Are you struggling to capture stunning still life photos? You’ve come to the right place.
In this article, I share the six biggest still life photography mistakes – and I explain how to correct them, so that, no matter your level of experience, you can get outstanding results. Specifically, I discuss:
- The lighting issues that you must learn to avoid
- Two simple gear mistakes that’ll ruin your photos
- Common still life composition issues
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to take your still life shots to the next level, then let’s get started!
1. Using improper lighting
What’s the very first rule of still life photography?
Your subject needs to be well-lit.
A poorly lit subject will look terrible, no matter the composition and camera settings you choose – while a well-lit subject will often look great, even if you struggle to get the framing and settings correct.
Start by ensuring you have enough light. Personally, I like natural lighting in still life photos; it’s bright, it’s strong, and it can be very, very soft. (For the most flattering natural lighting, try shooting during the golden hours or on days with heavy clouds.)
If you’re working indoors, it often pays to bring along some artificial lighting. Studio strobes are great for more serious setups, but if portability or price is a concern, several flashes plus a few light stands will do a great job.
You can also work with window light. On cloudy days, you’ll get a gorgeous soft effect near large windows. And if the sun is high in the sky, you can always drape a sheet over the window and get a beautiful light diffusion effect.
Pay careful attention to the direction of the light, too. Direct front light rarely looks good in still life photography; it’s too bold and too flat. Instead, I recommend sidelight, which will add plenty of depth and dimension to your subjects. Another option is partial backlighting (and you can always try this as part of a two-light setup, with one light providing sidelight and the other providing partial backlighting).
Here’s an image that I captured using partial backlighting:
And here’s a second image, which features strong backlighting from the right-hand corner:
Really, I’d encourage you to experiment with many light sources and directions. If you’re not getting a great shot, try another angle or test a new light modifier. You never know what you’ll create!
2. Including a distracting background
Still life photography is all about the subject…
…but the background matters, too! A good background can help emphasize the main foreground subject, or – in the best images – complement the subject for an amazing result. But a bad background can draw attention away from the subject and prevent the viewer from appreciating its beauty.
So before you take a single photo, evaluate the background. Look for distractions in the form of lines, shapes, or even colors. Then do what you can to eliminate them completely.
Yes, you can take care of some distractions during post-processing. But the more you handle these issues in-camera, the less time you’ll spend in the editing room, and the more time you have to shoot! (Plus, not all distractions are editable.)
If you do notice distracting background elements, the best method is often to change your angle until the offending areas are gone. But you can also try placing handpainted or assembled backdrops behind the subject or moving your subject to an entirely new location.
What makes a great still life photography background? I’d encourage you to choose a plain stretch of color, such as a white or gray wall. A bit of texture can add a nice touch, but don’t go overboard (too much texture will draw the eye away from the subject!). And if you can’t find the right kind of wall, that’s okay; just cover it up with some white posterboard!
One more tip: If you’re shooting flat lays, make sure you spend extra time picking a background. White poster can work great, but consider using black poster for a moody look, or a blue, red, or yellow poster for extra pop.
3. Working without a tripod
Still life photography is often done indoors, when the light is (relatively) low.
And unless you’re using flashes or strobes, you’ll need to drop the shutter speed for a balanced exposure – often to 1/60s or below.
If you try to shoot handheld at 1/60s, a lot of your shots will turn out frustratingly blurry, which is why a tripod is essential. Yes, tripods can be cumbersome and slow to work with, but they’re necessary and are used by most serious still life photographers.
In fact, even still life shooters who work with strong artificial lights generally still keep their camera mounted on a tripod. Why? For one, the tripod helps maintain the composition even as they adjust different elements and light positions. And the tripod maintains the camera position for focus stacking (which is often necessary for sharp close-up still life photography).
So make sure you grab a sturdy tripod. And use it whenever you can.
By the way, if you find that you’re often working in low light, I’d encourage you to buy a wireless remote. That way, you can trigger the camera shutter without hitting the shutter button (which can produce blur-inducing camera shake). A solid alternative is your camera’s two-second timer, but constantly waiting for a two-second interval can get annoying, especially if you’re firing off multiple shots in succession.
4. Forgetting to carefully compose
If you want great still life photos, then you must compose carefully. In fact, when I do still life photography, I often spend many long minutes adding in items, tweaking the composition, and nudging different elements in different directions.
While still life composition is a complex subject, here are a few handy tips:
- Fill the frame with your main subject
- Include plenty of negative space to let the subject breathe
- Experiment with different angles for unique results
- Use the rule of thirds to position your main subject
- Don’t forget about the rule of odds, which encourages you to include an odd number of similar elements (e.g., three flowers, five books, one vase)
If you’re struggling to create a compelling composition, I’d really encourage you to spend time just playing around with each setup. Move your main subject to the right or the left, add supporting objects in front or behind, and take constant test shots.
Another helpful tip is to find some still life photos that you like (paintings work fine, too), and study the compositions. Note how the objects are arranged in relation to one another. See if you can identify any rules or guidelines you can apply to your own work.
5. Not experimenting with each setup
This still life mistake is a simple one, but it can make a huge difference to your photos.
You see, most beginner still life photographers set up their lighting, create their arrangement, and then…shoot. The whole process is streamlined, fast, and efficient.
But while you can get decent images using the above method, if you want to really take your photos to the next level, then you must spend time experimenting.
Go ahead and create your first arrangement. Take a few photos.
But then mix it up. Try adjusting the position of your lights. Change your composition. Go minimalist by adding in extra negative space, or add in additional objects for a more chaotic effect.
After I’ve captured my first setup, I like to “randomize” the scene. I’ll take all my objects and mix them around. Or I’ll add a new background, or I’ll use different lighting, or I’ll change my camera angle.
In other words: I experiment! That way, I end up with plenty of unique images (and I learn a lot in the process).
6. Choosing the wrong lens
Many photographers don’t realize this, but the lens you choose can dramatically affect the feel of a still life image.
A wide-angle lens will tend to push subjects apart from one another for a breathy, expansive feel; a standard lens will portray subjects naturally, the way the eye sees; and a telephoto lens will compress subjects and enhance background bokeh.
Which type of lens is best for still life photography? That depends on the effect you’re after! A wide-angle lens is great for capturing in-your-face still life shots, while a telephoto lens will give the viewer a bit more distance (literally and figuratively). Standard lenses tend to be more neutral in their effect, and they’ll do a great job of rendering subjects as they appear in real life.
But while you can capture great still life shots with any lens, many still life photographers gravitate toward standard and short-telephoto options. These lenses are perfect for capturing well-proportioned, natural images. And they do a great job of creating stunning shallow depth of field effects, too:
If you’re struggling to visualize the difference between wide-angle, standard, and telephoto lenses, then I’d urge you to create a still life setup, then try out each focal length. Carefully review the results, paying careful attention to the relationship between different objects as well as distortion effects. Ask yourself: How does each focal length render the scene? When would each effect look good?
Over time, you’ll learn to “see” in different focal lengths, and you’ll be able to choose the right focal length with very little effort.
Still life photography mistakes: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know the six most common mistakes made by still life photographers – and you know how to fix them, too!
So memorize these mistakes. Evaluate your photography. Make the necessary changes. And watch as your photos improve!
Which of these still life mistakes are you making? How will you fix them? Share your thoughts in the comments below!