No matter where you are or what you have around you, there is always the potential to take a beautiful photograph.
Still life photography is about taking everyday objects and photographing them in an unique, engaging way. The purpose for doing so could be general, with the intent of challenging yourself to bring complexity to a seemingly simple object. It’s also commonly used for commercial purposes, such as with still life product photography and food photography.
Regardless of your purposes, still life photography is a timeless technique that can provide you with stunning results. And to help you get started, we’ve put together this quick guide on how to master the skill, including still life photography examples and expert tips for taking impactful still life shots. Here’s what to know.
What is Still Life Photography?
Still life photography is a photographic art form that turns the lens on inanimate objects—either singular or in a group.
Because the object or objects may not offer a lot of visual complexity on their own, still life photographers use lighting, composition, and framing to increase interest and tell a story about the items they’re featuring. In this way, even something inherently basic like fruit still life photography can take on whole new meanings and messages.
So, what is the focus of still life photography? The object or objects themselves, with other photographic techniques used to enhance without taking over as the central figure. Photographers are able to turn the mundane into the magical, with tons of opportunity for creative design and art direction.
Types of Still Life Photography and Examples
Perhaps the best way to understand this unique genre is to look at still life photography examples. There are various types of still life images that fit within the wider art form, and many photographers find themselves drawn to (or naturally excelling in) one or more of these unique varieties.
While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the most common types of still life photography, all of which are worth exploring if you’re interested in honing your still life skills.
Still Life Product Photography
Product photography is all about creating imagery that sells. And since the product is the star, it’s easy to see how still life techniques apply.
The essentials for basic still life product photography are the same as they are for most other types of still life photography: a tabletop set, a camera, and lighting. The main difference between this and other types of still life images, however, is that the intent is to entice a purchase, rather than to just highlight an object.
Still Life Food Photography
This is one of the most popular varieties within the still life genre, often used by restaurants to highlight menu items, as well as food bloggers and your standard social media user looking to show off a great meal with friends.
Lighting plays a major role in still life images of food and can make all of the difference between whether the viewer wants to dig in or not. It can also be used to achieve certain subsets of food photography, such as dark and moody shots that evoke more emotion than your standard menu image.
Tabletop photography is pretty much what it sounds like: a still life image with objects arranged on a table. This can encompass product or food photography, but it can also be less defined—for example, a simple yet balanced arrangement of otherwise unrelated items.
Found Object Photography
Unlike the types of still life photography noted above, found object photography is less about staging and more about capturing objects in their own environment.
Sometimes the settings are obvious, such as fruit still life photography of a fallen apple in an orchard or the above example of a garden flower. Other times, visual interest comes from seeing an item found somewhere you normally wouldn’t expect to see it—a pair of eyeglasses sticking out of the sand on a beach, for instance.
What Equipment Do You Need for Still Life Photography?
When it comes to how to photograph still life photography, it all starts with having the right equipment. And fortunately, you don’t need much.
Anyone can do still life images with a phone and a ring light, but if you’re looking to create professional-looking shots, then you’ll want to invest a bit more in your gear. Here’s what you’ll need.
Don’t worry about getting a super fancy camera, since you can do a lot with styling and editing. Instead, look for a camera that offers you multiple lens options and that you’re comfortable working with.
Speaking of lenses, opt to have a macro (close-up lens) and telephoto (long-focus lens) available. You can buy lens attachments for your smartphone if that’s the camera that you plan on using.
Again, you can do wonders with a ring light. For best results with your still life photographs, however, you’re probably going to want a light reflector, a flashgun (also called a speedlight or hot shoe flash), and a softbox, the latter of which is particularly key for removing shadows in black and white still life photography.
Props and other materials can help amplify the effect of your still life shots. You don’t necessarily need to purchase anything specific, but it’s a good idea to have a reliable table surface to arrange your items on as well as some tried and true pieces for hitting on certain moods or themes, such as dried flowers or a lace tablecloth.
This will help you keep your camera steady while you work to arrange—and rearrange—your set. The nicer and heavier your camera, the more you’ll want to invest in your tripod, though you can get a pretty sturdy one on the cheap.
7 Tips for Taking Better Still Life Images
How do photographers shoot still life? Just like painters, sketch artists, and filmmakers, still life photographers hone their best practices over time, gradually figuring out what works for them and what doesn’t. You’ll do the same, but there are still some basics of how to do still life photography that are helpful to know as you start to establish what your favorite techniques are.
1. Have a Theme in Mind
Approaching your still life project with a distinct theme will help you narrow in on the appropriate lighting and props that you’ll need to create an effective image. The theme might be broad, like a specific emotion, or you might try to tell a story with your still life, such as the commentary on small apartment living made in the still life photograph above of the watering can and plants on carpet.
2. Play Around with Natural Light
Both color-saturated and black and white still life photography rely on interplays between light and shadow. You’ll often be using your lighting equipment to find the right balance, but you can also use natural light to your advantage. It’s amazing how much extra dimension you can add to an image through the creative use of sunlight or overcast skies.
3. Choose Objects That Complement One Another
If you’re going to have more than one object in the frame, make sure that they complement each other. That doesn’t mean that they have to all be the same type of object, but there should be continuity somewhere, such as in shapes, materials, colors, or general use.
4. Plan, Then Shoot
It always helps to go in with a plan, especially if you’re taking on a new challenge. So instead of just throwing a bunch of stuff together and seeing what works, try to approach each shoot with intention, making conscious and targeted decisions about what goes where and why. This applies to the object or objects you choose for your still life photograph, as well as the composition and framing of your piece.
5. Shoot From Different Angles
A lot of how to photograph still life photography focuses on shooting your image head-on, but why not mix it up? Keep your same set and play around with angle and perspective—your “wow” shot might not be from where you expect.
6. Practice With Both Found and Created Still Life Images
Created still life photography like product and food shots requires unique variations in approach and technique, just as found object still life photography does. So if you really want to excel in the format, it helps to practice with both types. Working with created still life images will help you improve your ability to style sets and optimize your artificial lighting, while found object photography will give you a chance to really exercise your creative eye and learn to frame images in their natural environments.
7. Pick Your Backgrounds Wisely
The wrong background can completely detract from the objects at the focus of the frame. There’s a time and place for patterns and prints in still life photography backgrounds, but in general, simpler backgrounds are the way to ensure your intended items truly take center stage.
As a last helpful hint: practice makes perfect. Don’t feel pressure to hit it out of the park right away with your still life photographs, and instead work on honing your skills over time. The more still life images you shoot, the easier the format will become.
Shining a Spotlight on Lighting
Still Life Photography: Magic of Extra Lights