When most people think of fine art photography, their mind flashes to still lifes. Still lifes come in many forms, from the boring art school bowl of fruit to the provocative and creative digital creations you see online today. Still lifes can fall into any genre or class of photography, and it's a fundamental skill that all shutterbugs should try to master.
Are you looking for some still life photography ideas? Here's a complete guide to getting started.
What is a Still Life?
Still life images are an important part of photography for many reasons. It is a type of fine art photography, more akin to a painting than to what most people think of as taking a photograph. The subject matter is inanimate commonplace objects. The composition is key, and you have all the time in the world to perfect your vision. You can set up the objects any way you like, and you have complete control over every aspect of the composition.
Still life photos are one of the foundational skills that photographers should learn to master. As you will see, it translates into many other areas of photography. Still lifes give photographers complete control, which allows them time to practice until they get it right. They can start with a vision and work with the technology and set up until their vision is realized. Many other types of photography require the skills, but few offer the "do-over" opportunities that still life compositions do.
Types of Still Life Photography
Still lifes fall into two main categories. If you happen upon a scene that you think would make the perfect still life image, and you compose and capture your image, you have taken a found still life. On the other hand, if you set out to find each element and arrange them into the perfect scene for your image, you have taken a created still life.
Fundamentally, you still have the same level of control over the image. While you don't move or arrange the objects themselves for a found still life, you certainly can move the camera, the lens perspective, the lighting, and many other elements of the composition.
Not all still life pictures fall into the realm of fine art. For the commercial photographer, still life photography is product photography. Product photography requires the same set of skills and is also aimed at inanimate everyday objects. And like fine art still lifes, product photography allows the photographer to play with the lighting, the composition, the arrangement of subjects, props, and backgrounds in the same ways. Here is our Guide on Product Photography Tips for Beginners. Beyond the classic idea of fruit still life photography, food photography is another category of still life image that has commercial appeal. Do check out our comprehensive guide on food photography and some outstanding examples of food photographer's portfolios on Pixpa.
None of this is to downplay the importance of still life compositions as a form of fine art photography. But it is essential to realize that composing good still lifes is a foundational skill that applies to many other areas of photography.
There are no hard and fast rules for the equipment you use for still lifes. Half the fun and half the challenge is to come up with new combinations to make it work out. Like the special effects artists in movies, you can pull off whatever behind the scenes trickery you feel like trying. If it doesn't work, reshoot and try again.
You can use anything from a smartphone to a large-format film camera for still lifes. Any camera can take still lifes, so it is much more about what you want the final image to be and what is already in your kit. As photographers, we often take still lifes as practice photos or to just exercise our creative muscles.
Manual adjustments are the one thing you will appreciate quickly in a still life camera. Point and shoot cameras, like those in smartphones, tend to have a hard time exposing still life images to the photographer's liking. If your camera has fully manual shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings, you'll better be able to deal with any unique lighting setup you create.
For digital users, having a live-view LCD is a plus. The back display can give real-time histograms and exposure info as you compose the image and play with the lighting, giving you a peek into what the final product will look like. Mirrorless cameras especially good at this since they have full-manual exposure modes like a DSLR, but they generally offer more features with the back LCD.
As always, you'll need to give some thought to the final product and how you will want to use it. If it's just for online or personal use, a small-sensor smartphone or point and shoot is fine. But if you are looking to publish your work or print it in a large format, something with an APS-C or full-frame sensor is always preferred.
Like your camera choices, your lighting choices can be unconventional. Don't limit yourself to speed lights and flashes. Natural lighting often provides the nicest light for compositions, and sometimes just the act of forcing yourself to think through your options when it comes to lighting is enough to spur your creativity.
If you choose to use natural light, reflectors and diffusers will soon become your new best friends. Colored reflectors can add warmth to photos and help the composition by bringing out specific colors and tones. Diffusers can be used in front of incandescent lamps or windows to reduce hard shadows.
Strobes can be used, of course. The only hard rule is that you want to avoid using any on-camera lighting. The straight-on flash produces a very flat and very harsh light that can almost always be improved simply by taking the light source off-camera. Remember that, in still lifes, the shadows are as important as the highlights.
Off-camera lights take many shapes and forms. You can combine strobes with existing light sources like incandescent or open windows. You can also use colored gels on your studio lights to make new effects. Softboxes and beauty dishes from modeling work can also be applied to still lifes.
Still-life pictures, like studio model photos, can be high-key or low-key. High key images have even lighting throughout, with vibrant colors, brightly lit details, and soft shadows. Low-key photos, in contrast, are dimly lit and moody looking. Low-key images often feature harsher shadows and more contrast.
The classic lens for shooting still lifes is a prime 50 mm lens. On a full-frame camera, this gives a realistic image with no distortion. Prime 50s are inexpensive, which means it's easy to find one that has great glass and a super wide aperture.
One of the best things about shooting still life images is that you can get better lenses cheaper. There is no need for autofocus or auto-exposure functions, so you can look for older lenses that have character and add warmth to the photos. There are inexpensive adapter tubes available online now that let you mount any sort of lens to any kind of body. Many DSLR and mirrorless owners enjoy shooting with vintage Leica, Zeiss, or Minolta glass.
Prime 50s are far from the only choice. Like the camera you choose, the only rule for the lens you choose is that it should further your mission of capturing the still life you want. Another popular lens is a prime lens in the 75 to 125 mm range. This allows you to get a bit closer to the subject, and the perspective that comes from zooming in a little can often help clear a cluttered composition. Generally, for still life pictures, you want to be not too close and not too far either. These are not macro photos of tiny details. Wide angles distort the image, and telephoto lenses create perspective issues. Keeping yourself between 50 and 125 mm is a good starting point.
If you are using a point and shoot camera or into a smartphone or iPhone photography, the same rules apply. If your camera has zoom capability, you want it set around the equivalent of 50 mm or 1x. There's also no reason not to use a zoom lens.
Beyond your camera, lenses, and whatever light or light modifiers you want to use, the only other piece of equipment to consider is your tripod. Still life imagery is most easily created with the camera in a fixed location. You're going to want to set up the camera and frame the image and then rearrange the subjects and background. You'll also be changing lighting. All of this is easiest with a sturdy tripod that keeps your camera right where you left it.
You don't need a specialized tripod just for still lifes, but you might find that the tripod you choose has a few specialized functions. For example, some models with extension arms allow you to put the camera directly over the subject for overhead shots. Overhead shots are a great way to add a unique and new perspective to your still life photos.
You can also consider shooting on your own photography studio, which will then give you complete control of your photography work process.
In other forms of photography, you get to choose some of the elements you want to control. For example, a landscape photographer gets to choose where they go and at what time of day. But still lifes are very different in that you can dream up any photo you want and make it happen. You can be as creative as you like in terms of location, lighting, effects, and post-production techniques. Once you have picked a subject, you can start piecing together the parts of your masterpiece.
The first big choice you get to make after you've picked your subject is your background. Since still life photos are often of a small area, the background can be anything you like. The small space allows you the option to create something quickly and easily, be it from scratch or something else repurposed. Wood pieces, wallpaper, linens, painted canvas, and drop cloths all make great backgrounds. You can use things that are already there, like a rustic wood table or a painted wall, or you can create them from scratch.
Whether or not you are making your background from scratch, try to use neutral colors. Remember, the background should be in the back of the image, not distracting the subject. Colors should coordinate and go well with the overall subject and theme of the photo. Whatever it is, it can't be distracting. When in doubt, choose a neutral colored background, like an off-white or beige, and add more colorful elements to the image by using props or lighting.
Many still life photographers enjoy using photography props to make their photos pop. Perhaps the prop adds something to the story that the image tells, making the image more cohesive and meaningful. Or perhaps the color of a prop brings out a subtle color in the subject.
The point is that props are another thing for the photographer to use creatively. Vintage items and things with a lot of unique character are obvious choices. Flowers are common props that can accentuate the photo or be the center of attention.
The critical point is to think about the image as a whole. The entire composition should be a cohesive and meaningful presentation of an idea. Don't just add a random flower, pick a flower whos color and texture match the rest of the image.
12 Tips on How to Get Started Shooting Still Lifes
It's All About Your Attitude
For some photographers, especially beginners, still life images conjure ideas of high school art class and homework assignments. Yes, still life composition is commonly an assignment given by photography instructors. But there's a good reason for that. No other form of photography is as accessible to everyone, and no other form of the art forces the photographer to take complete responsibility for every element. Mastering still lifes makes you a better photographer.
But that's just the beginning of the story. Spend a few minutes looking online at some of the fantastic art coming from photographers all over the world. It doesn't take long to find inspiration, and once you start, the creative juices are sure to flow.
Paint the Image
It's helpful to think of still life images like a painting more than a photograph. Most people, though hopefully not many photographers, consider a photograph as something that is taken in a fraction of a second. But everyone knows that paintings take time to create. Everyone appreciates that painters have control of exactly what they put on their blank canvas. And that is the essence of still life photography.
Take Your Time
Capturing the image may take a fraction of a second, but take your time! Think about the artistic elements of the image. Take time to consider the lighting you'd like, to look at what other artists have done, to rearrange the objects, to add and remove props, and to fuss and tinker with every other element in your composition.
How much time is too much time? You can take as long as you like. It's your vision, and if it takes you years to master the image you want to create, so be it.
Low-Key versus High-Key Lighting
Don't box yourself into one look. Photographers, like all artists, can get into ruts. A great way to mix things up is to shoot the same scene as both a high-key and a low-key photo.
Low-key images are deeply contrasted and maybe even moody. Use low-key lighting for unique looks. With one light source and a fast shutter speed, you can make objects seem to float on black backgrounds. Quick shutter speed, low ISO, and high f-stop can all be used to the same effect. Low-key lighting works great in black and white images. It's also a great way to emphasize textures, shapes, and forms.
Alternatively, high-key images are bright and evenly lit. Shadows are softer, and the light is usually diffused nicely. High-key images tend to emphasize color and detail.
Control Your Lighting-Amount
One of the great things about shooting still lifes is the ability to rearrange things to your liking. Yes, you can move the fruit around in the bowl. But far more importantly, you can spend all day perfecting the light.
For starters, try using the light to direct the viewer's eyes through the image. Light sources that appear from the left tend to make the viewer's eyes walk through the picture like they're reading a book. If the shadows are too harsh, add another light source or diffuse the one you've already got.
Light also can accentuate textures in your image. Changing the angle of your light source can lead to dramatic changes in the mood and appearance of the picture. The moral? Take your time. The trial and error phase is half the fun!
Control Your Lighting-Color and Temperature
Light has many qualities that the photographer can control, and the unique opportunity provided by shooting still life pictures gives us the perfect opportunity to practice. Use reflectors for more light and added color.
A 5-in-1 reflector and diffuser kit is a must-have item. These fold up small for your camera bag, but they offer many options for nearly every photo shoot. For still lifes, you can use the colored reflectors to fill shadows or direct light. Reflector sets usually come with gold, silver, white, black, and a diffuser.
Keep it Steady
Shop for the best tripod with the most options. Most people use their tripods for more than one form of photography, so it pays to think about how you will use it beyond still lifes. Portability is often one of the most important criteria, but it's also a difficult one to master. A portable tripod is often much less sturdy than one built for studio work. If you do studio work often, it's worth it to invest in a heavy tripod. Then you can buy a portable model when the need arises.
The tripod is essential not only to keep the camera steady but also to allow you to work hands-free. It will enable you to move around the shoot, rearranging lights and props to your heart's content, without worrying about bumping or moving the camera.
Another Useful Tool
Another item that greatly improves your mobility around the shoot is a remote shutter release. You don't need anything fancy. If you look online, you are sure to find many inexpensive options for most DSLR models. Newer cameras with built-in wifi may have apps that will allow for remote control from your smartphone. In general, these work great, but sometimes the simpler and quicker to set up option is better. Technology can be finicky, so if you find that your remote app is problematic, a corded old-school remote shutter release will probably fix the problem just fine.
Reflective items can make wonderful subjects and props, but they can also make the photographer's life harder. Shiny things reflect everything nearby, including things you don't want them to. Your lights, your camera, and yourself are likely to make unexpected cameos in your final image. Take the extra time to move your items around to avoid future problems.
One solution is Krylon's Dulling Spray. This spray paint is clear but it reduces reflections on shiny objects. It's worth finding a can for those times when you just can't get the reflection right.
You can also remove distracting or accidental elements in post-processing. It's nearly always easier to get it right in the studio or at the shoot, but if you missed a little something, you can clear it up with the cloning tool. But be warned, reflections are one of the harder elements to duplicate realistically after-the-fact.
Simple versus Complex
As you set up your still life scene, you're faced with many choices. What props should you add? What sort of background should you use? How many light sources, and what camera settings are best? For all of these questions, the KISS principle applies. There's nothing wrong with making a complicated and intricate composition. But when in doubt, try to default to keeping it simple.
Black and White Still Life Photography
More and more photographers are considering black and white still life photography to be a post-production adjustment. Successful black and white photographers will shake their heads. This technique leads to random successes rather than mastery of the medium.
Black and whites are an artform all to themselves. When you remove the color from a composition, other elements fill in the gaps. Contrasts, textures, tones, and shapes all become more imperative.
For the best results, it's always best to decide to make black and white images from the beginning. It will guide all of the creative choices you then make from the beginning to the end of your project. Here are few great tips for beginners starting out in Black and White Photography.
Post-Production Knows No Bounds
If there are no rules for still life compositions, post-production is no place to start imposing them. Your editing routine is entirely up to you. Many photography purists do as little as possible, while others reform the entire composition digitally. To the end that still lifes are works of fine art more akin to paintings than to photography, this technique makes perfect sense. Not only will it help you choose your best body of work, by displaying, selecting and organizing your photos based on their date, location, categories, etc, but some of the software featured in this article, also allows you to share photos directly on social media.
The internet is brimming with still life photography ideas. Just peruse any photography site or publication, and you'll see everything from black and white still lifes to futuristic digital creations. For creative artists, the classroom bowl of fruit still life photography is just the first stepping stone.
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