Still Life Photography: Ideas, Tips, and Theory for Success
Still life photography was born out of an ancient discipline in the visual arts. Already centuries ago, countless artists used the field of still life painting to test and display their technical skills.
Today in modern photography, not so much has changed. The still life image is still an incredibly useful medium to experiment, broaden your creative horizons, and show off your talent.
It can also serve as a useful base for generating new photography ideas and improving the diversity of your portfolio.
Today’s guide is going to delve deeply into the world of still life photography. By the end of this short read, you will understand not just what still life photography is all about and how it is viewed.
You will also have the aesthetic and technical understanding necessary to create excellent still life images by yourself. Without further ado, let’s get right into it!
What is Still Life Photography?
First, let’s lay down some working definitions. Still life photos are prominent in many genres and fields of visual art and design, but their popularity actually leads to a lot of confusion as to what precisely makes a still life and what doesn’t.
In simple words, a still life is a scene that portrays a static (still) set of subjects, usually everyday objects. These can be man-made or natural, inanimate objects or organic (such as plants).
As you can imagine, the arrangement and presentation of these objects – not to mention the choice of props – all play a huge role in how the viewer’s eye perceives a still life photo.
Anatomy of a Still Life Photo
To gain an understanding of how still life photography works in practice, you need to be aware of how it functions at its core.
When you dissect a still life and how it is made, it reveals itself as actually so much more than a visual motif. In truth, still life shots are the intersection where nearly all basic photography skills and techniques come into play at once.
That includes composition, exposure, lighting, aesthetics, complete control of your gear, and working with color.
Thanks to this universality, still life photography is a truly amazing learning tool for photographers of any experience level!
Throughout the rest of this chapter, we will delve deeper into what makes a still life photograph tick and how you can approach its many components without getting overwhelmed.
Created Still Lifes and Their Appeal
Though there are as many types of still life photographs as there are still life photographers, many choose to broadly divide still lifes into one of two categories.
The first of these are created still lifes. The word “created” here references the fact that the props, i.e. your subjects, are staged and carefully posed and put in place.
Because of this, created still lifes usually take place in a studio environment.
However, they don’t have to. You can create a still life scene by arranging props you find out in the outdoors and in natural light!
Created still life photography is seen by many as more beginner-friendly because it affords you unlimited time and creative control over every aspect of your composition.
Found Still Life Photography
As directly opposed to created still life photography, there is the found kind.
For a still life to be found means that for its props to be left as they were in nature, without any involvement on the side of the photographer.
Of course, you can still use artificial lighting (though there are some purists who would argue otherwise), but the main idea is to try and find interesting still life compositions in the world around you instead of staging them.
One word of caution: the found still life photographer faces one particular ethical duty shared with street photographers and many others.
Namely, to be honest about whether a photograph was really “found” or not.
For the sake of your dignity and the integrity of the medium, don’t pass of even minimally created still lifes as found photography!
Technical Guide for Successful Still Life Photography
Now that you should have a basic grasp of the aesthetic and compositional aspects of still life photography, let’s explore the technical side of the medium.
In the following, I’ll go over all the camera settings and key techniques you’ll need for success, including gear, lens requirements, and more!
Recommended Camera Bodies
Of the attributes that make a camera body perfect for still life photography, much of it has to do with sensor size.
The debate between APS-C and full frame cameras will likely never end completely, but larger sensor formats do offer some notable advantages for still life photographers.
The larger the sensor, the more image fidelity you can retain, even at very high ISOs. This is particularly useful for still lifes, which are often shot indoors and preferably without flash.
Larger image formats also offer higher tonality (fine gradation between shades of colors) and more control over depth of field. Again, these kinds of advantages are very nice to have when composing still life photos, particularly in the studio.
For making large-scale prints, the higher average resolution of larger sensors is also helpful.
Other features that routinely help pro cameras sell – such as lightning-fast autofocus, weather sealing, IBIS, and more – are generally a lot less relevant to still life shooters.
The Best Lenses for Still Life Photography
Next to the choice of camera, the lens you pick is among the items that are going to affect the way your photographs turn out the most.
But what makes a lens great for still life photography in particular?
What you should look for are fast apertures for controlling depth of field and ease of working indoors, as well as reliable, ergonomic manual focus.
Of course, overall build quality and value also play a large role.
Other pricey specs, like image stabilization or specialized lens elements, are far less crucial than they are in some other photographic fields.
Which Focal Length to Choose for Still Life Photography?
A normal prime lens of a focal length between 35 and 55mm (full-frame equivalent angle of view) has always been popular in still life photography and remains so. These lenses can be had for cheap, often feature great glass, and tend to be lightweight and easy to use.
Other options include wide-angle lenses, with 28mm being particularly common.
These can give your still life photography a more dramatic look, but you need to take into account the extra real estate offered by the short focal length. Packing enough interesting subject groups into a tighter frame can be challenging!
Note that while zoom lenses have their place, they are really not necessary, and many still life photographers choose to go without them. A simple set of primes can weigh and cost less yet yield optically superior results!
Must-Have Accessories and Gear
What other gear does the pro still life photographer pack in their bags?
While camera and lens are essential, there are a few other considerations, too.
For instance, consider the fact that your subjects never move in still life photography. It’s an amazing opportunity to utilize the full gamut of shutter speed settings, including long exposures.
The only problem? Keeping your camera steady throughout!
A quality tripod will outlast your camera (mine dates from the 1970s and still works as new), can be used in nearly any environment, and will keep your camera stable no matter your photographic situation. It’s a must-have investment!
Other essential gear items for still life photographers include special lens effects filters. For working in monochrome, you’d also want to pick up a few color filters.
These can significantly alter the mood and tone of your still life image in a way that is easily reversible, predictable, and entirely in-camera!
Some still life photographers will also want to add a dedicated flashgun or even a whole studio-grade lighting setup, including light boxes, reflectors, and diffusers. This is optional but can greatly enhance your workflow in the studio.
Basic Still Life Compositions and Technique
Composition is a still life photographer’s bread and butter, arguably the most important skill to master in the genre. Here are a few cool photography techniques that you may practice to refine your compositional skills and get those creative juices flowing.
There are numerous compositional tricks that work well for every photography genre, such as the rule of thirds and others that mostly deal with aesthetic proportion.
However, specifically for still life photography I think there is no better ace to have up your sleeve than layering.
In short, layering is a way of thinking about your final image as a set of boxes instead of one big (and potentially messy) frame.
Still life photographers who work in layers usually begin by choosing one focal point. This is your main subject, and you should strive to direct your viewer’s attention toward it as much as possible.
From this central subject, build outwards, adding more and more layers of peripheral props to fill out the composition.
You can take this literally, too, by placing your subjects within physical frames, such as shelves or boxes that sort objects of interest for the viewer’s eye.
There are many other elements of still life photography composition, of course – too many to cover today! – but so many of them flow out from this central theme of layering and compartmentalizing.
Using Depth of Field Smartly
You might also want to play with your aperture, as shallow depth of field can be very easily used to bring attention to certain aspects of your composition.
There’s no need to exaggerate proportion. Any sense of space at all can greatly help your viewer’s eye traverse the frame of your still life.
In general, the concept of depth and the three-dimensional distances in space between your subjects is a crucial elements of still life composition. Feel free to play around with it!
Since most still life photography ideas emerge and are shot indoors, this gives you a perfect opportunity to make use of that super-fast 50mm f/1.4 lens you might have lying around!
How Use of Lighting Can Transform Any Still Life Photo
Apart from composition, lighting is another huge player that can significantly affect the outcome and look of your still life shots.
Whereas composition greatly affects the way your still life photography is perceived intuitively, lighting plays a much more major role in how the viewer assesses your photo’s emotional nature. In other words, lighting sets the mood!
As in portraiture, aim for lighting that flatters your main subject. Instead of head-on lighting, go for angles that accentuate interesting curves, angles, patterns, and textures.
Many opt for low-key lighting when working with still lifes. This can come out well, as the example above demonstrates. However, it can also risk looking tacky and overdone. Not to mention the potential downsides of making parts of your composition hard to see!
Go for something that genuinely matches the atmosphere you are trying to create instead of sticking with a certain effect just because you’re told it looks “good”.
Remember that there’s also no reason not to use a mix of artificial and natural light where applicable.
A few rays of sunlight coming in through the window can work just as well as a carefully positioned floor lamp.
Prop Selection and Its Effects
As a matter of course, your choice of props seriously changes the way your still life comes across to the viewer. Aim for a certain harmony by designing your selection of props along a pattern or theme.
This can be a location-based theme, like “kitchenware”, or a contextual theme, like “all the things I had in my pocket this last week”, or something else entirely!
Try to use themes like these to help your still life photography stand out and garner interest from your audience.
Artistic Approaches to Still Life Photography
The still life as a tradition emerged in the world of fine art. In that vein, let’s take a look at how still lifes can be an exciting and valuable exercise for artistic photographers today!
The Importance of Still Lifes Within Fine Art Photography
Still life photography continues to hold a certain cachet in the fine art world. Without a photography portfolio that features at least some creative still lifes, many don’t make it far in their careers.
In other words, the same rules apply as in the traditional art scene.
There is a particular appeal in the still life’s limitations – the lack of motion, and the absence of dynamism and action. These elements can appear as hindering the photographer to some, but they actually make the still life a real test of your creative photography skills.
In other words: if you can succeed at making still lifes, then you are far less likely to struggle creatively elsewhere in fine art photography.
Still Life Photos as Narrative
One way in which still life photography is used, especially in artistic contexts, is as a narrative expression. The kinds of inanimate subject matter that still lifes deal with lend itself very easily to storytelling.
To better relate to this thought, imagine the kinds of messages that manmade or natural objects can evoke. What can your possessions say about you? How much could a person learn about your character just by means of one still life?
Work on this theme and see where it leads you – that’s the core of narrative still life photography.
Use of Color
While the use of color has been an integral element of artistic expression on the painted canvas for centuries, photography spent much of its earlier history restricted to monochrome palettes.
Only fairly recently (in historical terms) have photographers been able to freely choose between working in color or black and white.
Generally speaking, those who stick with the latter prefer the daring and stunning still life photography they can produce with careful use of lighting.
For instance, inanimate subject matter can really pop out dramatically under harsh light, whereas a different still life subject might benefit more from soft illumination.
These kinds of differences exist across the board, of course. But when your entire exposure consists only of gradients of whites, greys, and blacks, they stand out more.
Conversely, some may find that interesting clashes of color and high (or low) contrast can make for a much more interesting way to catch the viewer’s attention. Whichever you prefer, make a conscious choice to utilize your color or lack thereof in a creative way!
Working With Textures
Apart from color, the texture is another constant to keep in mind when creatively designing your composition.
Everyday objects vary in consistency, feel, and material. All of those things affect the texture. Consider how the texture changes how the subject reacts to light – and position it accordingly.
Overlaps Between Still Life Photography and Other Genres
Still life photography can very well open the door to various other branches and genres.
This chapter will give you a quick overview of some of the areas where still life photography skills can augment and enhance your existing work in other fields.
The Found Still Life as a Sub-Genre of Landscape Photography
Traditionally, still life has been directly opposed to the art of landscape work, whether in painting or in photography.
However, things aren’t that simple. Many examples of still life photography breach the boundaries between the two by, for example, building still life scenes out of found natural objects in outdoor environments.
Depending on framing and composition, these can impress as both still lifes and landscape photographs at once.
Still Lifes as Architecture
Often, still life photography is used to showcase ordinary objects in an urban setting to display thoughts on architecture. Especially interior architecture and design make heavy use of the medium that way.
In this context, the composition – in the sense of the arrangement and feng shui of all the props – is absolutely the most important factor.
Still Life Images as Documentary Photography
The still life is called such partly because it serves a great documentary purpose. The things that we interact with – objects, items – can tell stories about our lives long after we are no longer able to tell them ourselves.
In this vein, documentary photographers have made use of still lifes to explain and describe the lifestyles, histories, and cultures of others by means of impressively staged low key photography.
The Still Life in Commercial Photography
Of course, making still lifes is not just for highbrow artistes. There are plenty of applications where still life photography can be highly useful commercially!
Let’s take a look at a few of those, shall we?
Product Photography Using Still Life Images
Where the still life really reigns king commercially is in the world of product photography.
Countless brands and corporations use still life photography routinely to show off their designs and build an online portfolio that’s recognizable and sells easily.
Photographers who work in this niche often do double or triple duty – as co-portraitists, architectural photographers, or more.
How the Still Life is the Hidden Star Behind Food Photography
Ever wondered who takes those countless pictures of food you see every day, from Instagram ads to the illustrations on restaurant menus? It’s food photographers, of course!
Though some don’t think of it in this way, food photography is another one of many examples of still life photography in day-to-day contexts. Arranging food is just like arranging any other prop, with the critical difference that it doesn’t need to just look good aesthetically but also be convenient to eat!
Still Life Photography as an Essential Expression of Your Creative Vision
As you have seen today, still lifes are an incredibly versatile and expressive medium.
Whether to advance your career, expand your creative horizons, or learn something new, still life photography encompasses a wealth of opportunities no matter your experience level!
This really does make them one of the most essential creative photography expressions to master, in my opinion.
I hope that this guide got you started off on the right track and motivated to learn more. I suggest you start off by researching examples of still life photography composition and expression that interests you.
Try to replicate it using the photographic techniques we covered today, and see where you end up!