Photographing Still Life Can Teach You These 3 Things

Photographing Still Life Can Teach You These 3 Things

  1. Composition
  2. Lighting
  3. The importance of taking your time
Photographing Still Life Can Teach You These 3 Things © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Photographing still life, more than most genres, gives you more control. You can control your subject, location, lighting, composition etc. when you make still life pictures.

Photographing just about anything else gives you have far less control, or it’s much more difficult to control the photo session. Landscape photographers must rely on external factors like the weather and vantage point. Sports photographers are restricted by how close they can get to their subjects. Wildlife photographers are often hampered by their subject’s movements. Portrait photographers have to deal with all manner of moods and emotions from their clients.

Photographing inanimate objects can happen just about anywhere. A studio space is not necessary. You can use your kitchen and set up on the table. Backyards and public parks can be great locations for outdoor still life photography.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Subject matter options are wide open. What do you like looking at? Find something you like – it will be more engaging. Small (but not too small) objects are easier to manage. Still life with large items like refrigerators or park benches will be more challenging to work with. You are not restricted to fruit and bunches of flowers.

Whatever and where ever you chose, you can improve upon three essential skills by photographing still life.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan


You have unlimited freedom to place and move your subject material about. This can help you gain a better understanding of composition.

Moving your objects around you will see how they relate differently to each other. You can overlap them or choose to position each one so it’s independent.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Camera position can view your set up from any angle you imagine. Experiment with high and low angles. Watch how this can dramatically affect your composition. Doing this in a situation where you have control and freedom to move about will help you learn to do so other times you are taking photos.

Backgrounds can be varied. You can use just the natural surroundings or add in your own backdrop. If the room ambiance is conducive to the images you want to make, use it well. However, if there are distracting elements behind your set up, insert a backdrop of your own. This can be a piece of card or cloth or something else to help enhance your composition.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Hopefully, photographing still life will stimulate your imagination. Having the freedom to manipulate your compositions will enhance your photography in general.


Working with inanimate objects is a great opportunity to learn more about lighting. With people, animals and other things that move about, being consistent with lighting can be challenging. Landscapes and architectural photography can have more complex lighting demands.

Starting with a simple light set up is good if you are new to photography. The kitchen window if your objects are on the kitchen table. Start making your series of photos and then open the kitchen door to let light in from another direction. Compare your photos and see the changes adding more light makes.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Switching on an artificial light source allows you more control. Use a lamp or flashlight. These allow you to see the effect of the light, unlike using a camera flash. Vary the position of the lights. Lift them higher or drop them down lower. Moving them further away will lessen the amount of light on your objects.

Reflectors can be made good use of in still life photography. Even a sheet of white A4 printer paper can be an effective reflector. Try different reflective surfaces of varying sizes and study the difference they have on your scene.

Look at the direction of light and shadows. How do they interact when you have more than one light source?

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

By trying different light sources and setups you will develop a better eye to discern light in other situations where you are taking photos. It can help you to know when to add another light source or reflector.

Taking Your Time

Setting up for a still life photo session somewhere you can leave it a few days or weeks has its benefits. So often people are in too much of a rush to get a photo and move on. Take your time, and work slowly as a painter does. There’s no rush.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Being able to go away and come back to your arrangement of inanimate objects allows you to see it with fresh eyes the next day or next week.

Maybe you will see the relationship between elements differently. The lighting will have changed from morning till afternoon if you are using natural light. You might think of another object you want to add to the scene that will really make the photo. Ideas will come that you had not thought of initially.

Changing lens focal lengths is also good to experiment with. Compare how the objects interact with each other and the background as you view them with different lenses.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Setting up outdoors, you can photograph at different times of day and night to see the effects of different light. Does moonlight provide the most interesting lighting for your composition? Or is it best first thing in the morning?


Find yourself some space. Gather together a few of your most aesthetic things. Take your time to move them around and change the lighting. Think about how the objects relate to each other. Think about the different results you achieve when you change the lighting. If you don’t like what you photographed one day, come back another and make some more photos.

Please share with us any still life photos you may have taken in the comments below.


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Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker with over 30 years experience. Kevin is offering DPS readers his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography. Check out Kevin's Blog for articles with a more personal approach to photography.

  • I am a portrait studio photographer. A few years back, during a stressful time, I gave myself the assignment to photograph outside with natural light and the subject would be flowers or plants. I used depth of field to play. I had such fun with it. It does teach you many things. Plus, it took my mind off of things. I gave it up when I basically had photographed every single plant 20 different ways.

  • Photography can be such awesome therapy! It is often difficult as a professional photographer to pull back from the work, and the pressure which often comes with it, and just enjoy taking photos to please yourself. It took me far too long to realize I needed to always have a photography project on the go that was for me, not for a client, to help keep me sane and more creative.

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  • steve prescott

    Hi, really interesting read. This was my first ever attempt at still life as I’m fairly new to photography so trying to have a go at everything!
    Would love to know your thoughts.

  • Thanks, I am pleased you have enjoyed my article. Great that you are trying new things and I hope you can continue to practice and learn by doing still life photos. I like your choice of a low angle, but other than that your composition is not designed so well. The best way to learn to improve this is to spend time with it, as I have written about in the article. Your area of focus (depth of field) looks very narrow, maybe too narrow. To avoid this, use a narrower aperture setting (higher f-stop number) slower shutter speed and/or a higher ISO setting.

  • steve prescott

    Thanks for the feedback, I did notice the shallow DoF (I was at 1.8) but only in post processing. Will keep practising!

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