Still life photography – complete guide

Still life photography is an excellent genre to explore for both the experienced and amateur photographer. Mastering the art of composition and light to make an ordinary subject more interesting will help in different types of photography, from  macro, miniature, food and product photography. Claire Gillo reveals her top tips for perfecting the art of still life photography.

The key emphasis of still life photography is that you are in control of every aspect of the image from the composition of the frame to the lighting of your subject. What defines an image under the still life genre is the subject is inanimate.

From a beginner’s perspective, this is excellent as you can really take your time to compose your composition and try out different lighting techniques. For the more experienced photographer, this genre also provides lots of opportunities, as you can push the creative boundaries and come up with original concepts that will stand out.

What subjects lend themselves to still life photography?

Still life photograph: Food is an excellent still life subject to photograph. The red tomatoes in this shot add vibrancy to the image Shot details: f/2.8, 1/320 sec, ISO 400 © Claire Gillo

There are many different subjects and objects that will photograph well under a still life setup, and a great place to start is with food. Food is wonderful to photograph as a subject matter because it varies in shape, texture, colour and size. To get some inspiration, study the classics such as Edward Weston’s pepper and cabbage leaf from the 1920s, or the still life captures of Edward Steichen from the same era. Items such as fruits and vegetables shot against a dark backdrop are a great place to begin.

Plants and organic matter such as shells and bones are also incredibly popular with photographers of this genre as the shape and form of the subjects are interesting to photograph. Again, if you need some historical inspiration Imogen Cunningham’s botanical studies are a good place to begin, and Edward Weston’s Shell is another classic still-life image that springs to mind.

Man-made objects such as toys, clothing, and vintage objects like cameras or shoes are also interesting to photograph. The subject for still life photography can be anything you want it to be if the subject matter is inanimate, but there are no strict rules. For example, some still life photographers may choose to bring in a hand to the corner of the frame (this works well in food photography) or a wisp of steam or smoke over the subject.

Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year shortlist David Gilliver

If you’re interested in food still-lifes, check out the <a href=”” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year 2023</a> for inspiration. Photo credit: David Gilliver/Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year 2023

How do I photograph a still life setup?

The minimum you need to shoot a still life setup is a camera, lens, tripod, and subject matter. Although some lenses lend themselves to the genre more than others, for example, a 50mm or 85mm, there aren’t any rules when it comes to lens choice. Your subject matter and composition will determine what focal length you use.

A tripod is an essential kit for still life photography as you want to take your time when composing your shot. Also, if you are shooting using natural light the chances are your shutter speed will be reading at a slow setting and so a tripod will be necessary for this too.

When it comes to composing your shot, think about where and how your subject sits in the frame and whether you are going to bring in additional items. In some circumstances, additional props and accessories can make the shot, and in other times less is more. In dressing your shots and balancing your composition you want to try and lead the eye through the frame. Whether you do this with negative space or objects is entirely up to you and something that you must practise.

Sometimes I’ll place additional props in the corner of the frame or along an edge to hold the eye in. When it comes to composing still life scenes the rule of thirds is useful to start with, however as we all know rules are made to be broken and sometimes a symmetrical composition can be effective. You need to experiment with this and why it is useful to have your camera set up on a tripod.

Still Life Photography, photo: Claire Gillo

Still Life Photography, photo: Claire Gillo

Learn how to set up a still life studio.

What is the best lighting for still life photography?

Lighting is another consideration when setting up your still life photoshoot. If you are new to photography, we suggest keeping it simple and using natural light.

A large window and a reflector or tinfoil wrapped around a piece of card (this is to bounce light back into the shadows if needed) are all you need to create an effective setup. For those who have more experience, you may want to bring in additional lighting such as an external speedlight/s or studio light/s depending on the effect you’re after.

Continuous light plate

Continuous lighting makes shooting still life setups much easier and can be one way to <a href=”” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>improve your still life photograph</a>y. Credit: James Paterson

Finally, for your still life setup, you also need to think about the background or setting of your image. Are you going to shoot your subject in its setting? Or are you going to drop a background in behind/underneath your subject and what will that do for the image? Are you going to shoot indoors or outdoors and what does this add or take away from your image?

Where and how you place your still life subject is what makes or breaks the image. For example, a piece of plastic washed up on the beach photographed on the sand might not look as interesting as if you took that same piece of plastic and photographed it against a black background with studio lights. Textured or plain backgrounds of all different colours and appearances can work effectively if used in the right way.

Plant and plates. This still life image of a plant has been taken in its place setting. Image stylist Laura Woussen ( Shot details: f/5.6, 1/100 sec, ISO 200 ©Claire Gillo

Plant and plates. This still life image of a plant has been taken in its place setting. Image stylist Laura Woussen ( Shot details: f/5.6, 1/100 sec, ISO 200 ©Claire Gillo

What camera settings do I need for still life photography?

When it comes to taking great still life setups the most important setting on your camera is your aperture setting. This controls the depth of field in the image and determines how much of the subject is sharp and how much is blurred. This is something that you will need to experiment with depending on your setup.

Also, keep in mind when you are shooting at a closer proximity your depth of field is going to be shallower. For example, in a landscape setting if your focus point is set at infinity and your aperture is set to f/11 it’s pretty likely the whole scene from the front to the back will be sharp (if you have a foreground object this may blur depending on how close to the camera it is – but you get the jist!).

However, when you shoot close up even with your aperture set at f/11 your subject will most likely have some blur (how much is determined by a number of factors such as how far away you are from your subject and your lens choice). If you want the whole of your subject to be sharp, you will need to explore a technique called focus stacking which is where you shoot your subject at different focal points and then edit the images together.

Still life photograph: Flowers such as the daffodils pictured here make an excellent subject matter for still life photography. Shot details: f/2.8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400 ©Claire Gillo

Still life photograph: Flowers such as the daffodils pictured here make an excellent subject matter for still life photography. Shot details: f/2.8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400 ©Claire Gillo

Top tips for still life photography

1. Low-key Lighting

Still life, Low key photography, Claire Gillo

Still life, Low key photography, Claire Gillo

One lighting technique that lends itself particularly well to the still-life genre is low-key lighting. Low key lighting often only uses one light source, and as the name suggests this isn’t a powerful burst of light over your subject but rather a subtle and soft effect that falls across. Natural light or reflected light can work well for low-key lighting. A dark background will also help you create a more atmospheric result.

2. High-Key lighting

Still life photograph: High-key lighting ©Claire Gillo

Still life photograph: High-key lighting ©Claire Gillo

If you want a light, and bright image try using a high-key lighting effect. You can use natural light or artificial light to achieve this look. The trick with high-key lighting is you want to create minimal shadows and use a bright and large light source. This effect works particularly well when shot from a bird’s eye view as in the example here.

3. Backlighting

Still life photograph: Backlighting can be achieved using artificial or natural light like in this example here. Shot details: f/4, 1/2000 sec, ISO 100

Still life photograph: Backlighting can be achieved using artificial or natural light like in this example here. Shot details: f/4, 1/2000 sec, ISO 100

Backlighting is when you light your subject from behind. The idea is to create a fringe or outline around the edge of your subject to highlight your object’s shape and form. In the case here it’s a dried-out Hydrangea. To take this image I used a single flashgun and placed it behind my subject. This creates a silhouette effect. If you want your subject to be lit as well use another light on the front of your subject.

4. Play with the shadows

Still life photograph: Shadows ©Claire Gillo

Still life photograph: Shadows ©Claire Gillo

For intentionally harsh shadows then a hard lighting effect will work best. Flash is the easiest way to create this effect as you have full control over the intensity and direction of the light. In this example, the light was placed to the side of the skull.

5. Background choice

Still life bouquet of flowers Choice of Background matters ©Claire Gillo

Still life photograph: Choice of Background matters ©Claire Gillo

What background you use in your still life setup drastically alters the effect on your image. In this example, some vinyl backdrops create the perfect setting to show off this vase and flowers. Even the wooden table effect underneath is a vinyl sheet.

6. Bokeh backgrounds

Still life photograph: Using bokeh to create a beautiful background ©Claire Gillo

Still life photograph: Using bokeh to create a beautiful background ©Claire Gillo

An easy way to create a twinkling and atmospheric background is to use fairy lights. To create this effect, I simply lit the main subject in the foreground using natural light and then bunched some fairy lights in the background-position around a metre away. By opening up the aperture setting on my camera the lights in the background transformed into the perfect twinkling circles.

Still life photography kit List

1. Lens

For still life photography, your lens choice will be determined by your subject. One of my favourites in my kit bag is my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens as this lens produces excellent results. For most of my still life images, I work between a 50mm and 100mm range.

2. Tripod

A tripod is an essential part of my kit for my still life shoots. Whether I shoot with natural or flash, I always use a tripod. Not only can I keep tweaking the composition of my frame when my camera is on a tripod, I can also adjust the light and camera settings until everything is perfect. In my kit bag I have the Manfrotto 190go! with the XPRO Geared three-way pan/tilt tripod head. The tripod comes with an interchangeable centre column, and the three-way tripod head can be finely adjusted.

3. Lights

In my kit bag, I have 3 x Nissin Di700A flashlights and 3 x PixaPro LUMI 400 II 400Ws Studio Flash Lights and accessories. Depending on the subject will determine what setup I use. For any close-up work, my Nissin Speedlites are more than powerful enough to get great results.

4. Backdrops

From twinkling fairy lights in the background to textured or plain pieces of card, I have a wide selection of backgrounds that I use for my still life setups. Some of my favourite textured backdrops have been bought from Black Velvet Styling.

Related reading:

Read more articles by Claire Gillo:

Best cameras for portraits and portrait photography 2023

Best cameras under £1000 / $1000 in 2023

How to make money from photography and sell your photographs

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