It’s entirely free and can produce great results, depending on the time of day you organize your shots. Hard and soft natural light will produce different results. Hard light produces well-defined dark shadows, and soft light creates lighting that is more even throughout. Once you get comfortable using natural lighting, try experimenting with other alternative light sources.
If you have access to studio lights, a standard lamp, or even lighting like candles, there are many ways to get your lighting just right. Keep in mind, while lighting is a vital element of your composition, so are shadows. If you want to understand how lighting and shadows affect your composition, try moving your light source side to side, and back and forth to study the movement of shadows around your still life arrangement. Notice how front lighting will augment the detail of your still life, while side and backlighting can add a lot of depth and drama.
Studio lights, expensive cameras, a tripod, and multiple backdrops may not be within your budget. Even so, there are many ways to produce great still life photography without access to this kind of equipment. Creativity is the key with still life photography and you can do quite a lot with a little. If you have a basic camera, consider just the basics of what you need to get going.
Remember that natural lighting doesn't cost a penny and can produce great results. Standard lights, like household lamps, placed in multiple positions can add shadows and depth to your shots. A plain painted wall or the use of a black sheet can successfully supply a neutral background for your subject. Get familiar with your camera's settings and options; any type of photo camera can work. Using a tripod allows you to adjust your subject material, lighting, and reconsider your frame.
If you are an intermediate to advanced photographer, here are a few suggestions as to what you may need:
- One flashgun in manual mode with adjustable power
- A wireless trigger
- A soft-box for your flashgun
- One or two tripods
- A telephoto lens and a fast normal lens.
Note: If you can get your hands on a macro lens, that would be best. A set of close-up lenses is an alternative. Also, old, manual lenses are good and usually cheap.
Tips And Techniques
With still life photography, you have the benefit of time and the ability to reorganize your subject material as you go. So, if something doesn't seem right, move it around until you find the right spot. Adjust your focus and make sure your shots are clear and perfect. Focus through your lens and look for empty gaps and crowding. Maybe your item placement is too busy or not organized appropriately? Try placing your subject materials off-center, as it creates a more harmonious composition that feels natural and balanced.
Adjusting the angles of your arrangement can make a huge difference in your composition. Placing objects on an angle will lead the eye in that direction. Notice how angles work in your frame. If you're still not getting results, be flexible. Consider adjusting the height of your camera, shooting at a different angle, changing your backdrop, or adjusting your light source to obtain better results. If you still can't get a good shot, take a break. Don't stress. Have some tea and a snack and return back later. The benefit of still life photography is that time is on your side. So, take your time and enjoy the process of creative exploration.
Study The Basics
Good composition skills go a long way with still life photography and they are just as important as good lighting. One tip is to hit the books. Study the basics and the not-so-basics of composition. Understanding the rule of thirds is helpful, the leading line, and how your focus moves and draws through a frame. If you have extra time, observe the still-life paintings of renaissance artists. Identify what you like about their composition. Make a note of how they use distance, color, shape, lighting, and shadow in their work. Admiring the still-life paintings of the greats will educate and motivate you on your own still life journey.
If after your photo shoot you'd like to alter your photos a little more, consider editing programs like Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop allows you to edit many elements of your images or even change them entirely. On a side note, if you analyze your work on Photoshop, this may help you brainstorm for more creative ideas to stage your next still life photo shoot. It may also help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your work from a different standpoint. Sometimes taking a step back and editing your photos may be just exactly what you need to progress.
Unlike other forms of photography, still life photography allows you great control over many elements of composition. You don't have to limit yourself to fruit and flowers, and you can take your time and enjoy the process. If you enjoy this process of creative exploration, you will learn a lot and advance your still life photography skills to a higher level. An added motivation is that professional level still life photography can become a very lucrative business. You will find still life in many catalogs, magazines, and art galleries; even websites need product shots. So, get started!