How to Get Started with Still Life Photography: Creating a Floral Inspired Image | Leah McLean | Skillshare

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How to Get Started with Still Life Photography: Creating a Floral Inspired Image

teacher avatar Leah McLean

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

12 Lessons (28m)
    • 1. Class Intro

    • 2. Class Project

    • 3. Getting Inspired

    • 4. Gathering Your Supplies

    • 5. Lighting

    • 6. Thoughts on Color

    • 7. Composing Your Scene

    • 8. Shooting with Studio Light

    • 9. Shooting with Natural Light

    • 10. Editing Your Images

    • 11. Print snd Share Your Images

    • 12. Final Thoughts

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About This Class

In this class we will go over the basics of creating an art inspired, still life image. Students will learn basic composition, light setups, color theory, and tips for arranging the scene.

This class is for photographers who understand how to use their camera on manual mode and a basic understanding of off-camera-flash is recommended but not required.

The skills learned here can be applied to different photography genres and art mediums. Light, composition and color theory can be useful in many creative mediums.

For this project I will be using grocery-store white flowers, a number of lemons and limes as well as a vase and a strip of fabric. 


You can follow along with the same props or create your own scene with different colors and textures. 

I will walk you through my process of inspiration, designing the shot, basic composition and color theory, using both natural light and off camera flash as your main light source, editing your image and making your final print.

At the end of this project you will be able to create your own lovely, floral photograph to display and share at home and on-line.

Camera with lens and editing software. Off-camera-flash is optional.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Leah McLean


Hello, I'm Leah.

I am a fine art portrait and still life photography that is obsessed with all things off-camera-flash and art related. 

I have had the incredible experience to be published in a photography magazine and was selected as one of the Top 100 Female Photographers to Watch in 2019. I have been a working photographer for 15 years and teach photography on-line and in-person. I lead a Fine Art Photography community, The Salted Collective, where we talk Off-Camera-Flash, Still Life and Fine-Art Portraiture, all day, every day. Come and join us if you want. :) Follow along on IG (@thesaltedimage) for behind the scenes and current images.

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1. Class Intro: My name is Leah and I am a fine art photographer, specializing in photos, portraiture and still life photography. I had been published in Click Magazine, had my work exhibited in an International Photography Collection and was also voted one of the top 100 female photographers to watch by major global photography community. Although, I think those things are pretty awesome, one of my proudest achievements is leading the salted collective. The collective is a group of artists passionate about sharing and encouraging and inspiring each other to create. I am so excited to share what I have learned in my photography journey with other artists. In this class, I'm going to share my perspective and personal workflow and still life photography. We're going to go over aspects of color theory, design and compositional elements. I'll also demonstrate the lighting set-ups I use for both naturally and off-camera flash. Throughout this course, we're going to be building our own floral and citrus inspired still life arrangements. I want to share with you how you can get inspired and then turn that inspiration into your own creative image. This class would also be a great fit for artists who would like to take their own reference photos for their still life paintings and drawings. After this course, you have the skills you need to create your own still life arrangement. So let's get started. I'll see you in class. 2. Class Project: For our class project, we're going to create our own citrus and floral art inspired sea life. I'll cover everything from finding inspiration in art, to printing and sharing our final image. The three key factors that I'm going to focus on are composition, color, and lighting. I'll show you some simple lighting setups for flash and for natural light. We will be sketching out our ideas, gathering supplies, and editing our images in simple but effective ways. Finally, we're going to learn how to print our images for the best look so that we can display them in our own homes and share them with others. For our class project, I would recommend that you gather all the supplies that you're going to need before you start shooting your session.Let's go ahead and get started with our lessons and talk about where we can find inspiration. 3. Getting Inspired: I love this quote by the artist Robert Henri. "All real works of art look as though they were done in joy." Before we even pick up our camera, we're going to talk about the things that inspire us to create and how you can find and organize those ideas. Inspiration can come at any time and it definitely helps to be ready to grab it. Jot down your ideas in your phone or a notebook before they disappear. You can be on the lookout for inspiration and find it all around you all the time. Is there a song that makes your throat tight with emotion every time you hear it? Has a movie poster or advertisement ever stopped you in your tracks? Or have you ever smelled something that just hit you with a wave of nostalgia. When you find yourself feeling strong emotions towards something, go ahead and stop and figure out what it is that's grabbing your attention and why. Really so much of the world around us can inspire a creative process. For instance, I was washing my hands at a restaurant several months ago and I noticed that the soap packaging said peony and plums. I thought to myself that would make a pretty intriguing subject. I love peonies and I'm never photographed them with plums. Next time peonies were in season, I went ahead and had a peony and plum inspired session, all because of the title on the soap packaging. That goes to say, you can find inspiration in the strangest places, including public bathrooms. I love looking at art and finding inspiration through studying art from all different ages. Learn from the masters, study their work, even do your best to duplicate it. In the process, you're going to learn foundations of color and light and composition. Then you can use to craft pictures of your own where own voice is going to shine through. Don't get stuck in using their exact methods, but use it as a springboard for you to find your own style. I also use Pinterest as a way to organize my ideas. I pinned paintings with shapes and colors that I liked. I grabbed color pallets from what I envisioned, and I save some diagrams and shapes and compositions. Once I had my board put together, I take a good look at analyzing it to see what was coming up over and over. I notice simple color scheme, neutrals plus two to three subdued colors. A harmonious color scheme with greens and yellows and blues. A pop of an accent color like red fabric, full scene with eye level placement and window light with a dark background. Once I had that done, I made some quick sketches of composition and color ideas that I had. If you aren't comfortable with sketching, I would recommend you take some of the great Skillshare classes on the subject. I'm even going to link some for you that I enjoyed in the resources. Once you have your ideas in place, you can begin to gather your supplies. Let's talk about that in the next lesson. 4. Gathering Your Supplies: For this lesson, I'm going to go over the supplies we're going to need for the class project. I like to have all my supplies gathered beforehand, so that I'm not running all over the place trying to find things while I'm trying to shoot. This is going to be a simple arrangement with just a few elements. I think most of the items that you need, you'll probably be able to find around your own home, plus one trip to the grocery store. One of the first items I'd recommend you find, is some kind of container to hold your flowers. I picked two that I thought would work well. I picked this white pitcher because of the smooth texture and I think it will be a nice contrast from the bumpy lemons. It is nice to get a variety of looks from just one session. If you find other containers that are going to work for you, I would definitely go ahead and grab more than one. I also found this metal pitcher. I like that it is so different from the white pitcher. It is very rustic and dark and it's going to give me a lot more variety from my session. I do try to get a lot of looks from one session since the flowers don't last that long. I love to include fabrics in my still-life images. They were a very common element in still-life paintings, and I really think that they add to that whole painterly look. Again, I just looked around my home and tried to find some fabrics that I thought would go well with my planned color scheme. I've planned a very harmonious color scheme for our project, with mostly yellows, greens, and then of course, the white of the flowers. Knowing that, I looked around for fabrics that would complement the look. My first option is this silky fabric. I really like the sheen to it and I love the way that it drapes and folds. I really love what it adds in contrast and texture, and I think it helps to give the image a timeless look. I grabbed this cream scarf thinking that it would be a nice option. Again, I like the way it drapes and I like all the texture in the fabric. I like that the scarf is an off-white. I do try to avoid pure white objects as it tends to draw the eye in an image. I really want the focal point to be the flowers. My last option for fabric is this small piece of lace that I got a couple years ago at a fabric store. It has been in countless pictures. It's almost a little sad, but I have definitely gotten my $3 out of it. Let's talk about the star subjects of our still-life image. I knew that I wanted some white flowers, so I went to the grocery store and my only option were these little beauties. I like how these flowers are round at the bottom and they kind of mirror the shape of one of our containers. We're also going to be including some citrus in the image. When I went to the grocery store, I grabbed myself a variety of lemons and limes. When I was selecting these items, I tried to find some that had a variety of textures and colors. I tried to get no two that were alike. I also had some little red filler flowers that I had bought for a session several weeks ago and they're still doing pretty good. I thought that I might try to include them in a shot just as an accent color. Some other odds and ends that you may want nearby is a knife to cut your citrus, floral scissors to shape and cut your flowers, some household clips, wire, and floral foam will also help you to have more control of the placement of your flowers. If you find that you don't have any suitable containers or fabric around your home, you can always check in with friends and family and see if they'll loan you something or you can head up to the thrift store and get some great deals. That is where I got the majority of my containers and my fabrics. You definitely don't have to spend a lot of money for these sessions. I always just try to make do with what I have. Go ahead and start gathering your supplies. In the next lesson, I'm going to talk about how I light my images with off-camera flash and natural light. See you in the next lesson. 5. Lighting: Artists who inspired my photographs may have lived hundreds of years ago. They may have used paint brushes and paint to craft their images. But we are going to use light to craft ours. Let's talk about the lighting that we are going to use for this project. My favorite tool when it comes to photography is most definitely off-camera flash. With off-camera flash, I can create any kind of light whenever I want and wherever I want. The possibilities are really endless. For this session though, I'm going to keep it very simple, using just one light. I often use a basic speed light, but for today I'm going to use my street light 360, which is kind of a flash strobe hybrid. You really don't need that. Speed light will do just fine. The modifier I'm going to be using with my flash is the Glow 28 inch Foldable Beauty Dish. I really love this modifier. It's a great size for selecting images, and it's small enough that I can move it around quickly and easily. I also like to have poster board on hand. I can use that to block light and to reflect light. I like to have white poster board to use to kick back some light onto my image, and I also like having the black to block light. One more thing I like to have on hand is this black foam, I can use this to shape the light with even more precision. You definitely don't have to have off-camera flash, although I do highly recommend it. It's a really fun tool to have, and it will open up so many possibilities in lighting. If you have natural light, that works wonderfully as well and you can make some really great images with it. Let's move on to color theory. 6. Thoughts on Color: There are three main concepts that I tend to focus on when shooting still-life images. They are lighting, composition, and color. For this lesson, we'll talk more about our color choices and I will share with you my thought process on our citrus-themed project. My inspiration for the session was a dramatically lit painting by Margaretha Roosenboom. The elements that really grabbed my attention was just the simple arrangement of white flowers combined with the dramatic light. I had seen other paintings featuring white flowers with lemons, and I decided I would combine those two elements. Once I started playing with these colors and seeing what materials I had on hand, I decided to cut out the blues and just stick with the yellows and the greens. When working with colors, we want to keep in mind the four characteristics of color and try to keep a variety of each. The four characteristics of color are the hue, which is basically the name of the color, like yellow or green, value which is the lightness or darkness of a color, intensity or chroma which is how richly saturated a color is, and temperature which refers to the relative warmth or coolness of a color. Make your images your own by keeping in mind the characteristics of colors and using a variety of them. For instance, when I picked out the lemons, I tried to find a variety of yellows, some were more richly saturated than others. There's quite a bit of green, but it is a variety of shades. I like to keep a mix of color temperatures, but I do want either warm or cool to be dominant. The last thing I think about with color is keeping a variety of values. A good trick for checking your values is to think of the image in black and white. You should have a nice range of dark, middle, and light values. When you're planning your color scheme, try to keep a variety of values and colors in order to keep your image interesting. I do use a lot of neutral colors in my photographs, and I think about them a little differently than I do other colors. For me, neutrals are white, gray, black, beige, and some browns, really most of the tones. Because these colors tend to go with pretty much any other color, I categorize them a little bit differently. If I do use a higher intensity color, I generally reserve it for small accent points. The accent colors should be a contrasting color to your dominant colors. I like to sprinkle accent colors throughout the image to keep the eye moving and exploring the scene. One of my favorite photography resources that isn't technically a photography resource, is a book by the painter Greg Albert called, 'The Simple Secret to Better Painting.' In it he gives some great advice on color. His advice is mostly some and a bit. Mostly some and a bit, can be used with each of the properties of color to give your color palette diversity and interests. In this book he says never to make any two intervals the same. This rule can easily be applied to how you use color in your images. I keep his advice in my head when picking my colors. Not counting the neutral colors in my frame, I know that green is going to be the dominant color. Yellow will be my secondary color, and then I decided to go ahead and experiment with adding accents of red. Color is very personal and subjective. You may like deep or rich tones or primary colors or desaturated hues. Keep these dynamics in mind while you think of your colors and place them throughout your frame. Now that we've talked about color, let's go ahead and talk about composition. 7. Composing Your Scene: One of the main reasons I love shooting still life images is that I get to direct every aspect of the frame. Nothing is moving and I have the power to control each and every element in my picture. Its success or failure compositionally is entirely dependent on the choices I make, and I can't blame it on the sun being in my eyes or my child running off to chase a butterfly. Composition is of utmost importance when arranging your still life image, and I have a few rules that I keep in mind when I'm arranging the elements in my frame. Those rules are, shape and variety. For our class project, we're going to be keeping a very simple arrangement and even though we don't have a ton of elements in our frame, we're still going to be able to get quite a bit a variety. You only need a few items in your image in order to develop a strong center of interest for your viewer. Make sure that those items vary in texture, size, shape, and color. When you begin arranging your scene, make sure that you are keeping the distance between your subjects varied. Just because it's a simple arrangement, it doesn't mean it needs to be boring. I had mentioned the author Greg Albert in a previous lesson, and just like his rule of color with mostly some and a bit, I also keep his rule of composition in mind which is, vary your intervals. This idea is in my mind when I place the elements in my frame, and where I end up putting certain textures, shapes, and colors. For instance, I liked having the bumpy organic texture of the lemon next to the smooth white picture. The same idea goes with the placement of the lemons and limes. I tried to overlap them to show depth and I also varied the colors so that I didn't have big chunks and blobs of yellow or green. I started simple in building complexity by adding each additional element one at a time. Look for ways to add variety of contrast through shape, size, color, and texture. I recommend that you start using a simple dark background. This will help you to focus on your arrangement and simplify the learning process. Something that helps me when building my floral arrangements is just to think about my underlying shape, I usually try to build an asymmetrical circle, oval or triangle. There is a time and place for symmetry, but most of the time you're going to want to build an asymmetrical group. But I really like to center my compositions, I think it makes my focal point very strong and clear. Of course, that's just my preference, you need to experiment with the compositions that match your own unique voice. Have fun with the process and explore and experiment to find out what you like. Let's go ahead and start shooting our citrus theme project. 8. Shooting with Studio Light: My favorite way to light select images is definitely in my studio with my flash and my strobes. I love the precision the off-camera flash gives me, and I much prefer it over natural light. Now I know not everyone feels that way and I recommend that you go with the light that you like the most. I generally start with my light placed at a straight angle as if it was a window. My flash was at 1/32 Flash Power and my settings were an aperture of F10 1/250 shutter speed, and ISO of 100. I placed the light so that the front edge extended in front of my flowers would wrap around. I wanted more light on my background, so I took off my grid. A grid is used to direct the light more precisely and when you take the grid off, it allows more light to cover the scene. For my fruit, I wanted to keep the arrangement balanced and I really had to think about how much yellow to go on one side versus how much green. Yellow holds a lot more visual weight because it draws the eye and the green kind of faded into the background. I tried to keep my lemons separated by either a line or fabric or something else to break up the amount of yellow. If the image seems out of balance, go ahead and just keep adjusting and tweaking until you're happy with the look. I added a reflector to fill in the shadows and brighten the scene a bit. I generally shoot with my subject centered and I know lots of people say you shouldn't shoot that way, but I like it, so I do it. If there's rules that I'm telling you, feel free to break them if you prefer something else. If you prefer to shoot with the rules of third or in some other composition, go for it, this is your project, make it your own. After I felt happy with the amount of images I had with the white picture, I decided to go ahead and change to the metal canister. Again, I'm always looking for a way to add variety to intervals, textures, colors, and the shapes of my picture. I went ahead and cut the lemons to add some different shapes to my arrangement. For this image, I didn't like how the fabrics were of equal length. I went ahead an adjusted so that one end fell further than the other. I feel like it's a subtle change, but it really makes a big difference in the image. At this point, I decided to move my subject closer to the background so more of the detail of my backdrop would be in the image. I tried a variety of angles with my light changing the position and the height. In some shots I placed more light on the background than in others. In here I angled the light so that the background would fall to shadows. You really don't have to have off-camera flash in order to do this project, know that you can use window light with great success. Let's go ahead and move on to the next lesson. 9. Shooting with Natural Light: I photographed our class project with both off-camera flash and natural light. Let's go ahead and go over the natural light session. My approach to working with natural light is just the same as off-camera flash. Light is light and it follows the same rules regardless of if it's coming from the sun, or from a flash, or strobe. One of the bonuses of flash is that I really have precise control over the direction that the light is coming from. When I'm using natural light I aim to keep very directional light, just like I would with a flash. The room that I was in had multiple windows and doorways with lots of light coming into it. I shut all the doors and I also hung a black tablecloth over one of the windows. For the window that I was using as my main light source, I went ahead and hung a shear curtain. When using a window as your light source, you probably want to use a sheer curtain or even double up several shear curtains to make your light nice and soft. In this room, my subject was really close to my background, so I went ahead and hung some black cloth over the furniture and all the clutter that was behind my subject. Once I was happy with the way that the light was hitting the flowers, I went ahead and added some lemons and limes. After I got a few shots with the green fabric that I liked, I went ahead and switched to the cream scarf. I even tried doubling up the green fabric with the cream scarf in order to try to hide my IKEA stool. I wanted to keep it covered because I'm pretty sure everybody in the planet would recognize it. I wanted to try to fill in the shadows on the left side of the image, so I put my camera on a tripod, set my timer for 10 seconds, I grabbed some white poster board, and I used it to kick some of the light back onto the shadowed part of the flower. I tried the same technique with the black poster board just to give some more shadows to the top and to the side. Now let's go ahead and go to our next lesson. 10. Editing Your Images: I will admit editing my images is the least favorite part of my photography workflow. Because of that, I keep my post-processing very simple with a minimal amount of editing. Occasionally, I'll pull an image into Photoshop if I need to extend my Canvas or do anything beyond the most basic of cloning. Let me go ahead and show you my normal editing process. Now, the great thing about off camera flash is that most of the work has already been done for me. You can see this is my straight out of camera file. The first thing I'm going to do is crop it because it's crooked, and I usually use this little angle here, go right across over there and there we go. Now, I have it cropped. The two main areas I'm going to work in are my tone curve panel and I'll come down here and I'll just give a slight S curve. Bring down my shadows and bring out my highlights. After that, I go back up to the main area and I bring down my highlights, bring up, increase my texture. I really think this image is very close to how I want it. I might remove the shadow just a little bit and increase my exposure just a tad. Most of my editing is spent doing Dodge and Burn. I do that by selecting the brush tool and then right down here, I have some presets made, one for cloth highlights and one for cloth shadows. I'm going to go into the highlights and I'm just going to go over quickly the highlight areas that I want to showcase even more. I am extremely sloppy, I'm just letting you know that. Once I have that done, I'm going to go ahead and brighten up my lemons a little bit. I'm going to go over and select New and then cloth shadows. I'm going to come in here and just go over the shadow areas. I'll usually go in to the shadows around that lemons. There we go, here's my before, there's my after. Now, I'm going to come down to the HSL panel and adjust my colors. I think my lemons are a little more saturated than I would like to see and plus I want to remove a little bit of the yellow from the green in my plants. I'm going to take saturation down, just smidge. I really just like the hue right there. I might even try taking the luminance down in my yellows. I'm going to also try to remove some of the orange in the image. Just take that down a tiny bit, I'm at negative 15. Still greens, I tend to like my greens to be a little blue. There we go and I would consider that image done. Let's do one more. This was my natural light image, and these generally take a little bit more work. The first thing I'll do is make this a vertical crop. I like to center compose, put it right there. This one you can tell is a little underexposed and I'm going to go ahead and just fix that first. Then I'll come down to my S curve and then back on up, bring in my highlights a little. For this one, I might try to bring in the shadows because they're pretty dark and then my texture. Once again, come down to HSL, now I'm going to do my brush tool. It's on highlights, and I'm going to go over the highlights as quickly as I can. Usually, I'm not quite so sloppy, but I am trying to rush, just so you're not having to watch a super long video, but I am pretty sloppy so I admit it. I'm coming in, going through the shadows just to deepen them, so I can tell right now that this is too intense. But if you've never used Lightroom before, I recommend you give it a try, you can get it with a 30-day trial at Once I'm there, I'm going to go back down to my HSL panel. Again, I'm going to remove the yellows from my greens so here is my yellows, I'm going to take down my saturation, not quite that much, but maybe about right there. I can take my green down and desaturate it but I think for this one, I will desaturate my greens and my yellows, highlights contrasts. Now, here is my before and there is my after. It's just a little bit more contrasty. The shadows are little deeper, there you go. That would be how I edit. You can see it's very simple and quick, and I don't spend a lot of time here. You can download a trial version of Lightroom at There are many other options out there for editing your images. Find the one that best suits your style of editing. Each of us will choose to process our images differently. But if you enjoy using textures or overlays, then please feel free to do those. Regardless of how you choose to edit your image, I would love to see the result. Please share your images in the project area. 11. Print snd Share Your Images: I am guilty of having thousands of images that I have worked hard on that never see the light of day, they just live in my computer's memory. Make it a point to print and share your work. After my sessions, I always try to choose a couple of my favorites, and move them into a folder that I know I will print or share from later. I really love how Still Life look on Canvas and I've had a couple of printed through ProDPI and color ink. Another great option is to have your images made into items that you can give as gifts, like tapestries, cell phone covers, shower curtains, rugs, you name it and somebody will print your image on it. These types of items make great gifts for friends and family. You work hard on your photos, and they're worth the effort to display and share. I would love to see if you've printed an item from your Still Life images. Please share in the project's area. Thank you so much for joining me and I cannot wait to see your work of arts. 12. Final Thoughts: Thank you so much for taking my first Skillshare class. I hope that it was helpful and that you are inspired to go create your own floral works of art. I am so excited to see what you have created. Please, share your images in the projects area. Also, feel free to leave a review and give me some feedback on how I can make a better class. Thank you so much for joining me and I cannot wait to see your work of art.