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Learning still life photography techniques as a beginner or intermediate photographer can help you improve in your overall photographic endeavors. A still life photography tutorial can also assist advanced and professional photographers to hone lighting and composition techniques that can be used in other styles of photography.
Whatever our level of expertise, as we examine how to take still life photos, we will learn or relearn about lighting configurations, contrast levels, composition, focus techniques, and how to maximize exposure settings to achieve a desired effect.
What Is Still Life Photography?
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Before getting into a bunch of still life photography tips, let’s define what makes a photograph image still life photography. Still life images are photographs of inanimate subject matter. Basically, if the subject of the photograph doesn’t move, it could be a still life.
Long before photography existed, painters, sketch artists, and even sculptors made still life art out of all sorts of items and objects. A common subject for still life art going back to the early renaissance and continuing to today is a simple bowl of fruit or an arrangement of cut flowers, though it doesn't have to be that to qualify as still life.
Still Life Photography Ideas
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Still life photography examples can include many different things. Perhaps most common is tabletop still life photography, where we arrange items, such as that bowl of fruit or pile of cut flowers, on a table, desk, or countertop.
Most of the social media pics of our lunch and dinner could qualify as a form of still life photography, though many of these ten to be more of a snapshot than a serious attempt at art. Food photography can be a great still life photography subject when we approach it in a more serious manner.
Small product photography often qualifies as still life photography because we’re arranging small, inanimate items in a manner that we consider to be pleasant composition and because we’re taking care to adjust lighting, exposure, and focus in order to make the subject matter appealing.
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One of the more interesting newer trends, flat lay photography, is still life photography from a fairly unique perspective, directly overhead. While there actually is nothing new about the basics of flat lay photography, it’s been around for decades, the technique has been trending lately with an increased awareness of its aesthetics.
Toys and games can probably fit into any of these ideas depending on how we arrange things. A model railroad is a good subject for still life photography as are other models such as military aircraft, model cars, and so on. The photorealism effect that some do with models is an interesting form of still life.
Coins, stamps, and other collectible items also make good still life photography ideas, provided we are able to image them properly with our equipment choices.
Still Life Photography Equipment
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One of the more enjoyable aspects of still life photography is that one doesn’t really need any specialised photo gear to make these images, though some types of gear choices can open up the creative possibilities available to you or make some ideas easier to photograph well.
Still life photography gear can be broken down into two essential elements, the camera and lens combination and lighting control. Within these two, there are a whole lot of possibilities, as is usual when discussing photographic art techniques.
Starting with the camera and lens choice, we can use the camera in our smartphone, especially with some of the newer versions that have very high quality cameras. Being able to change the lens brings us to DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with some very fine lenses available including macro lenses.
Macro lenses add an option to our possible still life photography ideas of what to use a subject. Besides being extremely sharp, macro lenses can focus ultra close up and are specially corrected to eliminate the optical problems that occur when using a regular or zoom lens for ultra close focus.
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Lighting for still life photography has a whole lot of possibilities as well. Some options we face when lighting for still life are if we want the image to be low key, high key, contrasty, shadowless, hard, or soft.
For many product photography still life images, using softer light, such as with a softbox or two, is a usable option. Other more artistic endeavors might benefit from higher contrast levels and harder light in order to take advantage of the interplay of shadow and light, sort of like a Rembrandt portrait of a still life subject.
Other useful gear includes tripods, remote releases, backdrops, stands, clamps, barn doors for lamps, reflectors, and useful filters such as a circular polariser to tame reflections or reduce glare.
How To Take Still Life Photos
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Let’s do a walk through of a still life photo shoot with just one of the ideas and examples listed above. It won’t be a blueprint for how to take all of the ideas but more of a guideline of how to take still life photos that can be adjusted as needed for other styles.
We’ll take the tabletop photography of an arrangement of fruits and vegetables as our guided example. A kitchen countertop, dining room table, or even a card table can be used as our studio space.
Eliminate any background clutter or set up a background. A piece of cloth draped over a couple of cereal boxes will work if you don’t have a photo backdrop. Alternately, you could decide on using selective focus to throw the background out of focus.
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Now, let’s decide on the mood of the photo. For this example, we want to emulate the somber atmosphere of a classic painting of a still life so we’ll use one light and a reflector.
After arranging the onions, oranges, and dried twigs of thyme in and around a wooden bowl, we will set up our camera coles to the table and a little above the arrangement, perhaps angling down for about a 45 degree angle.
Using our single light source, an LED video light with barn door but no diffuser, we will place it also at 45 degrees down but a couple of feet from our tripod mounted camera. Now let’s use our reflector to throw back just enough light from the other side to give a nice modeling effect to the round objects in our still life.
Open up the aperture enough to slightly blur the backdrop we placed a couple of feet behind our bowl of things. For this particular example, let's underexpose by a stop to really accentuate the mood created by our shadows.
Open Up Your Creativity
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That’s just one example of how one type of still life photography could be done. With the subjects and styles listed earlier, we could easily go on into about 4 or 5 dozen further examples.
And that’s just for starters. So you can see how still life photography can teach a newer photographer about lighting, exposure, focus, and composition. Plus it’s obvious that any advanced photographer can benefit from the practice in order to get better and hone photographic skills.
Along the way, you will also make some very nice images that are enjoyable to view. And that, my fellow photographers, is the fun of a still life photography tutorial.