Tips for Getting Started with Still Life Photography

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When photographing a still life subject, you are creating an image rather than capturing a moment. You are constructing your photograph; from background, to subject, to lighting. With the subject matter being inanimate objects, their tendency to stay very still allows you to take time to refine your lighting, and experiment with your composition. It’s a very pleasant way to photograph, and you don’t need any fancy gear. It’s also a great way to learn about lighting and composition, the key elements to any photographic style.

Here are some tips to get you started on still life photography:

Subject matter

Subject matter doesn’t really matter. Generally the words “still life photography” conjures the image of traditional paintings of a vase of flowers, and a few carefully arranged items. But essentially as long at it stays still, it is a still life.

Still life photography

As long as it is still, technically it is a still life. This is a piece of dried seaweed on some calico.

You could group a bunch of items together simply because you like them, or they look pleasing, or you can gather related items to tell a story. The image at the beginning of this article tells the story of my breakfast.

Or you can find still life arrangements that already exist, their story or mood already set up for you.

Still Life Photography

A arrangement on a friend’s bedside table of heirloom items, made for an already set up still life image.

You can use things that are simply visually pleasing, or you can make it personal. If you’re stuck for a still life subject, I suggest finding some things that are personal and important to you, give the photograph some meaning. Plus, then you’ll have a photograph of this important thing. Bonus!

Backgrounds

A good background can really make a still life. Fabric, cardboard or paper, or an existing wall, are all easily accessible backdrops. For the image of my breakfast I used old potato sacks. Just make sure whatever you use is not too distracting from your subject matter. Keep it simple. If you’re using fabric, make sure you iron it first! Few things are more distracting than a wrinkled backdrop.

Still Life Photography

I like to call this one, Still Life With Slightly Wrinkly Backdrop.

A bright color, or busy backdrop, can pull too much attention away from your subject matter. Plain, neutral-toned, backdrops are a good place to start, then experiment from there. You may be surprised what backdrop will end up making your image really pop.

Still Life Photography

After trying different colored, plain backdrops for this image, I experimented with some reflective cardboard, which worked much better.

You can also experiment with focus and depth of field, having the whole image completely sharp or certain elements, such as the background, in soft focus. A blurry background could help out, should you not have an iron handy, or if you are not handy with one and need to knock back that wrinkly background.

Lighting

You don’t need anything fancy to light a still life. Natural light from a window will do the trick. A lamp, light painting with a torch, or a makeshift soft box are great fun to experiment with. A bunch of tips on these lighting methods and more in my DIY  lighting using household items article.

Still life photography works well for longer exposures, allowing you to use a really subtle light source, such as single candle. You’ll need a tripod, or to steady your camera on a solid box, or pile of books. You can literally paint your still life with light using light painting, and all you need is a small flashlight.

Still Life Photography

A quick setup of different lighting. From left: Natural light from nearby window, light painting with a flashlight, and lighting from a single soft box.

Your subject matter is still life, it’s not going to dash off on you, so take your time here and really play with your lighting.

Try out different intensities of light, by either a curtain if using window light, or moving your light source in and out. You can also combine different light sources such as a small flashlight to fill in any dark spots when using natural light, or perhaps use both a lamp and a candle. (Just be aware of different colors of light each may produce)

How you angle your lighting is important. Experiment with different positions for your light source. If you’re using natural light you’ll obviously have to move your subject to change angles, much easier than rebuilding your window! With a movable source, start with some side lighting, and then try a few different angles. Pay attention to where the shadows fall, as well as what happens with any reflective surfaces. You don’t necessarily want to turn your still life into a self-portrait, with a reflection of yourself and your camera staring back at you.

Composition

Good composition skills go a long way with still life, and is as important as good lighting. There are many wonderfully informative articles here on dPS on the basics, and sometimes not so basics of composition. Understanding things like the rule of thirds can be very helpful, even if you choose to then ignore it.

With still life photography, if you just keep moving your arrangement around, you will find one that works. Don’t just settle on the first one you set up. Keep your eye out for overly empty gaps, or too much going on. Placing an item on an angle will lead the eye in that direction, does the item lead the eye nowhere, out of the frame, or subtly towards another part of the arrangement? A small tweak of the angle of your subject’s placement can make all the difference.

Also try photographing from different angles, even if you need to shoot directly front on, try raising or lowering your camera for a few shots, then zoom in or out a bit and see what happens. It might work, it might not, you won’t know until you try.

Editing

There is loads of fun to be had in the editing stage. Different processes can completely change your still life image. HDR is a popular process for still life photography, and can be very effective. Or you could play with layer masks with a couple of different exposures, and paint in and out certain areas of your image. I like to add a texture to give the image a painting-like look. Here’s a link to a beginners guide to applying textures.

Still Life Photography

Adding a texture in the editing stage can give a painting like effect

Experiment and enjoy

Unlike most other forms of photography, when photographing still life you can really slow down and take your time, and enjoy the process . You don’t have to limit yourself  to the traditional still life, experiment with subject matter as well as your lighting and editing. Indulge in a little photographic play time!

Still Life photography

An arrangement of this monkey sculpture next to a post card made for an interesting still life image.

Try a still life today. Share your photographs or any further still life tips you’ve learned along the way in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lea Hawkins

is an Australian photographer working mainly in the areas of portraiture, fine art, and for the local press. Her work has been published, exhibited, selected and collected – locally, nationally and internationally, in many forms. All shot with very minimal gear and the photographic philosophy that it’s not so much the equipment, but what you do with it. You can see more of her work at www.leahawkins.com

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  • You are my literal *lol* this morning. Before I read the description of it, my eye went straight to the wrinkle in the fabric of that one pic. Was so much so that I had NO idea what the subject matter was until I told my eye to *quit that and look at the other thing* in the pic. 😀

  • Great Lea Hawkins great. Your article point out some great topic for valuable photography. Thanks for effective tutorial.

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  • Tim Lowe

    When just getting started with large format, I shot a lot of still life images. You don’t have to lug the camera all over creation. Your subject doesn’t move around much. And you can explore what each camera movement does to the image.

  • At first i want to say your uses images is very excited and beautiful and your tips is helpful too.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Hahaha Cindy, yep background wrinkles are super distracting! Glad you got a giggle.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Thank you Md, really happy the article is helpful.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Hope you get out there photographing some still life soon Md, thank you for commenting.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Yes, great for seeing how different setting work when you use the same subject. Love still life’s stillness, still and quiet subjects are great! Feel free to share any of your experiments Tim.

  • SteveR

    “… as long at it stays still, it is a still life.” Since so much that I shoot doesn’t stay still, this brought a revelation to me; flowers in a field or on a shrub are ‘still life’ (unless the wind is blowing, like it almost always does here.)
    So much of my macro is difficult to shoot because even a very slight breeze moves the ‘still life’ from focus. Sometimes, it works.
    The flower reminds me of an animal looking out of a sheltered area.
    The fly waited patiently while I focused. Hence, it is a ‘still life’ photograph.

  • luke

    Very inspiring, thanks. I’m often frustrated because I have anything but expensive gear, which makes me feel like I have very few chances to take decent photos. However, these articles remember me that I can do a lot with a little and, of course, a bit of inspiration.

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