Still life photography can be used in many ways. For instance, you may want to capture some beautiful seashells by the ocean shore or take photographs of cool products to sell on Amazon.
Unless you are taking shot of particular products for a magazine assignment, still life photography subjects are just endless. And regardless of common belief, still life is not just limited to photographs of different fruits.
Even simple things like creatively arranged items such as spools of threads are still interesting and very attractive. Besides, microstock websites such as iStock, and Unsplush, which caters to different commercial users, usually have demand for different kinds of still life photographs.
They are often looking for simple objects like car keys or a cup of coffee, creatively and beautifully photographed. Join me below to explore the main types of still life photography and learn some tricks for taking better still life shots.
What is Still Life Photography?
Also recognized by its French name “nature morte,” still life photography features pieces of nicely arranged inanimate (or lifeless) objects as its subjects.
These subjects are normally placed or set on a table for shooting. And they usually include organic objects, such as flowers and fruits. But household items such as textile and glassware are also common in still life photography ideas.
The name ‘still life’ is believed to have come from the Dutch word ‘stilleve’ that became popular during the 16th century. Even though still life was finally recognized as a form of photography during this time, its roots date back to the days of yore.
Let’s check out some common types of still life photography and then move on to the tips for taking better still life shots.
6 Common Types of Still Life Photography You Should Really Try
There are several different types of still life photography. From tabletop and product still life to food and fruits and even found object still life photography where you take photographs of things you come across when you’re outside.
We won’t go through all the types, but we are certainly going to see some of the most common ones. The other types of still life photography that doesn’t appear in this list just happen to fall under these same categories:
01. Tabletop Still Life Photography
Tabletop still life photography is just what it sounds like. It’s a method of still life photography that suggests subjects to be placed on top of a table for shooting—usually in a standing stance or a lay-flat kinda way.
With the wake of electronic commerce (e-commerce), the term tabletop has been partly laid-off by the term product photography that is certainly more appropriate for the expanding industry of digital sales.
02. Product Still Photography
Product still life focuses mainly on selling items. While most of the shooting is usually set on the table, product still life photos are usually less artistic and more objective than tabletop still images.
Furthermore, product still life images are usually made on assignments. Prospective clients will often include some kind of brief with instructions about the type of products they want to be photographed.
03. Found Object Still Life Photography
Images of found items or objects, such as old tyres or even dry leaves on the ground are also considered part of still life photography.
Found object still life is just an amazing sub category of still life photography. You can compose attractive still life images from found objects in the wild or even in your neighborhood. This genre of still life just makes for a great training ground for new photographers who want to test their photography skills.
04. Food Still Life Photography
Food still life is a branch of still life photography where photographers work with food stylists to capture mouth-watering food images. It involves setting up a theme or the background with other food stuff and/or tableware.
Just like product photography, food still life is part of commercial food photography where the captured images of food are used in adverts, menus, cookbooks, or packaging. Professional food still life photography usually involves a collaborative effort that includes an art director, a food stylist and their assistants, and the person behind the lens.
05. Fruit Still Life Photography
Fruit still life is nothing different from food still life photography. And just like commercial product photography, fruit still life also tends to have the same goal; to attract consumers. But sometimes it can be more than just commercial fruit photography.
Some creative photographers look at it differently. They see fruit still life like a form of art where they curve or modify them to take different artistic forms. If you have also seen those images of fruits that are creatively curved in cartoons and fitted with objects such as sunglasses, then you know what I mean.
06. Simple Black and White Still Life Photography
Still life is typically about photographing anything that doesn’t move. Whether it’s toys, fruits, flowers, dry leaves on the ground, ornaments, and so on.
Capturing still life in black and white or monochrome is just as beautiful as they are simple and attractive.
Top 5 Tips To Capture Better Still Life Photographs
Most people often think that still life photography is a lot easier if compared to other branches of photography, such as nature and street photography. In still life photography, we always have control of the composition. And we can always arrange subjects exactly as we imagine them.
However, to capture high-quality still images can sometimes be even more challenging. And this is because they are usually close-up shots, so it is quite easy to notice imperfections. Something like a blemish on a fruit would often go unnoticed.
But regardless of the challenges, applying basic photography skills along with these few tips will help you create high-quality still life pictures in most situations.
I) Setup for better still photography
Keep in mind that in still photography, you won’t just stumble upon a good shot by luck. You simply must take full control over the entire creative process. If you plan your’s shooting well, there is no doubt that you will get better results.
So, be sure to spend some time brainstorming ideas and learning from other experts in your industry. Also, apart from your chosen subjects, you should also pay close attention to other objects around that you think could add to the story.
In this case, you can consider some harmonizing elements to add interest. Just ensure that your choice of additional elements add meaning to your primary subjects. Make sure it (or they) have a unique connection with your subjects, and will certainly help boost the story.
If your subject is a lemon drink, for example, you can consider adding some halved lemon slices around it. And if, let’s assume, the lemon was harvested from your garden, you can also add some lemon leaves to show the freshness of the product.
And who said that you must only set up still life shooting on a table? You can get more creative and capture amazing still life photos of things in their usual locations. Think of a shelf in your kitchen, a corner of a room, an old garage, or even on your bed or sofa. Just be as creative as you can with it.
II) Composition for better still photography
There is often more freedom to move the subjects or items around in still life photography. And this is exactly what gives still life photographers the chance to play around with composition.
The fact that your subjects are inanimate items means they won’t get upset or bored no matter how much you keep moving them around. So be sure to play around with composition and test several layouts of your subjects.
It also helps to consider other styles of composition, such as the rule of thirds, when creating still life photos. Tweak your layouts and arrangements as you go to improve your composition. Keep playing around with your composition until you can easily identify what makes a stunning still life image.
III) Lighting for better still photography
This goes without saying. Without light, there is simply no photography. It simply means that when it comes to photography, lighting is certainly the most crucial factor. With good lighting, you can be sure to snap attractive still photographs.
Always ensure that you are using the right source of light in just the right intensity and from the right direction. Natural light is freely available and is often the best source of light in most shooting scenarios. With still life photography, however, soft light often works best.
With that said, you can consider shooting on an overcast day or work on other days if the light is just too bright. But, you can also consider using other materials like white curtains, for instance, to diffuse the amount of light shining on the scene or on your still life photography subjects.
The next thing to consider about light is the direction of its source. Everybody knows that side lighting with the light from the sun is one of the most remarkable and simplest ways to light photography subjects. Equally, lighting your subjects slightly at an angle from the back can also help you take some cool still life shots.
IV) Background for great still life photographs
I would certainly want to ensure that my selected background works perfectly well with my main subjects. Think of how a background would look like in both focus and out-of-focus mode.
While you may find a background with great texture, single-color backgrounds will surely make your subjects pop and stand out. Besides, textured or colored construction papers are relatively cheap and also easy to store. Plus, they make for a perfect background if, let’s say, you are going after simple still life shots.
Furthermore, colored construction papers are also a great option if you are looking to capture bright and punchy shots. And you can easily source them in bulk from Amazon or at a local craft supply store near you.
V) Edit your still life photographs
We all know that editing plays a special role in photography. And this is because it helps improve a photograph’s color, lighting, and mood. Be sure to go through your collection and pick the best shots for editing. Here are some tips or things to keep in mind about editing your still life photos:
- For those who use smartphones to capture still life photographs, note that there are several great photo-editing apps for smartphones. Some of the best recommendations are Canva, Snapseed, and Adobe Lightroom Mobile.
- If you are using a computer, you can import your pictures into post-processing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom for desktop computers. From there, you can clean up your images of any dust specks, and also get rid of any other destructive elements.
- If you have to, adjust the white balance, crop, straighten, and compose the pictures. You can also make other basic adjustments, such as adjusting contrast, shadows, highlights, or even exposure.
- And if, let’s say, you need to make some local adjustments to reveal details in the shadow areas, you can easily do this if you know how to use the brush tool.
Camera and Gear for Better Still Life Photography
Essentially, any 21st century camera is practically good for shooting still photographs. And this is whether it’s a micro four thirds, full-frame, DSLR, mirrorless, APS-C sensor, compact, or even some smartphone cameras. You don’t actually need to stress yourself about a camera.
Just make sure that you are getting the most out of your digital camera and its settings. Accordingly, when it comes to mirrorless or Digital SLR cameras, you can use 50mm or even a 35mm lens depending on how close or wide you want your shots to be.
50mm lenses such as the Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM, for instance, have less distortion as opposed to 35mm lenses like the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G. The two, however, are actually one of the first lenses most professional photographers often get after buying a camera.
Better Camera = Better Still Life Images
One of the greatest advantages of this artistic photography niche is its simplicity. Just as I’ve mentioned above, you can take amazing still life photos with almost any camera.
By saying any camera, I mean your smartphone camera, a Digital SLR camera, a crop-sensor, mirrorless, medium format, or even a full-frame camera. What you want to use depends on how or where you are going to use your photographs.
If you are shooting for commercial purposes, then you might want to get a better camera than your smartphone camera. You can start shooting still life photos with a simple compact camera and upgrade as you become better, or get a cheap Digital SLR camera to impress your viewers with your still life photos.
Better Lenses = Better Quality Still Life Images
Just like product photography, still photography also aims to depict accurate reflection of the subjects. This therefore means that you will need a lens that produces minimal to near zero distortion.
For a medium format camera, for instance, you will need to get a lens with a diameter of approximately 80mm to 100mm. And for crop-sensors, mirrorless, or full-frame digital cameras, a lens that has between 60mm and 70mm.
Camera Settings for Better Still Life Photography
Once you have picked your still life photography niche, you will need to focus on your camera’s settings so you can get your desired results. Any professional photographer out there would also advise you to shoot in manual setting mode. But this is just so you can control the exposure more creatively.
Moreover, still photography is a relatively slow process. It is where you get to choose your subjects, location, background, and lighting, more carefully—and compose the shots for effective outputs. So, be sure to take your precious time to set up your camera device in manual mode to get the desired outcome.
However, if you’re not so confident with manual mode settings, then you can consider shooting in aperture priority mode. In aperture mode, you can set your desired aperture value and then your camera will decide both the ISO value and shutter speed depending on the limits you have set.
You can choose your desired aperture value from the following few options depending on the level of depth of field you want to achieve in your shots:
- For your still life subjects to really stand out, you can use an aperture value of between f1.8 and f2.8. But if, let’s assume that you are using a kit lens (one that comes with the camera), then be sure to use the widest aperture as you possibly can.
- And if you want to include other elements in the scene or you want to bring more of the background in focus, then you can close down the aperture to anywhere between f5.6 and f11.
Meanwhile, if you prefer shooting in manual mode, then you might want to set the shutter speed to 1/250s. But if you want to go slower due to low light (and you are also holding the camera in your hand), then don’t go any slower than 1/focal length. And also don’t forget about the crop factor of your digital camera.
My Final Words
Still life photography has taken many different forms throughout its history, from the ornamental or decorative designs of antiquity, to the fine art of rejuvenation. Conventionally, still life is a collection of lifeless (or inanimate) objects that are arranged as subjects of the shot.
Today, still life photography includes anything from your latest Facebook or Instagram latte art to creatively arranged sea shells and spools of threads—or even a vase of styled tulips that looks like some ancient paintings.
Still photography encompasses dozens of different styles, even more than what we have covered in this topic—the choices are just endless. So, just go ahead and be as creative as you can, and remember that even the old shoes or rusted kitchen trays can turn into great and emotional still life images.