How to Take Good Still Life Photos

16 August 2020

Whether you’re a keen adventure photographer or landscape photography enthusiast, there’s no denying the power of a good still life photo. There’s something incredibly special about slowing down, focusing on the details, and carefully composing your image to capture the everyday in an extraordinary way. Still life photography allows you to do all of these things, and can be a wonderful way to sharpen your overall photography skills.

Having said this, taking good still life images is a skill that eludes many photographers of all skill levels. To help you overcome the challenges of this type of photography, we’ve put together a handy guide to the best equipment, composition tips, and lighting techniques. Read on to learn how to take good still life photos.

1. Always use a tripod

Rule number one of still life photography is that it’s always easier with a tripod. Shooting handheld can result in camera shake and blurriness, both of which can make your image less impactful. By mounting your camera on a tripod you can avoid both of these things, and easily make tweaks behind and in front of the lens without affecting your composition. Think about your still life photos as paintings: For a good image, the canvas - in this case, the frame - needs to stay in one place.

Look for tripods with a 3-way head, which allows you to make minute adjustments on three separate axes. If you’re experimenting with flat lay photography in your still lifes, you may prefer a tripod with a centre column that allows you to position your camera directly above your subject.

How to Take Good Still Life PhotosHow to Take Good Still Life Photos

Pick up a still life photography tripod

2. Pay attention to your composition

How to Take Good Still Life PhotosHow to Take Good Still Life Photos

Good composition is the key to an impactful, emotive image, so don’t forget your basic photo composition rules. Using the Rule of Thirds, leading lines, and negative space in your images can create striking, inviting scenes that can impress even the untrained eye. 

Experiment with different compositions before pressing the shutter on your camera, and walk around your subject to find the best angles and lighting. Don’t be disheartened if your first photos of still life objects aren’t breathtaking - remember that practice makes perfect!

3. Use the right lens

Lens choice can make or break your still life photos, so think carefully about the kind of effect you want to achieve and choose your lens accordingly. The best lens for still life photography with a shallow depth of field is a lens with a fast aperture, such as f1.8. This will allow you to shoot a small portion of your image in perfect focus, and obscure the rest with an artistic blur.

On the other hand, if you want to get up close and personal with your subjects, a dedicated macro lens is your best bet. In terms of focal length, opt for a normal focal length of 50mm or longer, depending on how much space you have in your home studio.

Top Tip: While wide angle lenses are great for landscapes, they can cause distortion and so should be avoided for still life work.

How to Take Good Still Life PhotosHow to Take Good Still Life Photos

4. Choose your background carefully

How to Take Good Still Life PhotosHow to Take Good Still Life Photos

Your background plays an important role in shaping your final image, but it shouldn’t overpower your still life subject. Whether you’re shooting classic fruit still life photos or a more contemporary scene, choose a background that accentuates, rather than overpowers, your subject.

In many cases, this means choosing a plain and simple backdrop such as a white piece of fabric or paper. If you have a home studio lighting setup, try illuminating the backdrop separately to avoid your subject casting shadows on it.

5. Improve your lighting

The best still light photographers have a masterful command of their chosen lighting source, whether this is natural light or artificial lighting tools. Bear in mind that natural light requires you to find exactly the right place and time to shoot your image, and therefore leaves very little avenue for experimentation.

On the other hand, studio lighting can help you expertly craft your still life image, and can help you achieve a degree of consistency across your work. Off-camera lighting is often the best way to go for this type of photography, and will give you plenty of opportunities to customise the look and feel of your image. Experiment by placing your light sources in different positions, and try lighting your subjects at an angle, rather than straight on.

How to Take Good Still Life PhotosHow to Take Good Still Life Photos

6. Experiment with props

How to Take Good Still Life PhotosHow to Take Good Still Life Photos

Including props in your composition can help complement the main subject and prevent your image from becoming boring and sterile. For example, props are a fantastic way to liven up still life food photography and add your own unique artistic flair and flavour.

If you’re shooting a plate of food or delicious spread laid out on the table, try including some of the raw ingredients in the frame, or perhaps a drink, side dish, or interesting-looking serving implements that accompany the meal.

7. Capture different textures

Our final tip for still life photography for beginners? Don’t forget about the details. Focusing on and capturing the minor details of your subject, such as its texture, can add depth and richness to your image and help to engage your viewer. 

Whether the surface of your subject is smooth and shiny, rough and uneven, or soft and pliant, this should be clear to the viewer. Adjust your lighting and camera settings until textures appear accurately through your viewfinder or LCD screen, then press the shutter.

Top Tip: Not convinced about the impact of texture? Revisit Walker Evan’s classic still life film photography images of pepper from 1930, and make note of his evocative use of lighting and shadow to capture a mundane subject.

How to Take Good Still Life PhotosHow to Take Good Still Life Photos

Take beautiful still life photos today

Celebrate the beauty in everyday objects and scenes by trying your hand at still life photography. By encouraging you to carefully consider details, take a thoughtful approach to every shot, and pay close attention to your composition, learning how to take good still life photos can ultimately help you become a better, more considered photographer. And who doesn’t want that? 

Follow our tips and start taking interesting still life photos at home or in your favourite shooting location today, or discover more photography tips on our blog.

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