A decade or two ago, still life photography was largely the domain of professional, commercial or fine art photographers, and perhaps the most enthusiastic of hobby photographers. However, Instagram has changed all that.
Through social media channels, people now have the means of sharing the objects in their lives, with their friends and family. This might be a new pair of shoes, an artisan coffee or beautifully presented meal, or the wonder of a fresh flower. Hands up, if you’ve shared a photo like this, or wanted to (but not been able to get the right shot).
If you’re one of these people who keep missing the right shot, then this is the article for you. Learn the basics of still life photography and pick up a few tips that will improve your still life shots immediately.
What is Still Life Photography?
Just as it is in art, still life captures inanimate objects, either individually or in groups. These objects could be anything that strikes the artist or photographer as interesting or symbolic or beautiful; there are no rules about what object can or cannot be photographed.
The idea of still life is that the object may tell a story, or that the photographer may invite the viewer to look at the object in a new light. Therefore, the photographer needs to compose their picture carefully to highlight whatever this may be. It is of no use just place the object within the viewfinder and hope for the best as the message will likely be lost.
You can create an engaging still life photo, however., even if you just have an iPhone camera to hand. To create meaningful standout still life photographs, follow some ideas and principles presented below. But above all, be creative and adventurous. If there were a set of golden rules to always follow, all still life compositions would be boringly similar.
It may not be the star of the photo, but the background is important. It needs to be subtle and must never detract from the object you are photographing.
However, a very neutral background such as a plain white wall or sheet is not necessarily the right choice either. You’ll probably find that darker backgrounds suit light-coloured objects best and can make bright colours really pop.
The ideal background will complement the object in some way; either through colour, tone or texture. Professional photographers keep a stock of backgrounds to choose from. These may include:
- Painted canvases in plain colors, which add a beautiful, subtle texture
- Colored paper for sharper images
- Plain slate tiles and ceramic tiles in various patterns and textures
- Fabrics and linens
- Wooden boards with attractive grains
If you keep a stock of these inexpensive, easy-to-find or easy-to-make items, then you have the opportunity to play with a variety of backgrounds until you find one that complements your object best.
The fun of still life photos comes with playing with different compositions. Here are some ideas that professional photographers use when creating different compositions for still life.
There are so many options that can produce starkly different compositions. For instance, try shooting from straight ahead in the style of a classic still life painting, or try shooting from directly above. This is a more contemporary style known as a flat-lay composition.
Or you could bring an object to life through a close-up. This can encourage the viewer to see an object in a way they have never noticed before.
You’ll learn a lot and develop your own unique style by moving your object or objects around and deciding what pleases the eye. However, there are some classic styles of composition that are worth further research.
One of the most widely used is the rule of thirds.
To apply this yourself, imagine dividing the area you want to photograph into equal thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This will create an imaginary grid. Align the area or areas you wish to focus on one or more of the off-centre spots where your grids lines intersect. This will create a wonderful balance within your photo.
Groups of Objects
Many good still life images are created by gathering several objects together that complement each other or tell a story. If this is something you’d like to try, make sure to:
- Follow the rule of three- a basic design principle that items look better in groups of three. This provides enough visual interest and encourages the viewer’s eye to move around the composition. If you want to photograph more than three objects, you’ll probably find that odd numbers are more pleasing to the eye.
- Try overlapping objects in different ways to create a feeling of depth.
- Form connections between the objects so that the viewer’s eye is led around the composition. Pay attention to the angles within your photo and use the lines provided by your objects to lead the viewer’s eye to another part of the composition. Parallel lines don’t often work for this reason as they can leave the viewer stranded in the photo.
- If you have many objects which deserve equal attention, you could try using framing props, such as cupcake stands or compartmentalized boxes.
More often than not, the difference between the amateur and professional-looking photos is down to lighting. Thankfully, you don’t need expensive lighting set-ups to take good still life photos, even on your phone.
Natural lighting is best
Firstly, pay attention to where your source of light is coming from. Natural light generally has the most pleasing effect over artificial household lighting, so this is likely to affect the time of day you want to take your photo. Try to avoid the strongest sunlight. Overcast days often produce the best results.
If you feel like the natural light available to you doesn’t quite look right in your photo, there are a couple of DIY tricks you can try. If too much light is flooding the photo causing unwanted or harsh shadows, try muting it by draping a sheer white sheet in front of the light source. If there is too little light, you could boost it by using an ordinary desktop lamp where the angle can be adjusted.
Most photographers light still life objects from the left side, especially if they are shooting straight on. This orientation naturally leads the viewer’s eye towards your object of interest. It helps the viewer understand the object’s shape and highlights texture, too. Pay attention to where shadows fall as they can add depth and dimension to your picture.
Playing and experimenting with light from different sources and angles is well worth the time; this way, you can find a way of highlighting the aspects of your object that are most important to you.
Perfecting your art
Still life photography is definitely a skill that becomes easier with practice and experience.
The above tips will help you get started and the principles mentioned here will help you produce good results pretty quickly. However, don’t forget that rules are there to be broken, too, so don’t be afraid to develop your own unique style.
American artist Shea Winter Roggio is a documentary and fine art photographer living in Dubai, UAE. Shea Winter Photography LLC provides documentary, editorial and commercial photography services, along with video, television and film production services, and retails photographic souvenirs such as fine art prints, canvas and frames.