5 Tips for Still Life Photography

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A striking sunset backdrops a violent storm. A bald eagle scoops a fish out of the azure ocean. Sure, these can make for great photos, but such opportunities rarely present themselves. Luckily, not all great photography relies on being in the right place at the right time. Some of the best shots are of common, everyday items. That's because simple subjects can yield intricate, interesting compositions. This is the case for still life photography.

Still life photographs consist of inanimate objects, often arranged in some striking or artistic way. They usually are of fruit, a vase of flowers or other typical household sights. The method outdates photography itself, becoming particularly popular in 17th century Dutch painting, which is why it is known as the most "painterly" field of photography.

Many photographers prefer still life because it allows them to take their time and control virtually every aspect of the shot. The best shots emphasize interesting composition, texture, form, color, balance, light and shadow, harmony, lighting, or all of the above. However, another variety of this field of photography, called found still life, consists of objects that are found naturally arranged, with the photographer making little or no adjustments. Although we'll be chiefly exploring tips for how to construct still life arrangements, the ideas will also help you identify great shots of found still life, too.

Select Interesting Objects for Your Shot

We spoke with photographer and author Mark Jenkinson, who emphasized that "every object has a story behind it."

"Your first job," he went on, "is to think about what it is about that object that you want to say, or what the story is. That story determines your photo."

Choosing objects for a great still life takes an artistic, poetic eye. But if you struggle with this, there are some rules of thumb that can get you started. Experts say that if you use multiple objects for your still life, they shouldn't be random. Rather, they should all fit into a common theme, whether that theme be shape, color, texture, function, period of origin and so on.

Famed photographer John Hedgecoe recommends collecting many objects that fit a certain theme. Keep that collection on a table next to you, and select from it as you compose your shot. We'll delve more into this process later.

Choose an Appropriate Background

Once you have your objects, or at least a collection of choices, you can begin to think about background. The best choice has to do with whether it will complement and, most importantly, not distract from your subject.

Hedgecoe says that with lighter subjects, the background should be darker, and vice versa. The background should blend with (but have a different tone than) the subject in order to emphasize it. Black backgrounds add intensity, while white backgrounds soften a shot [source: National Geographic]. The background also has different effects on shadow, which we'll discuss more later.

The simplest backdrops are just blank poster boards or sheets of paper. But these aren't the only options: Just because it should be unobtrusive doesn't mean it has to be boring. Examples of popular textured backgrounds include painted canvas and cloth. Plants and vegetables might call for more natural backgrounds, like brick and stone walls. In general, however, the less detailed the background is, the better.

Carefully Craft the Composition

Developing a sophisticated sense of composition is essential to still life photography. It's so integral that beginner photographers study still life specifically to learn the art of composition. It's not uncommon for professional photographers to spend hours in the studio striving to perfect composition for a single shot. Don't be afraid to take your time and make adjustments as you go.

As we mentioned earlier, photographer John Hedgecoe suggests keeping a table of objects next to you as you compose your shot. He advises photographers to start with the most important object and add a piece one at a time, each time checking the image through the camera's viewfinder. To carefully construct the composition, it's essential to have a sturdy tripod.

Experts say to strive for balance and harmony in composition, which doesn't necessarily mean placing the most important or biggest piece in the center of the frame -- in fact, it's often advisable not to. Rather, the eye should ideally flow from one point or object to another. One dense (or dark) object could work as an "anchor" for the eye, while another adds warmth, and so on [source: Hedgecoe].

Use Interesting Lighting Effects
Interesting lighting will highlight shadows and give still objects a little movement.
Interesting lighting will highlight shadows and give still objects a little movement.

For still life photos, some say lighting is just as important as composition. That's because lighting can drastically affect the tone of your shot, change color saturation, and even make objects seem denser or lighter. Keep your numerous options in mind: You can use just one light source, multiple lights or various tools to help you manipulate light.

Professional lighting equipment can get quite expensive, but it isn't necessary, especially when you're just starting out. Natural light is perfectly fine, especially if you can soften it with a white sheet over a window [source: Fier]. Photographer Michael Freeman writes that you can use household items that are translucent or reflective to play with light effects. He emphasizes that the only strict rule is that the lighting, above all, can't be boring [source: Freeman].

Hedgecoe goes over the different effects, saying that head-on light has a form-flattening effect, while lighting from the side brings out surface traits. Harsh lighting can wash out colors, while low light makes colors richer [source: Hedgecoe]. It's not advisable to use the camera's on-board flash, which makes an image harsh and unrealistic.

Shadow is an important factor, too. White backgrounds will reveal shadows, while black can hide them. You can play with the shadow and light on an object to help provide a visual balance between the two [source: Freeman].

Seek Out Your Subject
Keep an eye out for tiny details.
Keep an eye out for tiny details.

We mentioned earlier that another form of still life is "found still life," which involves photographing an object or collection of objects as you find them, without rearrangement or even manipulating the light if possible.

Although you can find good subjects inside, you shouldn't be afraid to go outside, where you can take advantage of natural light. Overcast sky usually makes for better photos than direct sunlight, especially in the middle of the day. Subjects can be pretty much whatever you want, from a pile of garden tools or your child's toys to an interesting rock or even litter on the street. You can stroll outside or make special trips to interesting places for inspiration.

The tips and guidelines for studio still life can still apply to found still life, so good shots have a lot to do with locating your subjects and framing them well. One of the great advantages of found still life is that the subjects are already in their natural setting, often around similar objects and with a fitting background. It also gets you out of the studio and offers a break from the painstaking precision of arranged still life.

Overall, both forms of still life can provide the photographer and the viewer a fresh appreciation and perspective of the subject.


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  • Fier, Blue. "Composition Photo Workshop." Wiley, 2007.
  • Freeman, Michael. "The Complete Guide to Digital Photography." Lark Books, 2005. (Dec. 16, 2010)http://books.google.com/books?id=5ScMu8WQjdkC
  • Hedgecoe, John. "The Book of Photography." Dorling Kindersley, 2005.
  • Jenkinson, Mark. "Complete Idiot's Guide to Photography Essentials." Alpha Books, 2008.
  • Jenkinson, Mark. Personal Correspondence. Dec. 10, 2010.
  • National Geographic. "Ultimate Field Guide to Photography." National Geographic Books, 2009. (Dec. 16, 2010)http://books.google.com/books?id=aW1TIzeTiDAC