10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography

There aren’t any photographic practices that date back further than still life photography: when photography originated, making a picture required very long exposures, so static objects were the ideal subject.

10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography

However, as technology developed, the fascination for capturing still life has remained, and continues as one of the most vibrant photographic arts —and lines of photographic work—going.

At the top end, still life photography can be lucrative business, as magazines, catalogues, art galleries and
websites all require product shots. There are many advantages to working
with still life that are often underestimated, so hopefully after this tutorial you’ll be
able to see it’s scope for creativity and get started with taking some
shots yourself!

Getting Started: Go Slow

Contrary
to common perceptions, you don’t need a studio or a fancy location to
make a start with still life photography. You can begin by simply using a
space at home, such as a table placed by a window, along with a simple
backdrop and utilizing a couple of lamps.

It varies greatly to
landscape or portrait photography, in which you are provided with the
subject matter, for example, a stunning mountain scene or a model, which
come with a huge amount of variables, but the creative content is there
in front of you.

With still life photography there are far fewer variables. As the photographer you have complete control over the
situation, including the subject matter, but you need to think extremely
creatively in order to capture it in an interesting and engaging way.

1. Choose Subjects that Speak to You

What
you photograph is completely up to you. Have a search around the house
to see if you can find something simple but interesting to start with.
Please don’t feel like you have to take photos of fruit or flowers just
because everyone else does: think outside the box without being overly
ambitious.

If when you’re out and about something catches your
eye, take it home with you (don’t steal it!) or make a note of it so as
to remember to try photographing it in a still life context. Try to
avoid reflective surfaces such as glass and metal to begin with, as they
will be extremely difficult with regards to lighting. Once you’ve
mastered the single object shots, try mixing it up, combine objects of
contrasting shape, colour, texture and see what you can come up with.

2. Get Comfortable with Light and Lighting

Lighting
doesn’t have to be expensive. I know certainly for me that a set of
studio lights aren’t really within my budget, so for still life shoots I
need to utilize all the light I can get my hands on, and that often means sunlight.

Remember that you
have full control over the shoot, so if you want, find a room in which
you can block out all natural light by using shutters or curtains, this
way you will have complete control over the light upon your subject.

Using
standard table lamps can work extremely well if used effectively. Be sure to
try multiple positioning set ups, not all light has to come from the
front of the object, side and back lighting will add interest, shadows
and depth to the shot. Alternatively, choose a room that is well lit via
a window, and use this to your advantage. The natural light from one
side will comprehensively light your subject and you can compliment this
with a lamp or reflector.

10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography

3. Get a Good Tripod and Work Your Angles

Depending
on your lighting situation, you may or may not need to use a tripod and
shutter release. I would recommend using these as they will allow you
to observe and work with your subject matter. This set up will also
allow you to use slightly longer shutter speeds than usual to ensure a
small aperture allowing the image to be in focus front to back, if you
so choose.

However, please don’t let a static camera stifle your
creativity, it quickly gets forgotten that your camera has been sat in
the same position for the whole shoot. Be sure to vary the angles and
heights at which you are shooting. Otherwise, before you know it, you’ll
have a whole collection of shots all take from the same point with
little or know variation. Mix it up a bit. Try shooting at the level of
the subject or try a bird’s eye view, looking down onto the subject, but
be careful if you are moving around not to cast any shadows on your
subject!

4. Get the Backdrop Right

Having
a suitable backdrop for your subject matter will play a crucial role in
the overall success of your shots. It’s best to keep it nice and
simple, so it doesn’t interfere with your subject. A plain painted wall
or a large sheet of white or plain colored paper would be ideal.

Think
about how your choice of background contrasts the subject, do you want a
neutral background, or are there tones that may work in complimenting
the shades within your subject. For smaller objects, you may not need a
backdrop as such, but instead require a surface to place the items on,
for which something like black velvet is ideal, as it absorbs light and
looks like a solid black surface.

5. Compose the Shot

The
compositional element of your still life work is an absolutely crucial
part of ensuring that your work is engaging and unique. Consider the
rule of thirds, how can that be applied to your shoot to create a strong
composition. Ensure there are no distractions within the frame, just
the subject and the backdrop.

Be sure to vary the composition of
the subject matter through the shoot and think outside the box. Where
are you leading the eye within the image? Are you utilizing negative
space or might it work to try and fill the frame? Engage with the
subject, what are its defining features? What is it used for? Are you
able to put it into context or does it work as a stand alone subject?

6. Take All Day Over It, If You Need

I
often find that my mentality surrounding a shoot is dependent on the
reason for the shoot. If I am simply taking photos for pleasure or
for myself (as opposed to being assigned work by somebody else), I will
be less stringent with ensuring that all the aspects of the shoot are as
well executed as they can be. This is obviously a bad habit that am
aiming to shed, but when it comes to still life photography, there is no
reason not to get it right. You have as much time as you need to do a
good job!

Unlike a landscape shoot, the light isn’t rapidly
changing and unlike a portrait, you’re subject isn’t going to get bored
of keeping still for long periods of time. Take advantage of this, set
up your subject, lighting, backdrop and camera, try a few shots, then
move things around a bit and have another go. If you get to a point
where you feel like things aren’t going quite right, you can just leave
everything set up, make yourself a cup of tea and come back to it
refreshed later on.

Another advantage is that there’s no excuse
not to have clean and sharp images, take time to get the lighting and
focus just right. If you can get your hands on one, a macro lens will be
ideal for this sort of work, however, if not, try selecting macro mode
on your camera to give you the best chance of capturing the close up
detail in your subject.

7. Get Inspired by the Masters

If
you’re struggling with the lighting, composing or structuring of your
shots, then you need to find some inspiration, and where better to look
than to the original still life masterpieces of years gone by. Have a
search online for renaissance still life artists and observe the
elements of the pieces.

Studying these paintings will help you to
think about form, shades and how the colors work together and will
hopefully give you a few ideas on how you can shape your photography
work to form strong and engaging images.

10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography

8. Develop Your Eye for Still Life Scenes

Now
it’s time for you to have a go yourself. Find a quiet day in your
schedule and set aside some time to practice. Try setting up your camera
and backdrop by a suitably light spot next to a window and get
snapping!

Once you’ve mastered the basics, try getting creative,
experiment with camera angles, lighting angles and alternative light
sources such as candles and lamps. You could even try getting creative
with apertures and use a f/1.8 prime lens to achieve an artistic shallow
focus. However, if you take one thing from this tutorial, let it be
this: still life photography does not have to be of fruit and flowers! Find some unique and inspiring subject matter that gets you excited
and start shooting!

10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography

9. Perfect Your Post-Production Process

Working with your pictures after the shoot shouldn’t feel like a chore. It should be fun!

Photoshop actions are often touted as a great time-saver, but to my mind the biggest advantage they give you is a highly repeatable workflow. Instead of having to work through all the steps from scratch, and action makes a set of choices for you, then you teak and adjust to make things perfect.

Here’s a short example of an action in action, from the set Actions for Food Photography from GraphicRiver:

10. You Can Make a Living With Still Life Photography

There
is plenty of demand for still life photography, particularly now that
it is so simple for photographers to provide images for stock
photography libraries. Once you’ve got your shots, don’t
be afraid to share them online! You could even try selling your pictures on
PhotoDune, ThemeKeeper’s stock photography market. So each time you set up a shoot,
work as if you are on assignment, you never know, your still life work
might even make you a few bucks along the way!

Still life encompases a lot of subjects, and many photographers specialize in sub-genres: food phography, product photography, architectural photography, and catalog work are popular ones.

If you’re interested in doing still life professionally, Dave Bode’s course, Fundamentals of Still Life and Product Photography, is a great place to start.

Never Stop Learning!

As the oldest of photographic traditions, still life has a rich and extremely varied history. There’s no end to inspiration, and no end to the learning you can do simply by engaging the world around you with your camera. Here are a few still life tutorials to explore next:

  • 10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography
    Macro
    Finding Macro Inspiration at Home
    Marie Gardiner
  • 10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography
    Macro
    Make, Find, and Improvise: Creative Backgrounds For Still Life and Macro Photographs
    Marie Gardiner
  • 10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography
    Macro
    Focus Stacking for Extended Depth of Field
    Marie Gardiner
  • 10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography
    Colour Correction
    100% Perfect Color in Product Photos With a ColorChecker
    Jeffrey Opp
  • 10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography
    Product Photography
    Photograph on a Purely White Background
    Jeffrey Opp
  • 10 Top Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography
    Product Photography
    How to Photograph Paintings and Prints with Copy Lighting
    Jeffrey Opp