Let’s demystify still life photography shall we? It’s such an official sounding category, and I must confess, it took me awhile to realize that most of my images are indeed still life. Flowers placed on a table or arranged on a background? Still life. Herbs on a white background? Still life. Flat lays for Instagram? You get the idea.
There are a lot of complicated definitions out there, but the way I think of still life photography is simply this: an image with thoughtfully composed inanimate objects (or even just a single object). It can be anything from scissors, to lipstick, to a bountiful harvest spread.
Here are our top 10 tips for a successful still life photography shoot:
- Choose a subject that you have some sort of appreciation for. It could be simply because it’s stunning, or you are drawn to the color, or it belongs to someone you love – anything, as long as it speaks to you on some level.
- Start with one item arranged on a tablecloth or piece of paper. At least start here, you can always build with more items as you go along!
- Have a plan. Decide on the tone you want to convey in your image. Do you want it to be moody or cheerful, simple or lush? Keeping a key word in mind will help guide your decisions as you shoot.
- Keep backgrounds neutral. Backgrounds are hugely important, they ground your subject and set the tone for your image. A neutral background will let your subject shine.
- Consider how the color of your subject will look against your background. Bright red cherries can feel moody and dramatic on a black background but cheerfully optimistic on a white background. Refer to your plan to make sure you are getting the result you are after.
- Natural light works just fine for still life photography. I like indirect side light to emphasize shadows, so I set up next to a north facing window. You don’t have to use indirect light, back light (light from behind your subject) or even an angled sun ray can be quite dramatic. Tristan and I were recently swooning over this shot by Alice Gao!
- As with any photo, composition is key. Familiarize yourself with the good ‘ol rule of thirds. Many cameras (and apps! including the iphone native camera) have a grid setting to give you a visual as you shoot.
- Anthropomorphize your subject. Ok, I know it sounds odd, but I use this technique a lot! Ideally, people who look at your image will feel something, and you as the photographer are directing them toward that feeling by how you’ve shot your subject. It helps to think of your subject as capable of conveying emotion.
- Switch things up if your original idea isn’t working. So you’ve diligently noted all of the steps above and your image is still not what you’d hoped for – what should you do? Change it! Start by adjusting your composition, if that doesn’t help, change the light, maybe even revisit your subject. Let your shoot evolve. Some of my favorite images came about after extreme frustration.
- Stop! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Meaning, if your images aren’t what you were initially going for, don’t delete them right away. Step back and try to look at the image with fresh eyes later. It may not be what you were trying to accomplish, but it just may be better!
Hopefully these 10 tips make still life photography a bit less mystifying! We’d love to see your still life photos, if you use the hashtag #bbstilllife on Instagram, we will come take a look!
// RESOURCES //
#flatlays on Instagram
Turning on grid for iPhone
Miss Michelle P. is a photographer, and the co-creator of Foto Rx Premium Photoshop Actions. She lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her muse is light.
3 thoughts on “Still Life Photography | Top 10 Tips”
Loving the simplicity of this post, Michelle! I’ve often felt intimidated when I hear or see the term “still life.” But you’re right, all of the examples mentioned above are part of the still life category. And your step-by-step guide is making it so much easier (i.e. less intimidating) to get started shooting still life images. I also love that shot by Alice Gao! Such an interesting way to use light to work with and highlight the objects.
I’m so glad Bee! Do you know what else can qualify as still life? Something you are already familiar with…. food photography! See? No need to be intimidated. ;)
Ha! So true! Never thought about food photography that way before.