Want to capture stunning still life photography?
In this article, I offer five easy ways to improve your still life images. I cover all the key elements (including lighting, composition, and editing) – so that, no matter your camera gear, you’ll be ready to shoot some amazing still life shots of your own.
Let’s get started.
1. Pick items that interest you
Still life photography starts with subject choice…
…but in truth, there are no “best” still life subjects. Ideal subjects are simply items that interest you, and they can come from anywhere, including:
- Around your house
- Flea markets and thrift stores
- Estate sales
- The grocery store
- The florist
Of course, the words “still life” generally conjure up visions of vases of flowers, pears on candlelit tables, old paper, and violins. And you can certainly capture beautiful still life shots by obtaining and arranging these “classical” items.
But you don’t need to spend time pursuing such images if they don’t interest you. Instead, ask yourself: What is meaningful to me? What objects do I love? Is there a story I would like to tell with my still life?
Alternatively, you might look for items that simply catch your eye. This next shot contains a piece of dried seaweed on some calico. Was the seaweed meaningful to me? Not really. Did it tell a story? Nope. It simply looked beautiful, so I wanted to capture it!
Finally, you can capture “found” still life arrangements – that is, still life arrangements that already exist (in houses, backyards, or on the street). Here’s a found still life, taken of a friend’s bedside table:
When picking still life subjects, here’s my final piece of advice:
If you’re stuck, just find some items that are personal and important to you, such as:
- Family heirlooms
- Pictures containing relatives
- Books that you love
Then, after a bit of arranging, you’ll capture a still life that’s loaded with meaning!
2. Carefully select a background
The background can make – or break- your still life. If you want great results, you must choose your background with great care.
Specifically, don’t choose a background that features distracting elements. Avoid eye-catching colors that draw the eye, and if you use fabric, make sure you iron it first (few things are more distracting than a wrinkled backdrop!).
Instead, keep it simple. Fabric, cardboard, and existing walls often work great, provided that they’re relatively plain. The goal is to emphasize your still life subjects (so the viewer knows exactly where to look).
Here’s an image featuring a plain backdrop made from a couple of old potato sacks:
And here’s another shot, this time featuring a sheet of red fabric:
Also, experimentation is important! Different background textures and colors can complement your subjects in different ways, so it pays to test out a few options before deciding on a final arrangement. You may be surprised by the backdrops that make your still life really pop.
And you might even try experimenting with focus and depth of field. For instance, create a shallow depth of field effect, where you keep the front element sharp and the background blurry. Then try the opposite: Use a narrow aperture to keep the still life items and the background tack-sharp. See which you prefer!
3. Get creative with still life lighting
Light is an essential component of still life photography, and many still lifes feature beautiful lighting arrangements (which often create moody, painterly effects).
But it’s important to realize that you don’t need fancy lighting to create a stunning still life. When you’re starting out, I recommend using whatever light you have available, such as:
- Indirect light from a window
- A lamp
- A flashlight
- A candle
Don’t just create your setup, take one shot, and call it a day. Instead, try out different lighting effects! Use a curtain to block out some window light, then remove the curtain to let the light stream in. Shine a flashlight at your main subject, then try a second shot where the flashlight is positioned off to the side and shrouds your subjects in shadow. Make sense?
Note that, if you’re using lamps, flashlights, or candles, you will definitely need a tripod; indoor lighting won’t get you a fast-enough shutter speed for handheld shots. (This can be a relatively cheap model; as long as it’s positioned on a sturdy surface, it should be able to keep your camera steady.) When you’re ready to shoot, just mount your camera to the tripod, activate the two-second self-timer, and start taking images.
By the way, a fun technique that works great for still lifes is called light painting. Simply set up your camera to capture a long exposure (in the area of 10 to 30 seconds), press the shutter button, and paint light – from a flashlight or candle – around your subject. You’ll end up with some very cool effects, as you can see in the examples below:
Once you get more serious, you can try lighting your still life arrangements with speedlights (though I recommend you modify any speedlight with a softbox to prevent hard shadows).
Whatever lighting you choose, make sure you spend plenty of time thinking about its position. Light that comes from the front will look very different than light that comes from behind your subject or off to the side, so you’ll need to carefully adjust your lights to get the effect you’re after. I’d recommend you start with sidelighting, as this often creates a beautiful, three-dimensional effect (and it’s what I used when capturing the three example photos featured above).
4. Try plenty of compositions
Learning to compose still life photos is often a struggle for beginners. This is understandable, as still life composition brings up a ton of questions, such as: Where should I place all my items? Should they overlap? Should they be close to the background? What camera angle should I use?
Fortunately, still life composition isn’t as hard as it might seem. I have two main recommendations, and they will take you far:
First, if you’ve not encountered them before, read about the rule of thirds and the rule of odds. These will offer a fantastic compositional starting point for beautiful still life shots, plus they’re really easy to use.
Second, just keep moving your items around.
This latter recommendation might seem a bit silly, but I promise: If you rearrange your objects enough, you’ll eventually hit on an arrangement that looks great. Don’t just settle for the first composition that you try – instead, test an arrangement, then evaluate it critically. Determine what you like and dislike about it, then make adjustments.
As you create different compositions, here are a few items to keep an eye on:
- Overly empty gaps (you generally want to keep the entire arrangement balanced!)
- Busy areas (you don’t want to confuse the viewer with too much activity)
- Movement between objects (aim to lead the eye from one object to the next)
Remember: A tiny tweak can make a huge difference. So if an arrangement doesn’t seem perfect, make a few changes. Chances are that you’ll soon hit upon a better setup!
And try photographing from different angles. Shoot from standing height, then raise your camera higher or take it down low. Walk to one side of the setup and capture a profile shot. You can even test out different lenses! Each experiment might turn out great or it might look bad – but you won’t know until you try.
5. Make sure you spend time editing your still life photography
Post-processing can make a huge difference to your still life photos, so I highly recommend you spend time editing your images in Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or some other program.
Start out with basic adjustments, such as white balance, exposure, contrast, and saturation. Then, as you become more experienced, play around with more advanced options.
Consider doing HDR photography, where you take several images at different exposure levels then blend them together in Lightroom. Or use Photoshop to add a beautiful texture to your image for a painterly look:
Still life photography: final words
Still life is a beautiful, compelling, intimate genre of photography.
So experiment with lighting, composition, and editing. Have fun! Enjoy yourself!
You’re bound to end up with some stunning photos.
Now over to you:
What type of still life photos do you plan to take? Which of these tips are your favorites? Share your thoughts in the comments below!