Guide to Still Life Photography
Have you ever tried to do still life photography? It’s a wonderful way for photographers to practice and improve their skills.
If you’re not sure what it is or how to get started, this guide can be of great help.
You’ll find some great still life photography ideas, beautiful examples of still life photos for your inspiration, and 16 pro tips for you to try on your next shoot.
Let’s get started!
What is Still Life Photography?
Still life photography refers to pictures that feature an arrangement of inanimate objects. These can be organic – like food or flowers – or human-made.
Still life photography can be broken down into two major categories: ‘created still life’ and ‘found still life’. Which one your photography falls into depends on whether you planned and organized the still life or not.
It can be further sub-categorized according to the subject (i.e. still life product photography) or technique (i.e. flat-lay still life photography).
8 Still Life Photography Ideas
Here are some still life photography ideas for you to practice at home:
- Food Photography – This kind of still life photography features any food: from raw produce to fully cooked meals. To photograph it as still life, remember that you shouldn’t include a person in the picture – neither cooking nor eating the food.
- Product Photography – This is one of the categories of commercial photography. The main characteristic is that you’re showcasing a product with the intention of selling it. To practice still life photography with products, you can make a composition with them. You can find many examples in makeup brands – think of a photo that includes a set of lipsticks of different shades, for example.
- Flower Photography – Flowers are one of the most classic subjects in still life, and I’m not just referring to photography but paintings too. You can arrange beautiful bouquets or arrange the petals in a creative composition.
- Black and White Photography – Switching from color to greyscale is a good exercise to improve your photography, and it can be very well suited to still life. Objects photographed in black and white get a different mood that you can use for your creative vision.
- Flat-lay Photography – The term ‘flat-lay’ refers to the angle of view rather than the subject. To shoot a perfect flat-lay, the sensor needs to be parallel to the surface where you have the subject. This type of still life photography became very trendy on social networks such as Instagram. You can find many examples and sometimes even contests using the hashtag #flatlay.
- Table-top Photography – This is a category of still life photography that focuses on objects arranged on a table. It’s one of the most common styles you can find. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with fruits, books or toys as long as they are on a tabletop.
- Concept Photography – With this type of photography, you’re using your still life objects to represent something other than what they are. For example, in the video above, the photographer uses an alarm clock attached to a balloon to symbolise that time flies.
- Toy Photography – Recreating scenes depicting real life can be a fun and rewarding experience, particularly since these types of humorous photo typically are so popular on social media.
There are examples of still life all around you, so grab an object and keep reading below to find out some top tips for capturing amazing still life photos.
16 Tips for Succesful Still Life Photography
1. Prepare your equipment
As Garcia de Marina said to Shotkit about his Nikon D800: “This camera allows me to work with large prints and retain great detail in the objects photographed. I do not need a fast camera because I only take photos in the studio with still elements.”
So, for professional still life photography, what you need to prioritize is resolution and image quality. Full frame cameras are the best choice then, but they can be costly.
If you can’t afford one just yet, don’t worry, you can start with whatever camera you have – or even your smartphone.
You may also find this list of the cheapest full frame cameras useful.
Prime lenses are the best for still life photography because they offer sharper images, less distortion and wider apertures than zoom lenses. Since you’re working in a studio setting (most of the time) and using still objects, you don’t need the versatility of a zoom.
Having said that, ideally, you still need a wide range of focal lengths.
A nifty-fifty is a good overall lens to start with for still life photography. It won’t cause any distortions because a standard 50mm offers a similar perspective to the human eye.
Then, a short telephoto (85mm or 100mm) with macro capabilities will widen the creative possibilities for your shooting. This will allow you to capture small subjects or experiment with selective focus.
A wide-angle lens will work well for bigger scenes, or small scenes if you don’t have much room to step away from them. Something around 35mm will work well enough without causing much distortion.
Using a tripod is key to still life photography. Having a steady point of view allows you to compose your image in the best possible way. Also, it will prevent any camera shake in case you have to work with slow shutter speeds.
Since you’re working in the studio, you don’t need to worry about weight, so get the sturdiest tripod that you can. Keep an eye on versatility though, because you’ll need to move your angle of view.
Make sure the tripod head allows you to pan and tilt easily. For low angle shots, you might find it comfortable to have a centre column that can turn upside down.
Finally, for flat-lay photography, you might need a boom arm for your tripod.
Check out our guide to the best DSLR tripods here.
Many still life photographers prefer shooting with natural light. However, using reflectors and diffusers can be really helpful to manipulate the light.
2. Plan your scene
To create good still life images, you need to thoughtfully choose the elements and arrange them with care. It’s all about the details.
One of the best ways to get started is by planning your shot. Think about the shapes, colours and characteristics that you want before you pick the right object.
Try drawing your scene to decide on a composition; this will help you organize and execute the idea with better results.
Composition refers to the position of the objects inside the frame. Many rules can help you with this: the golden spiral, the golden ratio, the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, etc.
All photography needs good composition, but especially still life photography. Without it, you’d just have a bunch of objects that look like a mess, or your still life photos would simply be uninteresting.
Most cameras have a grid with the rule of thirds to help you compose and frame. If you’re practising with your smartphone, you can download a camera app with different grids.
Finally, you can fix up your still life photos using the crop tool and composition overlays in Lightroom. Although, it’s always better to get it right in-camera if you can.
4. Camera settings
As any professional photographer knows, it’s always best if you have control over the final result of the photograph. While the auto mode might give you a well-exposed picture, you don’t get to decide the rest.
For some images, it works better to have everything in focus; for others, it’s better to have a shallow depth of field. To control this, you need to shoot with the right exposure.
The same goes for the shutter speed. If there’s a moving element in the picture, such as water running or snowflakes falling, you have to decide if you want to freeze it or keep some motion blur.
Learning to use the semi-automatic programs such as aperture priority mode or shutter speed mode will improve your still life photos. Even better if you master the manual mode – see our beginner’s guide to camera settings here.
The background is a big part of still life photography. You’re not photographing a product where you use a white backdrop to isolate and highlight the subject – here, the background is part of the scene.
To choose the right background, you need to ask yourself what kind of ambience you want to set for your images.
For example, if you photograph a cup of coffee on wrinkled fabric, it looks like breakfast in bed – it’s cosy. If instead, the coffee is on a wooden table, you’re already placing the viewer in the kitchen or a coffee shop – you’re up and active.
The rule doesn’t just apply to a flat backdrop. If you’re photographing a bouquet of flowers, are they outside? Do you see a garden in the back? Or is it happening indoors? What do you see behind them?
With the background, you’re establishing a scene where the story happens. It helps set the mood for your still life photography.
6. Choose the right light
It doesn’t matter if you’re using artificial or natural light sources; finding the best quality of light and lighting setup for your scene is essential.
Lighting is important in still life photography because it helps you control the scene and create a mood. It’s different to use a hard light with strong shadows than a soft light that brightens evenly.
You can also choose between low-key and high-key lighting. These lighting setups are very popular in still life photography.
You can use low-key lighting to have a dark and moody ambience and high-key lighting for a clean and ethereal look.
The light’s position is also important and often has to do with the shape and material of the objects. For example, glass benefits greatly from backlighting.
7. Angle of view
A great way to improve your still life photography is by trying different points of view. Move around your set and capture the subject from various angles.
When you do this, everything changes in your photograph. The objects’ shape is different: think about a cake that’s a circle from the top but a rectangle from the side.
The perspective is also different because things that are closer to you will smaller than objects that are further away, and so on. Just by changing your position, you can get completely different pictures.
Still life is all about objects. When you photograph only one object and leave the rest of the frame empty, it can be a powerful image, but it has to be done properly – and not all objects are suited for this.
Sometimes to make a compelling image, a photographer will add some props that act as composition elements. Make sure everything complements the scene, though.
You can use props that go with your main subject because they share a theme or a color – in other words, they make sense together. If not, you can try opposing things to play with juxtaposition and create contrast in your image.
See our guide to props for newborn photography.
9. Prepare your subject
Before you get started with the photoshoot, it’s important to prepare your subject. There are many examples of still life tips and tricks that photographers use to enhance food or products to make them camera-ready.
One is adding drops of water to a beer bottle or a glass of iced tea, because in real life that’s what happens with condensation.
You can be as creative as you want to enhance your pictures. Just be careful not to cross an ethical line if you’re doing professional product photography or food photography.
Preparing the objects in the scene is not only about enhancing or adding a wow factor; it’s also about attention to detail. If you’re working with silverware, you might want to polish it before setting your scene – the same goes for jewelry.
The use of color is a powerful tool in still life photography. It can be a source of contrast or a common theme between objects.
You can grab inspiration from art history and nature for some classic combinations, or turn to design to see what’s currently trending.
Texture can add visual interest to a still life photograph. Think about a tabletop scene: does it look better on a white-polished table, or can it benefit from a rugged wood surface?
Using a textured background can create a contrast between the negative space and the subject. Of course, this isn’t a rule for all your images, but it works well in some situations.
Another important texture is the one from the subject. Think about an orange: would you rather see a flat shape or the texture of the peel?
To take creative control of the texture, you have to consider the object and the lighting. Remember that soft light coming from the front will flatten a texture. If you want to highlight it, use a harder light that comes from the side.
When your image tells a story, the viewer is immediately involved in it and gets invested. Make your still life photography communicate something to the viewer to have a more successful photo. You can get as creative as you want.
Maybe you want to tell the story of your grandfather by making a still life of the family heirlooms, or the story of a culture with some traditional objects.
13. Shoot more than one picture
As I mentioned before, it’s always good to plan your image. Imagine how you want it to look and draw a sketch that will work as a guideline.
However, once you have that shot, don’t stop there. Try changing the lighting setup, rearrange the objects, change your camera settings and point of view.
It can happen that your first idea was good, but once you’re doing it, you find something great that you hadn’t thought about.
14. Represent abstract concepts
To put together a creative still life photo, you don’t have to think about the object itself. You can try using abstract concepts and put together the objects that represent them. For example, autumn or love.
To get started with conceptual still lifes, you can browse some art books. Painters have used this technique for centuries and you can get great inspiration from them and their art.
15. Keep your eyes open
Not all still life is constructed by the photographer. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of keeping your eyes open for those little treasures that you can turn into the perfect image.
‘Found’ still life is as much of an art as still life that’s created. To walk around and recognize something that would make a beautiful photo is a wonderful skill.
Post-processing is an important part of still life photography. Often it’s just a small adjustment like tweaking the exposure or correcting the white balance on an image.
Other times it’s more complex, for example, healing specks of dust or imperfections that you didn’t see when you were shooting.
A photographer may even remove unwanted objects necessary for production, such as the threads that hold ‘floating’ objects.
You can also do some creative post-processing. For example, make a photo-composite, or add an effect to make your still life photo look like a fine art painting.
In sum, adding post-production to your workflow opens up a world of opportunities to improve and enrich your still life images.
Still Life Photography FAQs
What are the 2 types of still life photography?
There’s created still life, where you purposely arrange a set of objects for your photograph; and found still life, when you stumble upon a nice scene or setup to photograph.
What constitutes a still life?
A still life is an arrangement of everyday objects without a human subject. The objects can be natural such as fruits and flowers, or human-made such as books or jewelry.
What makes still life photography successful?
A successful photograph starts with the subject; you need to pick the right ones and arrange them properly. Then, use photographic techniques to tell the story you want – consider the lighting, the composition, etc.
What is the best lens for still life photography?
A great all-round lens is a 50mm prime. However, if you can afford to have more than one, add a short telephoto with macro capabilities to your bag.
Why is it called still life?
Still life – both photography and painting – is so named because its subjects don’t move; they’re inanimate objects. The term derives from the Dutch word ‘stilleven’ because it was in the Netherlands where it was first recognized as an art genre.
How do still life photographers make money?
Commercial clients often ask for still life photography to showcase their products and use them for advertising or editorial purposes. Also, still life photographers often sell their pictures on stock photography websites.
I hope this guide got you excited about still life photography.
Remember that many famous photographers have used this genre to create fine art photography and that you too can do great things.
Think big, get creative and start practising!