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Still Life Photography: The Ultimate Guide (+ 9 Tips)

A guide to beautiful still life photography

Ever looked at a simple fruit bowl and wondered if it could be something more? Well, it can! Still life photography is all about transforming ordinary objects into visual art, and it comes with an array of powerful advantages:

  1. It’s highly accessible (you can do it in your own home!)
  2. It doesn’t require ultra-expensive gear
  3. It’s not nearly as hard as it might seem

I’ve been taking still life images for years, and in this article, I offer everything you need to improve your shots. I cover all the key elements including lighting, composition, and editing – so that, no matter your level of experience, you’ll be ready to shoot some amazing still life photos of your own.

Let’s get started.

What is still life photography?

Still life photography is an art form that involves capturing inanimate objects. This can include anything from a bowl of fruit to a carefully arranged collection of antique tools.

Still life photography

The appeal of still life photography lies in its accessibility and its potential for immense creativity. With complete control over all elements, from lighting to composition, you can turn ordinary objects into something extraordinary.

Seeing everyday objects through an artistic eye is the essence of still life photography. It’s about finding beauty in the mundane and ordinary. Whether you’re a professional photographer or just starting, still life photography invites you to see the world anew, and it’s a wonderful way to explore your creativity!

Essential still life photography gear

You don’t need to spend a fortune to get started with still life photography. An entry-level mirrorless camera or DSLR will work just fine. These camera types provide more control and flexibility compared to simple point-and-shoot models. Paired with a close-focusing lens, they allow you to capture sharp images of your subjects that you can edit, print, and hang on your wall.

A tripod is another important item, and while not every still life photographer works exclusively with a tripod, it’s a great piece of equipment to obtain. Even a slight camera movement can change the focus and composition, so a tripod will help streamline your workflow. More importantly, it’ll keep your camera steady, which is crucial for achieving clear, sharp images in low light conditions.

Other useful accessories include reflectors to reduce shadows and diffusers to handle too-harsh lighting.

That said, you don’t need to go gear-crazy; the key is to understand that quality images don’t necessarily come from expensive gear. With the right basic tools, beautiful still life images are entirely within your reach.

Key still life photography settings

Still life photography

Manual mode is where you want to begin in still life photography. Working in this mode gives you ultimate control over your image, allowing you to fine-tune the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. With control over these settings, your creativity can truly shine.

A narrow aperture such as f/8 is a standard choice for still life photography. It keeps the subject in focus, giving you the crisp details that’ll make your still life images stand out. As for the ISO: Keep it low to maintain the best image quality. As long as you’re using a tripod, shutter speed is less critical; you can slow it down without causing blur.

Understanding these settings is essential to achieving professional-looking photos. While dialing in apertures, ISOs, and shutter speeds may seem technical at first, you’ll find that it quickly becomes second nature!

Basic lighting for still life photography

Still life photography

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.

Still life photography composition

Still life photography

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!

Tips and tricks to improve your still life photos

Now that you’re familiar with the basics, let’s dive into some of the higher-level aspects of still life photography, including subject selection, different lighting directions, and more!

1. Look at the work of great still life photographers

Still life photography

It’s a valuable practice to study the work of great still life photographers online. By observing their photos, you can learn about the different ways to arrange elements, and you can even find inspiration for new subjects.

But don’t limit yourself to photography alone; look at the world of painting as well. Masters like Cezanne offer a treasure trove of lessons on composition, balance, and the use of color. The way these painters arranged objects, used light, and chose colors can translate into unique insights for your photography. A painter’s eye for composition can open new doors for your creativity.

Learning from others can be an exciting and enlightening process. While it’s important to develop your unique style, the techniques and ideas you glean from observing the masters can enhance your skills.

2. Experiment with sidelighting

Still life photography

Sidelighting is a powerful tool in still life photography. By ensuring that your light source is hitting the subject from the side rather than the front or back, you add shadows that improve a sense of three-dimensionality. The play of light and shadow brings depth and drama to an image, allowing ordinary objects to appear extraordinary.

A 45-degree angle is often a fantastic starting point for sidelighting. It offers a balanced blend of light and shadow, producing a visually appealing effect. Don’t be afraid to play with different angles and light sources; experimentation is key to finding what works best for your particular setup.

Realize that the angle of light can drastically change the mood and appearance of your photograph. By embracing the experimentation and understanding how sidelighting works, you add an essential tool to your still life photography toolkit. It’s a step towards creating more engaging, eye-catching images.

Bottom line: Whether you’re using natural light from a window or an artificial source, sidelighting can become your go-to option for stunning still life shots.

3. Pick items that interest you

Still life photography

Still life photography beginners often struggle to pick a subject and get started. But in truth, there are no “best” still life subjects, so there’s no need to stress! 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!

Still life photography piece of curling seaweed

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:

found still life arrangement 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!

4. Work with a theme

Still life photography

Still struggling to pick the right still life photography subjects? Then I highly recommend working around a single theme.

Themes are an essential aspect of still life photography that can add depth and coherence to your images. They help you move beyond randomly selected objects and push you to think about the mood and meaning you want to convey. Whether it’s a color, season, or concept, a unifying theme can drive creativity.

For example, if you choose a theme around the color blue, you may gather items like blue glassware, a blue scarf, or blueberries. The consistent color palette not only creates visual harmony but also allows you to explore various textures and shapes within a specific color family.

Themes also help in storytelling. A setup focused on a seasonal theme, like autumn, can evoke feelings of warmth, change, or nostalgia. From leaves to pumpkins, selecting objects that resonate with the chosen theme helps in creating visually compelling stories that speak to the viewer.

5. Carefully select a background

Still life photography

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:

bread, onions, and flowers on a table

And here’s another shot, this time featuring a sheet of red fabric:

camera with flowers still life

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 while I generally do advocate using a narrow aperture and a deep depth of field when starting out, over time, you might want to try experimenting with focus and depth of field. You can create a shallow depth of field effect – where you keep the front element sharp and the background blurry – for more artistic shots. It’s a trick that can also come in handy if you like the background but find it a little too conspicuous.

6. Try light painting for creative still life shots

Still life photography

Light painting is a thrilling technique that allows you to “paint” with light. It involves setting your camera to a long shutter speed, usually in the range of 10 to 30 seconds, and then moving a flashlight or candle around your subject during the exposure. The result can be mesmerizing.

One of the great things about light painting is that it enables you to have greater control over your lighting without investing in expensive strobes and softboxes. You can create unique effects and highlights exactly where you want them. All you need is a dark room and a source of light, such as a flashlight, candle, or even a glow stick.

Experiment with different light sources, movements, and exposure times. You’ll soon discover a whole new world of creative possibilities. Light painting can add depth, character, and flair to your photos, making it a valuable technique in your still life photography toolbox.

7. Consider using artificial lighting

Still life photography

Once you’ve mastered basic still life lighting using natural sources like windows or candles, you may wish to explore artificial lighting for more control. Studio strobes, speedlights, or continuous LEDs are common options, and each has its advantages.

For those just starting, speedlights can be an affordable choice. They are portable and easy to use but still deliver excellent results. Strobes, on the other hand, are more powerful and include modeling lights so you can see the lighting effect in advance.

Whatever your choice, softboxes are essential. A bare flash will result in harsh and unflattering light. Softboxes diffuse the light, making it softer and more pleasing to the eye. They come in various sizes and shapes, allowing you to fine-tune the lighting effect to match your vision.

Artificial lighting may seem intimidating at first, but with practice, you can use it to create stunning still life photographs. From generating specific effects to offering complete control over the intensity and direction of light, artificial lighting opens up a new realm of creativity. It’s an investment not just in equipment but in expanding your artistic capabilities.

8. Shoot from different angles

Still life photography

The angle you choose to shoot from can dramatically alter the look and feel of your still life photograph. While it’s common to start with a standard frontal composition, experimenting with different angles adds richness and variety to your portfolio.

Moving to the right or the left, shooting from above or below – these choices offer new perspectives on familiar subjects. Even slight adjustments in camera height can change how a setup is captured. Higher angles can amplify depth, making objects appear more spread out, while lower angles can give a greater sense of intimacy or grandiosity.

Experimentation is key here. There are no rigid rules, so feel free to explore various angles until you find what resonates with your subject and theme. Try photographing a bowl of fruit from directly above to emphasize shape and pattern, or shoot a vase of flowers from below to give it a towering, majestic appearance. The creativity of angles is in your hands.

9. 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 arrangement with an added texture

How to create stunning still life photography: final words

As you’ve discovered, the world of still life photography offers a vast playground for creativity, exploration, and skill-building. By working with themes, you can craft images that are not only visually stunning but also filled with depth and story. Shooting from different angles adds another layer of expression and offers endless possibilities for capturing ordinary objects in extraordinary ways.

Remember to embrace the tools and techniques outlined, and practice to see how they transform your still life photography. The joy of creating mesmerizing still life photos isn’t reserved for professionals; it’s within your reach.

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!

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Lea Hawkins
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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