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Still life is a particular style of photography that slowly lured me into its clutches. The gateway drug was, of course, food photography, and before I knew it, my weekends were spent combing secondhand shops for props and buying up linen in all different shades.
The popularity of Instagram has given rise to images of every different kind of food, drink, dessert, cake, and cocktail. You name it, someone is shooting it, adding a filter and posting online before they even taste it. Except for the one thing it really shows, is how hard it is to compose and take a good still life image, especially with a cell phone. There are a lot of really awful shots out there. Someone even made a hilarious video about the effort needed to get a good shot.
Of all of the techniques I have learned in my photography journey, none has taught me as much as doing still life work.
You need three things for a good still life shot – light, good composition and a subject. Pretty much the same as for any photographic image really. But one of the best things about still life is you can take as much time as you like. Usually shot inside with some control over the conditions and with a static subject, this gives you the freedom to be really present and experiment.
As seen in the video link above, the composition is a key element. Do you shoot the subject isolated? Will props help you tell more of a story? Is there a particular mood you are going for? How can you achieve that?
What angle is most effective? Close-up or include more environment? Will flat lay (overhead) or side on be best?
Because you have more control over the conditions you can allow a lot of time and shoot the same subject in many different ways in one shoot. You may come out with one great shot or several good ones. It will certainly teach you a lot about how difficult it is to get a good shot.
Being a nature and landscape photographer originally, I am used to shooting things on a big scale. Lots of pretty mountains, lakes or sea, cloud-filled skies, and so on. A handy foreground element like a rock or driftwood or tussock is included for scale and to ground the image.
So when I tried to shoot much smaller things up close it was a bit of a shock to find how difficult it was to compose those images well.
It is interesting to learn how a subtle difference in angle can affect the outcome of the image. How close or far away your camera is can completely change the balance of the subject within the frame. How scale becomes really important and a tool to be leveraged for the most effective images.
I spent hours taking so many shots, discarding nearly all of them over and over again until I figured out my problem. Complexity. I made the rookie mistake of trying to include too many elements, which threw off the balance of the composition. It was crowded and messy and the subject was overpowered by all the extra stuff I was shoving in the frame.
This is where lesson one really started to make sense. By taking the time to slow down, breathe and see my subject, see the possibilities, feel the story it was trying to tell me, I shot a lot less, but my keeper rate vastly improved.
The trick was keeping it simple and strong.
This step naturally emerges after steps one and two. Once you take time to be in the moment with your subject, position it within the lighting you have, turn it this way and that, then it will show you its best side.
If you give yourself and your subject time to get to know each other, then its secrets will be revealed. It might be an onion, or it could even be a portrait, the same rule applies. If you take the time to get to know your subject, you begin to see different possibilities. Perhaps this background over here is less cluttered, maybe this plate enhances the natural color better, that rustic board gives a great farmhouse appeal.
I know, it sounds a bit zen and probably a bit corny, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Yes, you can take two seconds to position a shiny red apple and shoot it and have a perfectly acceptable image.
But what else might you end up with if you took 20 minutes, positioning the apple at different angles, on different surfaces? Maybe you cut it open or take a big bite out of it? Pose it with a glass of cider? Maybe you have a handful that looks great arranged in a decorative bowl?
Unless you give yourself time to relax and let the possibilities make themselves known to you, rather than focussing on one outcome, taking that shot and moving on, you will miss out on lots of opportunities. Plus you limit your chances to learn and grow as well.
I failed consistently when starting out with still life photography and it was really frustrating, but it made me work even harder. Once I did get it, the quality of my work improved faster than expected, which was a nice bonus.
It is easier to shoot something whole and give it obvious context so that the viewer doesn’t have to think about what they are seeing.
But how much more intriguing would your work become if the viewer did have to take some time to think about what they were seeing? Where it teased at the edge of their consciousness that they should know what the object is but couldn’t quite figure it out? What if your image stuck with them and niggled away in the back of their mind? Where they actually remember it out of the many hundreds of images seen that day scrolling past on their phone?
Don’t be afraid to go abstract. To shoot something in a way that hides its original shape, form, or purpose. Be as obscure as you like so long as it’s interesting and arresting. Obscurity for the sake of it may put people off rather than engaging them.
Again taking the time to look at your subject, seeing its possibilities and angles, and being creative all apply here. This tip you can easily take out into the world. There are many small intricate elements adorning the world if you take time to see them, interesting shapes revealed when you hide the obvious context. The devil is in the details, have fun finding them.
Props are an essential part of still life photography. They set the scene, the color tone, the mood and the feel of the image you are creating. Learning to prop and style a shot well was the hardest thing for me about still life. It’s difficult to do well without enough options to work with.
This doesn’t mean you need hundreds of dishes and bowls and towels and fabric and cutlery (though it’s easy to end up with them). But a few carefully chosen options that give you flexibility are a good choice.
This is not the only style of photography that benefits from props: portraits, engagement, wedding, children, pets, and family photography all benefit from the use of props. Anytime you have people in your image, having something for them to interact with can help engage them better.
What about the color and style of clothing they are wearing? Hair color or style? Makeup? Shoes? How much fun can be had just with a brightly colored umbrella?
These are all elements that can enhance or cause distractions in your image. What is the story you are telling? What mood are you trying to evoke? Therefore what style or color clothing is going to work best? This is something to think about and discuss with any clients in advance.
Before I started shooting still life photography I used to be in too much of a hurry. I would settle for the obvious shot and leave frustrated because it was boring, predictable and not different enough. Now I take time to prepare properly and give myself plenty of time to shoot. Looking for creative options and being prepared to experiment is fun and exciting.
Now I shoot a lot less, but the quality of my work has improved and I know when I have achieved a keeper shot. My ability to compose and style an image has improved. Including other elements to tell a story has added depth and nuance to my images that was previously lacking.
The good thing is that these benefits apply to almost any form of photography, some more than others, obviously. Do you just want a quick snap or do you want to engage your viewer fully? What is the story you are trying to tell? What emotion do you want to share? How can you connect with the viewer and make your image stand out from the Instagram or Facebook crowd? What sets your work apart from the millions of images posted online every day?
It does actually matter how much work and thought you put into crafting your image. Like any new skill, it will take time to learn. I challenge you to give it a go for a few months and then compare your new work to your older stuff and see the difference.