Did you know that lighting is the single most important element in still life photography?
It’s true. Lighting adds mood, provides context, boosts interest, and helps create dynamic shots – so if you can learn to do still life lighting like an expert, then you’ll be well on your way to capturing outstanding images.
That’s where this article comes in handy. I share my top five lighting tips for gorgeous still life photos; by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be ready to light your shots like a pro (and get great results every time!).
Let’s dive right in.
1. Use directional lighting
The best still life photos tend to feature lots of texture…
…and if you want to bring out texture, then sidelight is the way to go. In other words, position your light source off to the side so that one portion of your still life scene is brightly lit while the other portion features obvious shadows.
Note that you can create directional lighting either using studio lights (e.g., flashes or strobes) or with natural window light. Personally, I prefer studio lighting, as it offers far greater control over the final result, but window lighting can still work (and plenty of great still life shooters only use window light).
Now, sidelight encompasses a slew of different lighting angles, so I encourage you to experiment until you get the images you’re after. If you position your lighting setup to hit the scene from a 90-degree angle – in other words, you aim for true sidelight – the result will be dark, moody, and very contrasty. (For reference, the image displayed above was shot with a lighting angle near 90 degrees.)
But if you position your lighting setup so it hits the scene at 45 degrees, you’ll get a combination of texture, three-dimensionality, and detail, more like this:
Neither option is better than the other; it all depends on your goals!
2. Make sure you use modifiers
Whether you shoot with window light or artificial light, modifiers are an absolute must-have.
Modifiers go between the light source and the subject, and they (generally) diffuse the light for a flattering effect.
If you’re using window light, simply grab some white fabric – such as a sheet – and drape it across the entire window pane. (If you’re shooting on a cloudy day or the sun is shining at an oblique angle, you may not need a modifier, but I’d encourage you to have one on hand just in case.)
If you’re using artificial light, then there is an array of modifiers to choose from, including:
My recommendation? Start with a decent-sized softbox. It’ll give you a good combination of diffusion and control, so you’ll have an easy time getting the effects you want. Over time, you can grow your modifier collection and test out other options, but a single softbox can be impressively versatile, and you can certainly use it to achieve pro-level results.
3. Don’t be afraid to add a reflector (or a second light)
Every still life lighting setup should start with a single light source. Position that first light, take a test shot, and see what you think.
If you like the result, that’s great, and you can continue to work the scene from there.
However, if you find that the dark side of the scene – the portion that’s in shadow – is a bit too dark, then you may want to consider using a reflector or a second light (also called a fill light).
Reflectors are far easier to handle (and cheaper, too!), so they’re a good place to start. Simply put a reflector opposite the main light source, on the other side of the scene. Take another test shot; if you want more detail, move the reflector closer to your still life objects. And if you want less detail (i.e., more shadows), back the reflector away from the objects. Make sense?
Note that reflectors do come in different sizes and colors, so you should spend time experimenting with different options whenever possible. However, if you can’t afford multiple reflectors (or would prefer to keep your kit as simple as possible), then I’d recommend grabbing a large white reflector, which will be useful in a huge variety of situations.
You do also have the option to use another light – that is, a fill light – in place of a reflector. Fill lights offer more control, but they’re also more difficult to use. You’ll need to fine-tune the brightness level until you get the result you want, which can involve a lot of adjustments and test shots.
And whatever you do: Make sure the strength of the fill light is lower than the strength of the main light source. You don’t want to create shadows on the other side of the scene!
4. Pay attention to the background
The best still life photos feature a background that complements the main subject. This might be:
- A solid white wall
- A textured wall
- A single-color curtain
Whatever background you choose, make sure it adds to the scene and doesn’t distract. (Including a distracting background is one of the easiest ways to ruin a still life shot!)
You should also pay careful attention to the way the light and the backdrop interact. If you use a fabric background, watch for ripples; these will become especially obvious if you’re working with heavy sidelight.
It can be helpful to take a test shot or two before starting. If you find that the background is looking a little too bright, consider moving the still life scene and the light a few feet forward and/or bringing the light more to one side. On the other hand, if the background is unpleasantly dark, do the opposite: move the setup toward the background and/or move the light so it’s hitting the background more directly.
5. Watch your camera angles
My final still life lighting tip is a simple one:
Make sure you choose the right camera angles to achieve the effect you want.
It may not seem like it, but the position of your camera can dramatically change the lighting scenario. For instance, if you place your camera directly in front of the scene but then put your light off to the side, the final image will feature strong sidelight. However, if you move your camera so it’s opposite the light source, you’ll end up with backlight, and if you move your camera so it’s beside the light source, you’ll end up with direct front light instead.
Do plenty of experimentation, and over time, you’ll get a feel for the effects of different lighting and camera angles. I’d also encourage you to test out new angles in the hopes of achieving creative compositions; in my experience, the most interesting photos give a unique perspective to an ordinary scene!
Still life lighting tips: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about lighting your still life scenes – and you’re ready to capture some amazing images of your very own.
So experiment with different lighting angles. Try out different backdrops. Practice using a reflector. Pretty soon, you’ll be an absolute still life master!
Which of these still life lighting tips do you plan to use first? How will you light your scenes? Share your thoughts in the comments below!