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Photographing a Still Life Series for Exhibition or a Portfolio

photographing-a-still-life-series

If you’ve ever tried photographing still life images, you’ll know that making a single good picture is relatively easy, but shooting a still life series is much harder! Trying to make a set of images that feel like they belong together can be very challenging for many reasons.

If you’re shooting to create a portfolio, or perhaps even for an exhibition, you’ll want to create images that feel like they belong together. That way, the body of work will appear more thoughtful, and its message will be stronger.

But no matter how hard you try to make images look like they are a series, there often seems to be something that doesn’t look quite right. So how can you overcome these challenges and shoot a still life series that feels like the pictures are coherent?

What is coherency?

When it comes to these images there’s a number of ways that a still life series can look like they belong together. But it really starts at the beginning.

still life series
Shooting a series of images that aren’t connected thematically is possible, but you have to pay attention to the technical aspects of your shots for coherency.

The most useful thing that you can do is have a series in mind when you shoot your first image. Picking a theme that will weave through your images and tie them all together is probably the easiest way to get a coherent feel to your series of shots.

If you shoot images around a theme, then the theme should automatically help to make them feel like they’re all a part of the same project. Perhaps the easiest way to approach still life thematically is to try to tell a story through the images. When you try to include storytelling in a still life series, it should help the images feel like they belong together.

But sometimes it’s not all about the theme and the storytelling; sometimes, you want to pull images together visually. So here are some suggestions on how to go about doing just that.

Use the same viewpoint

When you’re planning out your still life series, experiment initially with a few different viewpoints. But consider sticking to one throughout the series. Swapping viewpoints between pictures can make the images feel like they’re not quite part of a coherent set.

Photographing a Still Life Series for Exhibition or a Portfolio
Left: ISO400, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f4, 1/170th sec
Right: ISO400, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f4, 1/110th sec

Consider using a tripod in order to keep everything the same. It’ll make it easier to keep your framing consistent for each shot, as well as keeping your distance the same from the camera to the object. And don’t forget to think about your composition as you place objects into your frame.

Of course, it is possible to change the viewpoint and still keep the images looking like they are part of the same still life series, as the image above shows. You’ll just have to make sure that you keep some of the other variables about your shot the same. Perhaps make sure that your theme or story is stronger than you might otherwise have needed to make it.

Use the same focal length

Keeping the distance between the camera and object the same, and also the focal length of the lens, can be a really great trick to keep your images looking like part of a series. When we use different focal lengths or vary the distance from the object to the lens it can cause distortion. Distortion causes our brain to realise that something isn’t really quite right.

still life series
Left: Shot with 35mm lens  (50mm equiv.)
Centre: Shot with 18mm lens (28mm equiv.) with the subject in the same place
Right: Shot with 18mm lens (28mm equiv.) with subject moved closer to camera

While on the surface, the left and right images above look similar, you can see on closer inspection that there is distortion. In the right-hand image above, that I shot with a wider focal length, you can see more of the top of the apple, less of the bottom. And the apple appears to be bulging out towards the camera.

Of course, there’s really no “correct” focal length to use when it comes to shooting still life images. You may want the distortion that a wider angle lens brings to the image. In a way, the wide-angle creates a strange look that could almost pay homage to the artist Paul Cézanne who painted both the side and top of objects in his still life – an “impossible” view.

And on the other hand, a 50mm equivalent focal length gives a much more “natural” view because it’s closer to how the human eye views objects.

The important thing if you choose to vary your focal length or distance from the camera to object is to keep enough other variables the same. That way, your images still look like they are part of the same series.

Post-process images in a similar way

If I was going to shoot a still life series on film, I’d definitely make sure I shoot the same film type for all of my images. That way, they’d all be similar in color, tone, and feel.

Digital is no different. Post-processing images to make them look as similar as possible in style and feel can make a huge difference when it comes to feeling like they’re part of a series.

Photographing a Still Life Series for Exhibition or a Portfolio
Both: ISO400, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f2.8, 1/250th sec

This is a great time to think about introducing something unique to your post-processing rather than just going for a totally natural look. It could be a slight split-toning in Lightroom with colors in the shadows, or a particular black and white recipe.

The key is to create a distinctive look and then apply it to all images, applying minor adjustments to each one to make them look coherent. Then your images, even if they are of quite different subjects, will be pulled together with a common look and feel.

Keeping your studio setup and lighting the same can really help when it comes to post-processing to make your shots look similar. Starting from the same “canvas” will mean that you don’t need to be a total post-processing wizard. Instead, small adjustments will pack a real punch when it comes to coherency.

Keep experimenting

When you’re planning your series, make sure that you keep experimenting. Try all kinds of different technical approaches to start with and narrow it down to the ones that suit the theme (and your style) the best. And then, once you have your images, experiment with the post-processing before saving your recipe as a preset so that you can use it to help you create a coherent look amongst all your images.

still life series
Remember that simply experimenting by changing your background can affect the whole feel of your shot! I shot these images were in the same lighting as the “light” images in this article and with similar settings.
Both: ISO400, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f4, 1/240th sec

Don’t forget that you can apply these ideas to other kinds of photography too.

For instance, when creating a series of portraits, you might want to think about using a single focal length, aperture, and a post-processing recipe. It will help all your shots feel similar. These ideas about shooting a still life series can be applied to more than just inanimate objects!

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Charlie Moss
Charlie Moss

is UK based photography journalist with experience shooting everything from historically inspired portraits to e-commerce photography. Her passion is history of art, especially contemporary culture and photography. You can follow her on Instagram or catch her over at Patreon to find more of her teaching and mentoring resources!