Still life photography is the practice of arranging and capturing ordinary, inanimate objects, and it’s something every photographer should learn. Mastering still life photography is an important skill for one reason; it teaches you how to create an image, rather than just capture it. Having complete control over a shot teaches you to consider and develop a greater understanding of things like composition and mood, and what photographer wouldn’t benefit from that?
This article will take you through the basics of still life photography, show you what you’ll need to get started and how to set up your next shoot for success.
What equipment you’ll need
You might have seen elaborate product shoots with lightboxes, diffusers and fancy cameras with fancy gizmos attached to them. If you’re just starting out, you can pull off great-looking still life images without any of that stuff.
Both cropped sensor and full-frame cameras will do the trick, however, if you’re looking to
buy a camera specifically for still life, investing in a full-frame camera is definitely recommended. For beginners, the only features your camera needs to have are:
- A tethering feature
- Multiple focus points
- RAW format option
If you’re selling your images to stock agencies or printing them, then you’ll need more expensive lenses to produce sharp, high-res images. If you’re not, there’s only one lens you need: a 50mm.
It’s as one-size-fits-all as you’re going to get and is exactly what you need for shots like flatlays, tablescapes and straight on portrait-like shots.
Keep in mind that the focal length of your lenses will be different on different camera types. On a full-frame camera, a 50mm will act like a 50mm. On a cropped sensor camera, however, it will behave more like an 80mm.
No tripod, no still life. A good tripod allows you to shoot in low light and gives you the stability required for slow shutter speed photography.
The simple act of touching the button on your camera can often be enough to produce ‘shake’ into the shot. If you don’t have one, one way to avoid the shake is to simply use your camera’s self-timer function.
Before you start setting up
Still life can’t be rushed.
Before you even switch your camera on, spend some time thinking about the story you want to tell, the mood you want to set and ultimately, what you want your photograph to achieve. This could mean whipping up a few sketches, keeping a log of all your ideas or just experimenting with props or textures to get a rough idea.
Planning beforehand will give you a clearer vision when you finally get behind the lens and save you time (and frustration) during the shoot.
The right props
In some cases, you might be shooting something as you found it, which definitely makes things easier. However, if you’re shooting your own arrangement, you’re going to need some subject matter.
What’s great about still life is you can use just about anything lying around the house, such as cutlery, food items or stationery. As long as the items you choose work together cohesively—texturally, contextually and colourwise—the possibilities are endless.
One word of advice, shiny things tend to cause some problems. Reflections can be tricky, but not impossible, to manage so if you can avoid them, you’ll be saving yourself some strife.
The right lighting
The good news is, you don’t need expensive indoor lighting equipment to bring your still lifes to life. If you’ve got a window with good light (generally the one in the kitchen works well), then you’ve got a great place to set up your ‘studio’.
Natural light has an amazing softness and even glow to it, however, you shouldn’t be limited to it. Depending on the mood of your shot, experiment with other light sources such as candlelight or even lamps with daylight-balanced bulbs.
Equally as important as the type of light is the direction of light.
Most still lifes look best when the light is coming from the side. By contrast, when you backlight your subject, you can end up with a photo that’s too dark. If you front-light your subject, you get an image that looks a little flat and dimensionless because you rob your shot of beautiful shadow play.
Whatever lighting you choose, and direction you wish to cast it from, just make sure it is contributing to the story you’re telling and mood you’re cultivating.
The right backdrop
A major part of still life is often overlooked—the background.
If you look at the old Dutch masters of still life, you’ll notice that the backgrounds are always simple and distraction-free. The same should be true of your still life photographs. The photo should be all about the objects, so opt for a simple background that doesn’t overpower your subject matter with colour or patterns.
Similar to your props and light source, you can find great backgrounds around the house. Pieces of fabric, boards, walls and natural surfaces like wood or stone.
The ‘right’ setup
Now that you have all the ingredients—props, lighting, backdrop—it’s time to have some fun arranging and crafting your shot.
Just like at the start, take your time to experiment with different combinations, positions and angles. Although there is no formula for creating an exceptional still life, following rules like the Golden Ratio and Rule of Thirds will never steer you wrong. Learning to build a shot around these compositional rules will also translate to better photos when you’re away from your kitchen studio and on the go.
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