Still Life Photography Tips

Still Life photography is as simple or as tricky as you want to make it. In still life photography you can manipulate background, lighting, angle, and composition so you can literally ‘draw’ what you like.

According to some views on this subject if you create a scene and shoot it that’s Still Life, but if you discover a scene and shoot it that’s a snapshot.

I don’t really get the distinction as far as a Still Life scene goes. Here are some examples of a painter’s still life:

Take a look at the Old Violin by William Harnett 1886 – tell me that doesn’t look photographic and carefully composed right down to the envelope. But it could just as easily be a snapshot the painter took with his eyeballs and got down on his canvas.

Still Life Violin

How about the, Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber by Juan Sánchez Cotán (1602)?

Is it a ‘snapshot’ or a real Still Life? Did the artist arrange those elements, wait for the right lighting to cast that neat compositional shadow or just fudge it?

Still Life Fruit

Or did he walk past the scene on the way out the door and decide to set up his easel and capture it?

Who really cares?

The main thing is does it do anything for you?

Does it communicate to you in any way?

What does it communicate?

How about the Van Gogh vase of flowers?

Arranged or snapped?


Okay, that’s enough theory. Let’s take some shots!

Still Life Photography Tips continued…

Still Life Photography Tips P.2

There are several ways to shoot a still life. If you have lights, backdrops, plate cameras that have adjustable settings you wouldn’t be reading this anyway, so let’s cut to the chase.Still Life shots are good to practice your ‘eye for photo composition’, your color sense, and lens techniques because usually the subject isn’t going anywhere or being a distraction.

Still Life can also be satisfying – maybe your friends will yawn but hey they’re probably yawning anyway.

Try this as an experiment:

  • Find somewhere in your home that has good lighting and an interesting or a neutral background, like a tabletop near a window.
  • Empty out your pockets into a heap on the table.
  • Don’t rearrange anything. You’ve probably got coins, keys, a cellphone perhaps, maybe some notes, an old movie ticket and a receipt for a coffee or whatever.
  • Pick up your camera and walk around your still life until you like what you see in the viewfinder and shoot a few frames.
  • Try it again from different heights and different angles.
  • Download your shots and pick out the three best.
  • Now critique them. Why do you like them? What do they communicate about you? Messy pockets or do they represent a interesting window into your life?

Now save those and leave your heap on the table (if you can) for a couple of hours. Now the light should be different. Do the same exercise. Shoot another bunch of shots and pick three. Compare them to the first three. Decide which ones you like best now.

Maybe in the first shots the lighting was soft and the shadows not noticeable. But in the later shots the shadows are harder, and now maybe the geometry of the composition has changed dramatically. Now you have something that looks like the cover of an espionage thriller. You decide what the image communicates now and if you want it to communicate that.

Wait a few more hours and by now there’s probably no sunlight so the shots are going to be taken using fluorescent lighting or incandescent lighting. Maybe now you have no shot at all.

In any case the amount of light falling on your scene is probably too little even for your neat digital camera, so now you need to haul out that tripod. (Ah that’s why I bought it!) Yes, tripods are for when camera movement is going to spoil the shot.

Unless you have trained as a sniper for ten years, below about 1/60 your body movement or the pressure of your finger on the shutter button is going to cause ‘movement’ in your picture.

Put the camera on the tripod and figure out the delayed shutter function on your camera. It will have one. Most give you 15-30 seconds before the image is captured.

Frame the shot, trip the shutter, and hope you don’t get an earth tremor at the critical moment. If you’re serious about getting decent shots you should know how to use the “bracket” function.

That means the camera will take a series of shots exposing for more light and less light than the basic exposure. Purists dig this kind of thing but between you and me, you can fix a host of exposure problems in photo editing software – what you can’t fix in image editing software is camera or subject movement. You shouldn’t have any subject movement unless you keep small animals in your pockets and because – hey it’s a STILL Life.

Shoot a few shots. Chances are the results suck because direct overhead light is pretty boring. Your Still Life now looks like a dead life.

You probably have images that look boringly like you unloaded your pockets on a table. All the feel and mood is gone.

No problem!

Now let’s start creating with light.

Still Life Images continued…

Still Life Photography Tips P.3

Ok! Now lets start creating with light.

Go steal someone’s desk lamp and shine it onto the scene. Better? Worse? Go steal another.

Now you are into the dynamics of lighting. Here are the basics of lighting something.

You have a main Light and a Fill light. The main light is usually the brightest. You use it to light the scene. Being one light it is going to light one side of the scene.

Turn off the overheads and set this lamp a little off to the right of your camera. Observe the result. Hmm, don’t like those shadows now on the left? Now you turn on the other lamp and put it on the left of the camera to fill in the shadows with its light.

If both lamps are the same wattage move the fill back until it is just reducing the shadows without creating nasty shadows of its own. Couldn’t steal a second lamp?

No problem.

Go get some aluminum foil. Find something big and flat that no one is going to miss for a while like the Monopoly board or cut up a packing box and tape the foil to it.

Now you have a reflector that will act as a second fill light. You can buy these at photography Shops or you can just carry foil with you. Set up your reflector so it ‘fills’ the shadows.

Take a few shots and have a look at the Still life now. You can add more lights if you have them but usually it’s a waste of time and electricity and you’ll end up tearing your hair out.

The more lights you use the more shadows you’ll get and the more you’ll have to fool around trying to highlight or fill different parts of your Still Life. When you get really frustrated just go back to two lights until you get those right.

By now you’ve probably exhausted all the possibilities of lighting and angle. If you’ve been very good and haven’t cheated, your heap is still the same arrangement as when you started.

Now you can play about with adjusting the composition. See our photo composition page for a simple rule for composing a photo. Now try this rule with your Still Life. You have some main elements and some sub elements. The coins are sub elements. The cell phone may be a main element. What do you want your viewer to notice? Use composition to guide the viewer’s eye on a tour of your Still Life.

Shoot lots of shots. Play around and each time ask yourself: What does this image communicate?

Now you’re ready to get a bit adventurous. You can take a prowl around the house and spot pleasing compositions, or go the fruit market and buy some vegetables – large and small, different colors.

Or just take a walk around the neighborhood at different times of the day and look for some still lifes. Here’s one from my neighborhood.

Still Life Photography Lotus

If you really want to learn how to take great photos, still life or otherwise, and get good at this stuff we highly recommend Beginner Digital Photography as a resource.

It covers everything you need to know from beginner to pro in an interactive format you can study or refer to at your own pace and at your level of experience.

Click Here to See Beginner Digital Photography for Yourself