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Before there was photography, artists used paints and brushes to record their visions onto a canvas. Fruit and vegetable still life images were common subjects for many. Even today, in art schools, a fruit bowl might be an early subject. Learning to reproduce shapes, tones, color, and replicating the way light, shadow, smooth reflective objects, and dull matte objects look in the light – all those things would be part of your training.
We, as photographers, would do well to take a similar approach to our photography. We have it easier in many ways; not needing paints and brushes to create our images on a blank canvas. However, learning about light, composition, and technique are still foundational lessons.
If you are stuck at home, this could be a good opportunity to slow down, work on the kitchen table, relax with a slow-paced style of photography, and learn some new photography skills. A fruit and vegetable still life project could be just the way to spend a quiet day at home.
There are several reasons why fruits and vegetables make good still life subjects. They have interesting shapes, textures, colors, and details. As they are food, we can work to make them look especially appetizing, selecting the freshest and best subjects to be our “models.”
People who specialize in food photography will often use the talents of “food stylists” who carefully pick just the right subjects. They then use tricks, much like a fashion makeup stylist would use, to make their “models” as flawless and stunning as possible.
If you have access to choice fruits and vegetables right now, by all means, go seek such subjects. On the other hand, if being restricted to home means you need to use that somewhat sad-looking collection of carrots from the bottom of the refrigerator, just take your photo in a different direction.
In the early-to-mid 1600s, the Netherlands saw the rise of a collection of artists we now refer to as the “Dutch Masters.” A realistic style, emphasis on dramatic directional lighting, and the play of light and shadow are earmarks of the look. A good example of a Dutch Golden Age still-life artist is Willem Kalf. See his image below, “Still Life with Lemon Peel.” Now, as a photographer, how might we emulate that look?
A favorite technique of mine for emulating the Dutch Master’s look is light painting. I discuss this at length in my DPS article, “Learn these Two Techniques for Dramatic Light-Painted Photos.”
A distinct advantage of still life photography is that shutter speed is not critical. If you need a multi-second exposure, no problem. Work from a tripod so your camera is rock-steady, lock up the mirror on a DSLR to minimize vibrations, and use a cable release or perhaps the 2-second timer to trip the shutter. Go to full-manual mode. Keep your ISO at the lowest setting to minimize noise. Select an aperture based on how much depth of field you seek, and select a shutter speed for however much time you need for the “painting.”
Grab your flashlight and paint away.
A favorite photographer I follow now on Instagram is Carlo Denino. Often with just a single fruit, vegetable, or other subjects, he produces exquisite light paintings. I encourage you to give his images a look and see if you can then emulate his style. I know from personal experience it’s not nearly as easy as it might look!
Light painting is just one way you can go when doing fruit and vegetable still life images. Natural lighting can often be great and will require nothing more than your camera.
Dutch Master’s images were typically painted to look like they were illuminated by a single light source off to the side.
Find a window where you can place your subject and see if you can create the look. If you need a little fill to reduce the shadows, a simple reflector or even a white card can do the trick.
Explore how other lights that would be considered non-conventional for photography, such as LED-flashlights, can work. Yes, they will not usually be as bright as standard photo lighting, and their color temperatures can vary. But they do have the advantages of being cheap, small and portable, and perhaps something you already have on hand. Use long exposures to compensate for their lower light output, and when you shoot in Raw mode, finding a good white balance will be much easier.
Speedlights can be another option. You will typically not want your light to come from the front of your subject, so your pop-up flash or hot-shoe-mounted Speedlight isn’t the best way to go. If you can, get the flash off the camera and fire it with a remote trigger. Or perhaps use a flash cord to get it away from the camera. If not, try bouncing the light off the ceiling, a wall or a reflector to redirect the light and soften it.
If you have dedicated photography lighting, that’s great. Give it a try and perhaps use your fruit and vegetable still life subjects to explore some new lighting techniques. Try different ways to modify the light with snoots, reflectors, flags, diffusion, gobos, colored gels, or whatever else you can think of.
Unrestricted by time or pressure to get it right quickly will open you up to experiments you might have never tried. If you fail twenty times but come up with a new and exciting technique just once, you can consider your experimental lighting play a great success.
With their interesting colors and sometimes translucent nature, fruits and vegetables can lend themselves to some interesting lighting techniques. Rarely will you want to light from the front of the subject as this will produce rather flat and uninteresting light.
Instead, try side lighting to emphasize texture, backlighting to perhaps create some nice rim-lighting, or if you want to get some really creative looks, lighting through your subject.
Fruits and vegetables that can be sliced thin work great for this. For example, I made thin slices of a kiwi, then made a platform from a glass pie plate under which I placed an LED flashlight. The light shining up and through the slices really emphasized the color and detail. Citrus fruits work well for this technique too.
Experiment and see what you can create.
As with any other photo subject, carefully consider the background when you stage your fruit and vegetable still life image. You will want a background that complements and doesn’t interfere with your subject.
Quite often, the best background will be the simplest. Consider using a completely white or black background if that works for the image you’re trying to create. Lightroom makes it very easy to blow out whites or totally blackout shadows with the adjustment brush aided by other tools like the clipping indicators and Auto and Range Mask. Paint out what you don’t want to keep the focus on your subject.
Of course, the other option you always have with photography is blurring, and thus simplifying, your background with a limited depth of field.
If you are a new photographer just trying to get your head around how depth of field works, the slow and deliberate nature of making fruit and vegetable still life images is a great way to experiment and understand the relationships of apertures, focal lengths, and their effects on depth of field.
A favorite trick of food photographers looking to make their fruit and vegetable still life images look fresh and also add interest is to use a spray bottle to spritz their subjects with water. Sometimes to create larger droplets that hang better and last longer on the subject, they will add a bit of glycerine to the water.
The structure of living things is often fascinating, and being able to explore fruits and vegetables up close can reveal some really interesting things. Whether you use a dedicated macro lens, extension tubes, bellows, close-up filters, a reversed lens, or a combination of these, macro work is just the thing to divert your attention from your troubles while you focus on the unseen world.
Working inside in a controlled environment with no wind and complete control of the lighting will also help you learn macro techniques.
When making fruit and vegetable still life images, it can enhance your photo if you add other objects to help “tell a story” about your scene. Rather than simply take a photo of an apple, slice the apple, add a cutting board and a knife to invite the viewer to consider what might have been going on. Add props that enhance the theme and avoid those that distract. Consider what makes sense in that particular scene and things you would naturally find paired together.
Fruit and vegetable still life photography can sometimes lend itself to high and low key renditions. To briefly define the terms, high-key is a lighting and exposure style that is very bright and contains little or no shadow. Contrast ratios, that being the difference between the lightest and darkest tones, are minimized. High-key photos will often have an “ethereal” look to them.
Low-key images are the opposite and typically quite dark, often with shadows that are totally black. They will often be quite contrasty with few mid-tones. Sometimes a low-key shot will use highlights in certain places to emphasize shape and form. Back and rim-lighting can lend itself well to a low-key look.
Here’s an exercise to try; take a fruit or vegetable, compose your shot, and make a “normal” exposure. Then, without moving the camera or subject, change the lighting and exposure to give it a high-key look. Now change the lighting and exposure again and see if you can get a low key look. This is a fun way to explore lighting techniques and understand the dramatic difference lighting can have on a scene.
We call it “still” life because, most often, the subject doesn’t move during the exposure and is static. But need it be that way?
Fruits and vegetables can make great subjects for some dynamic images. In my article “Making the Shot: Your Guide to Creating Stunning High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash,” I show some fun ways to make some really exciting images. You’ll note that almost all of my subjects were fruits and vegetables.
There’s also this image from my “How to Use Multi-flash to Capture Compelling Action Photos” article. The orange pepper stood out nicely on a dark background and allowed me to make the stroboscopic image as it flew through the air.
Mom may have told you not to play with your food, but here, it’s entirely appropriate and a whole lot of fun.
Many of you may be homebound and looking for creative ways to keep up your photography practice. Making fruit and vegetable still life images has some advantages;
Have fun with your fruit and vegetable still life photography, and post some of your great shots in the comments below.
If you’d like feedback, critique, and have a question about how to do something better, post that too. I try to answer all comments and look forward to hearing from you. Best wishes and be well!