10 Quick Tips for Better Still Life Photography

Still life photography is a classic art form that every photographer would be foolish not to try at least once in their career. In the early days, shooting still life images was commonplace as scenes which did not move were ideal for the long exposures required by the cameras of the time. Years on, despite the advancement of camera technology, the genre is still popular and continuing to develop as an art form.

Still life photography is also a lucrative area to find employment. Restaurants, cafés, magazines, newspapers and businesses with new products all require the skills of a still life photographer to capture their products in an attractive way and are willing to pay good money to photographers with the right skills. If this sounds interesting, you’d better get practising.

But where to start? Below are a few tips on how to set up your first still life photo shoot and how to improve your photography skills to a professional level.

1. Play With What You’ve Got

You don’t need a fancy studio; a simple but effective home still life photography studio can be set up at home on a budget. All you need is a table, a large piece of card and some lamps.

The subject should be placed on one half of the card, and the other half should be curved upwards behind it to form an infinity backdrop. It’s a good idea to place the table next to a window for extra light. The lamps can be placed around the subject for additional lighting or can be used as the main source of light if you’re shooting in a darkened room.

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2. Let there be Light

lamp light

Lighting is the most important element to the professional appearance of the final image. As mentioned above, shooting by a window will give you extra light but you will have less control over this and the shadows will move with the sun’s position. To get back control, try darkening the room and using your lamps as your only light source.

Play around with the setup: light from the side, from above, from the front. Try as many different angles as you can, and notice how the shadow moves and what effect this has on the final scene.

If you’re lighting from behind, make sure that there is no shadow cast on the subject from you or your equipment. There are countless times when a still life photographer hasn’t noticed the shadow of a pesky cable dangling in the frame. 

3. Choose your subject carefully

still life photograph of rolls of thread

It’s a good idea to photograph a subject which is personal to you. This will give you a stronger connection to the scene and a better idea of how you want the subject to be represented. Think outside the box too; there are already a million still life photographs of fruit bowls and flower arrangements.

It’s a good idea to start shooting single subjects. Once you have mastered this, you can mix it up a little. Look for contrasting colours, textures, and shapes to create interesting images. Be aware that reflective surfaces such as metal and glass are difficult to get right, so maybe leave these out at the beginning.

4. Apply the rules

Composition is almost as important as lighting. A good composition can ensure that your photograph is engaging, unique and memorable whereas a poor composition will make it instantly forgettable. All the usual rules apply to still life photography. Find out more about them in our guide to better photography composition.

Always make sure you vary the composition for every shoot. Think about leading lines and where you want the eye to be drawn and come up with different ways of achieving this. Question the scene in front of you: What makes it unique? What are its defining features? What makes it work? Once you have a composition you are pleased with, move around the lighting to see what effect this has.

5. Don’t Move

camera on a tripod

We would always recommend using a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release for still life photography. This will allow you to use the longer shutter speeds that come with smaller apertures. A small aperture will enable the subject to be in sharp focus from front to back, allowing the eye to wander around the entirety of the scene. Alternatively, a larger aperture and a shorter exposure can blur the background and enhance the focus on a particular element.

6. Keep it Simple

While playing around with the colour of your backdrop is a great way to increase contrast and add more interest to your image, it’s best to keep it simple. You’ll notice that most successful still life photography features a single colour backdrop which doesn’t detract from the subject. You might want to experiment with material backdrops. Adding folds and ruffles to the setting can add a sense of luxury; just look at the still life paintings of Cezanne and Manet. However, the vast majority of still life photographers choose to use white paper or a smooth block colour for a refined, modern look. A good tip is to use black velvet. This absorbs all light and gives a very smooth finish.

Keep it simple with the subject too. Carefully consider what each element adds to the scene, how the items interact with each other, how they contrast with the backdrop, and if they really need to be there. Be brutal. If an item is redundant, get rid of it.

7. Approach it from another angle

still life photo from above

When using a tripod it can be tempting to leave it in the same place. Make sure you don’t do this and try experimenting with a number of different positions and angles – you never know what you might find. A birds-eye view, as in the image above, can sometimes lead to an intriguing shot that really brings the scene to life.

8. Keep it Up

Still life photography has a distinct advantage over other types of photography in that it doesn’t move. In landscape photography the light changes quickly, in portraiture the subject fidgets and gets bored. Use the advantage well and take your time over the shoot.

You might be tempted to take down the set straight after you feel you have the shots you wanted, but you should let the photos sink in for a bit before you do so. You will always benefit by going back to them after a break and you might even find that you need to do so. There’s nothing worse than realising you’ve made a mistake and having to set it all back up again.

9. Experiment

still life photography set up with skull and bottles

Don’t take shots of the same scene over and over again. While this may well keep you interested, your audience will be guaranteed to get bored quickly. Try out different coloured backdrops and materials, and alternate your subjects for things you might not have considered shooting. Try shooting different textures and sizes of objects and, when you feel comfortable, try your hand at reflective surfaces.

10. Get Inspired

While still life might now be an established genre of photography, it’s been a well-established genre of painting for much, much longer. Take advantage of this by checking out how the masters of still life paintings set up and lit their compositions. Bring a sketchbook or notepad to a gallery with still life work on show. Note down or sketch the torrent of ideas that are bound to come your way.

Once you feel you have a good grasp of still life photography, you should aim to create a portfolio of your work. Don’t just cram in all your best shots, but try to keep your portfolio linked to a particular theme. For more advice on this, check out our guide to compiling a photography portfolio.

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