(Last updated on June 29th, 2022)
Still-life photography is like modern-day painting. Although the painting is done with light. It is the art of creating images of inanimate objects.
As a still-life photographer, you have complete control over the arrangement of the objects and how the light lands on these items. There is no scheduling of models and you do not have to scout locations before creating the images.
From everyday objects to found things, still-life photography is the perfect way to expand your skillset as a photographer. Below we explore what still-life photography is all about. We talk about equipment, types, and practical tips for still-life photography.
Still-life photography can be challenging. It is a great way to showcase your skill set as a photographer. It can benefit your portfolio and show potential clients what you are capable of.
Before we explore the types of still-life photography, first, we need to go over the tools of the trade.
Any camera will work. Having a DSLR or mirrorless is handy because they can be used to control off-camera lighting, which we explore below. A smartphone can be used, however, most cannot control strobes and speedlights.
There is no need to get a high-dollar camera with weatherproofing and features like high frame rates. Still-life photography is a slow process.
A crop-sensor camera is suitable and has benefits over a full-frame camera. It is more affordable. When paired with a full-frame lens, which is something I always recommend, the crop factor comes into play. This essentially gives the lens a longer focal length.
For example, if you have a full-frame 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera, such as the Nikon D7500, the realized focal length is around 75mm. Nikon makes a great full-frame 50mm f/1.8 lens. This combination is an ideal starting point for the beginning still-life photographer.
An important thing to consider is to find a lens that works for your budget. Beyond the 50 mm mentioned above, having a longer lens, such as a telephoto lens, you can compress your still-life photographs. Wide-angle lenses are not suitable for still-life photography as the objects in the frame are all close together. An 85mm or 105mm portrait lens are both good choices.
A macro lens may be worth considering if you choose to have detailed control over focus. Macro photography is a great way to challenge the perception of the viewer by creating larger-than-life images.
The most important thing to consider when selecting a lens is finding one that works for your budget and still-life photography.
Using a tripod will keep your hands free. This is essential to make subtle changes to the still life. While it does not seem like it, putting your camera down every few seconds to adjust the light or your composition takes time.
In still-life photography, you are crafting how the light lands on objects. Choosing where the highlights and shadows land is a fun and challenging part of still-life photography.
You achieve this with speed lights and strobes. A speedlight is an external flash unit that is controlled by your camera. A strobe is a more powerful and dedicated version of a speedlight and can also be controlled by the camera.
- You will be diffusing or softening the light and potentially altering the color.
- Using multiple light sources will help create the look and feel of a still-life image.
- Here are the types of diffusers you can use in still-life photography.
- At the most basic level, a window serves as a great source of light.
- A softbox is a large box that softens the light and smooths out the shadows.
- Other modifiers include diffusers, snoots, and reflectors.
- Reflectors are affordable and worth more than their weight. One like this can reflect light into your scene to add a subtle amount of light.
Think About the Background
Still-life photography will need some sort of backdrop. This can be anything from a wall to a seamless background paper setup.
Most backgrounds are neutral colors. They may also either have no texture or a texture that compliments the objects. This allows for the objects to become the obvious focal point.
If you are a beginner, I would not spend too much time nit-picking the background. Hanging a white or light-colored sheet from the wall will create a practical backdrop.
As you advance in still-life photography, I encourage you to think about the background even more. This way you can start to pair the background with the objects you are photographing.
- A remote shutter release cable frees you up from being behind the camera at the time of exposure. It also helps to reduce camera shake.
- Many cameras out there today can be controlled via a wireless connection. Even better, many apps can turn your smartphone into your shutter release button.
- Filters for your lights can be handy in adding color to the scene.
Types of Still-Life Photography
The vast majority of still-life photography is created using a simple tabletop layout. It is what comes to mind when we hear still life. It is as easy as placing a few objects of choice on a table, setting up your lighting, and creating the image.
But it can be as complicated as you want. Using more objects and more lights will increase the complexity of the composition and exposure but often leads to dynamic and engaging images.
Using more than one light in a still-life photograph can create shadow lines and a more dynamic image.
Tabletop still life photography is a great place to start. If you are new to the genre, simply grab a table, a sheet, your camera, and some random objects. Place the table about four to six feet from an empty wall. If you can, have a window off to the side of the table for lighting. Next, arrange the objects and begin creating images.
Try various focal lengths. Move closer to the subjects and try various apertures. Play with all the variables of photography exposure, such as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to learn what works and what does not.
Once you find your groove you can get one of these tabletop sweep walls for your still-life creations.
One of the most ubiquitous and practical forms of still-life photography is product photography. We see it everywhere. It is also a great way to turn a hobby of still-life photography into a profitable endeavor.
The goal is to craft the light to highlight the product. Think of shoe photography. The only object in the image is a shoe and the light and colors are selectively chosen to emphasize the features of the shoe.
A very specific type of product photography, food photography is a form of still life that set out to make us hungry. It is another way to earn income as a still-life photographer. You may even earn a free lunch.
It is a type of photography most often utilized by restaurants to highlight menu items. Like using inanimate objects, the food is arranged in a specific way to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular feature of the food. For a steak, it could be the marbling of the meat. For a pastry, it could be the fancy chocolate work.
Food still life photography involves more than food. There are usually table settings involved to provide the sense of sitting down to eat for the viewer. This makes the food more appealing and relatable to all of us.
This is perhaps the sub-genre of still-life photography that has the most creative freedom. It is as simple as finding an object and creating an image. The object is taken out of context, drawing attention to the details and uniqueness of the object.
This creative freedom has no limits. It can be the intersection of photography and surrealism. Or renaissance painting. For example, Man Ray is known as one of the first surrealist photographers. His still-life photographs give a sense of confusion and irrational juxtaposition of objects; all common to the idea of surrealism.
Found object still life photography is an excellent way to let creativity flow and try new things. Once you have a good lighting setup arranged, the sky is the limit. Find whatever you may and create everything from painting-esque photography to conscious challenging surrealism.
In the Field
This is where I find myself creating most of my still lifes. As a photojournalist, I always look for detail images to help visualize a story. When I am outside creating landscape images, this habit does not go ignored.
I often find small rocks, pine cones, or other details of the natural world and photograph them as if they were a still life.
This is a way to make the most of a landscape photo outing. When the light is not suitable for landscape images, seek out the details and naturally arranged still lifes. Having a macro lens for field still-life photography is not a bad idea.
These are just a few sub-genres of still-life photography. There are many more and I encourage you to spend time studying still-life images. Once you know what has been done already, you can more easily create images or projects that have not been created.
If you have a few strobes available, consider trying to create low-key still-life photography. Low key photography is crafting the light to land on specific parts of a scene. The remaining portions of the image often fall into darkness.
Or try flat-lay photography. This is a fun and challenging way to create playful images that appeal to our inner child. Think of all the eye-spy images common in a children’s library.
Tips for Still Life Photography
With any form of photography, planning is important. For still life photography, you want to put forethought into the composition, or arrangement, of your objects. Then you want to think about how the light is going to illuminate the scene.
- There is plenty of freedom in still-life photography. You may even consider sketching out the image in your mind ahead of time to help you craft the image. If the arrangement is not to your liking, simply move things around or adjust the lights.
- The rule of thirds is an ideal composition tool to use with still-life photography. To do this, in your mind, or on the camera’s live view screen or viewfinder, break the scene into nine squares. Next place your still-life arrangement at one of the corners of the middle square. This simple yet effective compositional tool will make your images more dynamic and pleasing to the viewer.
- Another compositional strategy you can employ is to use leading lines. This is something landscape photographers look for in their compositions. With still-life photography, you can create leading lines by the placement of the objects you are photographing. For example, if you are photographing some food, place the silverware at an angle in a way that points to the food item. When used in conjunction with the rule of thirds, your still-life photography will be that much stronger.
- Use various apertures. By playing around with depth of field in your still-life you can bring separation into the image. This will help drive the viewer’s eye to a certain part of the image. This is where a macro lens would come in handy.
- If you are using a window as a softbox, be sure it is not in direct sunlight. The best window to use is a north-facing window. This naturally softens the light. However, if the light coming through the window is too harsh, using a sheer curtain can act as a diffuser and soften the light. Additionally, an overcast day is perfect for soft light. The clouds diffuse the light and create smooth gradients between highlights and shadows.
- By using a tripod and shutter release cable your images will be free of camera shake and tack sharp. You can also use longer exposures if needed.
- When selecting images, stick with a theme. For example, if using old books, add other antiquated items to play on the antique, or old theme.
- Still-life photography is a great way to learn color theory. Spend time studying the color wheel and choose objects and backgrounds to play with complementary colors. You can even add color gels to your lighting to bring in additional color schemes. Your entire portfolio of still-life photography can be based solely on color.
- While you are researching color, spend some time looking at still-life paintings. Pay particular attention to how the painter ‘illuminated’ the scene, so to speak. Painters have to rely on technique to create the lighting detail in a still life. By studying these paintings, you will gain a sense of how the objects were illuminated. Replicate this in your still-life photography.
Earning a Paycheck
As I mentioned above, still-life photography is not just for the creation of art. You can monetize your images in many ways. Becoming a commercial photographer who focuses on still-lifes will bring in money for your images. Once you build a strong portfolio, simply start by cold-calling (or emailing), potential clients, for work.
Whether you create still-life photography of food, products, or lifestyle images, it can all be monetized. Building a client base will also keep the workflow coming in. Restaurants are constantly updating their menus and require new images. Product photography can be lucrative and the work is plentiful.
By focusing on one type of still-life photography as a commercial photographer, you will be more appealing to clients. Another way to earn an income is to create a body for a stock photography website. This is more of a passive way to generate income but can pay off in the long run.
Creating Beyond the Fruit Basket
We all picture a basket of fruit on a table when we think of still-life photography. But you can do better. Do you have a box of rusty nails and tools around? Place them on a black tablecloth and add some warm light. Then focus on the rust, the texture, and any other unique features. The possibilities are endless.
What about that childhood collection of rocks you have laying around? Or your coin collection; you may start to see that there is so much more to still life photography than fruit.
In the end, you are the creator. Still-life photography is about more than creating exposure. It gives you complete control of the composition and arrangement of your scene. With a little practice and planning, your photography can vastly improve with still life photography.
Still-life photography, in the very basic sense, is creating images that highlight inanimate objects. They can be created for art or commercial use.
Anything can be used to create a still-life photograph. I recommend starting out with things you have around your home. This will allow you to master the skills and develop a still-life photography style.
No special equipment is needed other than a camera and a window. As you improve and get more into still-life photography, you can start to use dedicated lights, like speedlights and strobes. In addition, you can create a dedicated space, or studio, to create your sill-life photographs.
Speedlights and strobes are the ideal form of lighting for still-life photographs. These external light sources will allow you to creatively shape the light and shadows of the still-life. Using multiple lights in a still-life will create dynamic and engaging images.
Still-life photography is the perfect way to earn income. The two sub-genres that suit income generation the best are product and food photography. These types of still-life photography are a common form of commercial photography. Once you hone your skills and style, you can also create still-life photographs for stock photography websites.
An expensive, professional-level camera is not necessary to create still-life images. Any camera will work, even a smartphone. However, having the capability to control external lighting is beneficial to creating stunning still-life images.
Richard Bednarski is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer. Photography is his passion and he draws from my experiences as an archaeologist and a father of two in order to connect with communities. He also holds a master’s degree in Media Innovation.
Richard has focused his career on documenting the American West and human stories while also writing about photography. When not writing stories that matter, Richard can be found traveling and camping with his wife and two daughters, tending a garden, baking bread, and playing the banjo.