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What is Still Life Photography? A Beginner’s Guide with Ten Easy Tips 

What is Still Life Photography? A Beginner’s Guide with Ten Easy Tips 

Photography has a reputation as a tool to capture a story in motion. Still life photography is a more ambiguous niche, implying a story off-camera using inanimate objects.

The still life is a classic art form built on a balancing act – an artful recreation of the mundanities of everyday life. In fact, the definition almost seems contradictory! Photographers want to suggest life happening just beyond the confines of the frame, but in a way that feels natural. Despite this conflict, achieving this balancing act is possible with deeper understanding.

Still life photography may not be as prolific as portrait or environmental photography, but it’s actually one of the oldest photography niches. This beginner’s guide will touch on still life photography’s history, explore different types of still lives, then offer ten easy starter tips.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Still Life Photography?
  3. A Quick Look at Still Life Photography’s History
  4. Necessary Equipment for Taking Still Life Photos
  5. Ten Tips to Improve Your Beginner Still Life Photos
  6. Conclusion: Still Life Photography is a Sturdy Foundation for Countless Niches

an old brown pot resting on a striped cloth next to cloves of garlic and an old candlestick

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Still Life Photography?

Still life photography is the art of arranging inanimate subjects in a stylistic manner, either to tell a story or to push a sale. Striking a delicate balance between artful and natural isn’t easy, but it’s incredibly satisfying when pulled off. 

Other photography subniches frequently lean into still life photography — furniture photography, fashion photography, and product photography are just a few categories that use still life design principles. 

What are the Two Types of Still Life Photography?

Still life photography comes in two flavors – found and created. Found still lives are when you stumble across inanimate objects without any prior planning or adjustments. 

Created still lives are when you artfully arrange inanimate objects. These are the most well-known types of still lives (just look at the popular genre of meticulously decorated bowls of fruit).

Discovering a found still life is the photographer’s version of treasure hunting. It’s usually unexpected and a delightful way to seek out the stories in everyday life. However, there’s also a major appeal to created still lives. This form allows you to dig deep into the symbolism of objects and their relation to their environment.

What is the Meaning of Still Life Photography?

While every viewer will bring their own meaning to the table (pun intended), the meaning of still life photography is to hint at life just outside the frame. A good still life tells a story about how those inanimate objects came to be.

Viewers can glean meaning from the history of objects, the implications of how they’re arranged, and color symbolism.

Who Took the First Still Life Photo?

The first still life photo is believed to be by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1837. This photo showcases a cluster of objects such as classical statues and ornate frames in an art studio.

an example of still life photography showing a notebook with pen on a brown table with an open leather bag

Source Image: Pixabay

A Quick Look at Still Life Photography’s History 

Still life photography descends from classical paintings of fruit bowls and flower bouquets. Learning about photography’s history will not only deepen your appreciation of the craft, it can even inspire new ideas from the old. 

Still life history technically stretches back to the ancient Egyptians (indeed, a lot seems to originate from them!). Historians have found evidence of still life art all the way back in ancient Egyptian tombs such as the Tomb of Menna. Similar to how still lives are approached today, cultures of the past recreated everyday objects for sentimental purposes, artistic expression, or to keep visual records. 

The field of photography would see a still life resurgence many centuries later. Among the best known contributors is Baron Adolf de Meyer, a portrait and fashion photographer who frequently utilized still lives in his portfolio. He was particularly fond of flowers and glass vases, though he would also snap shots of classic fruit bowls. His still life photos were often lit with hazy light and had minimalistic detail, capturing the viewer’s attention with a deceptively effortless simplicity.

Another famous contributor to still life photography was Charles Aubry. Their portfolio is a masterclass of botanical art, showcasing the subtle curves and wrinkles of dried flowers, twigs, and leaves. His still lives were mostly created using artful arrangements, though he would occasionally take found still lives in vineyards. 

Photographers of the past didn’t have quite the tools we enjoy today. However, modern photographers can still take a leaf or two out of their book…

an example of still life photography with a white bicycle and a suitcase filled with knick-knacks

Source Image: Pixabay

Necessary Equipment for Taking Still Life Photos

A major appeal of still life photography is its more minimalistic view toward the world and photography gear. Since you’re working with small stages and inanimate objects, you’ll need less equipment than other niches.

Your Camera of Choice

Still life photography is simple to execute with either a smartphone or DSLR camera. This part of the list lies predominantly in your comfort level and budget. 

Smartphones are the more affordable option and are easy to get started. DSLR cameras will still offer more variety when it comes to depth of field, sharper detail, and richer color. 

A Wide Angle Lens to Capture the Environment

Do you want to incorporate more of a room or outdoor environment into a still life shot? A wide angle lens will allow you to capture more surroundings to inform the scene.

While the wide angle lens is not popular for still life photography, you may still find it useful depending on the story you’re trying to tell. The 50mm prime lens is a stable and reliable choice for replicating the human eye closely. If you want to pull back on your still life photography a little, this lens will let you incorporate details such as surrounding trees or nearby furniture.

A Narrow Angle Lens to Focus on a Subject

Most still life photography focuses on a specific subject. The appeal of this niche usually centers on the story behind an object, so a narrow angle lens will direct the viewer’s eye nicely.

A narrow angle lens creates a shallow depth of field, sharpening the subject in the foreground while blurring the background. 

A Macro Lens to Capture a High Level of Detail

Consider using a macro lens for still life photography with a high level of detail – the 90mm macro lens is well-suited to still life photography. These lenses are wonderful for capturing detail such as the delicate texture of flower petals or the fine grain of wood. 

Basic Lighting to Illuminate the Scene

A strong lighting source illuminates your scene and sets the mood for your still life photo. You can go pretty basic with a nearby lamp or step things up with lighting equipment for your studio.

A softbox is a flexible way of shooting your scene – it casts soft and balanced light to ensure there are no harsh shadows. That said, you can always adjust the softbox’s intensity by moving it closer or further from a subject.

Tripod to Stabilize the Shots

Some photos are tricky to take depending on the angle you’re coming at the subject with. If you’re worried about shaking hands or a crooked shot, consider getting a tripod.

There are tripods for smartphones and DSLR cameras. Smartphone tripods are often lightweight and can double as a selfie stick for maximum flexibility. DSLR tripods come in varying heights and weights, so consider your comfort levels before purchasing. A very heavy tripod can be cumbersome to move around.

Photo Editing Program to Make Touch-Ups

A few color corrections or contrast tweaks can breathe new life into your still life photography. Like with any niche, the goal is to enhance what’s already there – not cover up mistakes. 

If you’re using a smartphone camera, you’ll already have a few built-in color correction tools such as filters or contrast sliders. If you prefer a DSLR camera, you can upload your photos and edit them in a program such as Photoshop or GIMP.

indoor still life photography with a white mug on a brown table with a book and orange leaf

Source Image: Pixabay

Ten Tips to Improve Your Beginner Still Life Photos

Everyone has their own way of getting started with still life, whether it’s starting at home or snapping shots at your local community college. These tips will help you avoid common pitfalls and get stronger results.

Find a Few Sources of Inspiration

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel – there are plenty of sources of inspiration you can study from other artists. Understanding how other photographers stage and light their scenes will help you with your own set-ups.

I recommend checking out the following sources of inspiration to stir up the creative juices:

  • Interior design magazines
  • Food photography accounts on social media
  • Aesthetic accounts on social media
  • Studying the work of famous still life photographers (such as Baron Adolf de Meyer)

Narrow Down the Purpose of Your Still Life

The foundation of a memorable photo is the ever-popular question: “Why?” The purpose of your still life should be decided before you start shooting to save you time.

If you’re confused on what your photo’s purpose is, your photography could come out clumsy and unfocused. This could lead you to extra reshoots that leave you frustrated and giving up before you’ve truly gotten started.

Ask yourself what your still life needs to accomplish. Are you trying to sell a product or tell a story? Do you want the viewer to feel hungry when seeing a bowl of fruit or wistful when seeing dried flowers? This broader direction will guide your photographer’s hand so your results fit a little closer to what’s in your head.

Muse Over the Story You’re Trying to Tell

This tip follows hot off the heels of the one above. While the purpose of your still life is more broad, the story is more subtle and specific.

Since there’s rarely any movement or other subjects, a still life’s appeal lies in a story on the margins. It’s a story that’s already happened, about to happen, or is currently happening…but off-screen. The lack of movement or surrounding subjects make the inanimate objects do most of the talking. 

For example, a half-full bowl of fruit on a kitchen table suggests an ongoing appetite of the people who live there. A vase filled with withered flowers could suggest neglect from the owner, perhaps the result of a hard time they’re going through. 

Start With a Simple Set-Up for Easy Adjustments

Elaborate still lives are wondrous to look at, but can be challenging for beginners due to their complexity. A simple set-up of one to three objects is enough so you can make easy adjustments.

A few starter ideas you can try are:

  • A ceramic bowl filled with fruit
  • A cup of tea next to a book
  • A pair of shoes next to a backpack
  • A sentimental object on a side table
  • A stack of books on a chair

Use a Tripod to Stabilize the Shot

Shaky hands are the bane of beginner photographers. Tripods allow you to stabilize your shot to reduce the need for reshoots or extensive photo editing sessions.

Smartphone tripods are similar to selfie sticks, but come with a pronged base to let you settle the phone into place. DSLR camera tripods are varied in size and weight – lightweight ones are best for still lives since these photos are usually taken indoors. A heavyweight tripod will often be too clumsy for minute adjustments.

Always Use a Strong Light Source

Without a strong light source, the finer details of your still life could be completely lost. This could affect your ability to get across the story you’re trying to tell.

If you want to start out simple, use a desk lamp or the flashlight setting on your phone. Both of these can be easily adjusted – by shifting them closer or further from the subject, you can change the strength of the light. 

If you feel like having more variety in light intensity, consider purchasing lighting equipment for your studio. Softboxes are wonderful for creating gentle, even lighting that reduces harsh shadows.

Start Off With a Shallow Depth of Field

The most commonly used depth of field for still life photography is shallow. After all, the objects are the focus of the shot – you want as much attention on them as possible. 

The best aperture settings for still life photography should be in the f/8 to f/16 range. You also don’t need a high shutter speed since your subjects aren’t moving, so consider 1/60th of a second.

Try a Blank Backdrop to Keep the Shot Simple

While you can incorporate many surrounding background elements with a still life, it’s easier to start off with a blank backdrop. Try using a smooth wall or colorful sheet behind your still life to keep your focus on the objects.

This backdrop makes it easier to get comfortable with setting up a scene, positioning your lighting, and taking shots from different angles. As you get used to the process, you can start adding more complex backdrops to keep pushing your storytelling range.

Experiment With Different Frontal or Overhead Shots

Different angles will completely change the tone and story your still life tells. Try to take as many angles as possible during your photoshoot, particularly frontal and overhead shots.

Forward facing shots (or frontal shots) simulate how a person views the world, making the photo feel natural and relaxed. An overhead shot is also natural, but also lets you create details that would be difficult in a forward shot. For example, a scatter of rose petals or trailing crumbs of food are easier to see overhead than straight-on.

Enhance Your Photo With a Little Color Correction

Last but not least, a little color correction will allow you to refine the mood and tone of your still life photo. You can enhance colors your camera didn’t quite catch or boost contrast to ensure your subjects are readable.

You can get experimental with filters, too. Sepia tone filters are wonderful for creating nostalgic photography.

an example of still life photography showing a plant in a tin can on a gray blanket with a book

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Still Life Photography is a Sturdy Foundation for Countless Niches 

While still life photography doesn’t quite hit the prolific level of some niches, it’s actually the foundation for photography as a whole. It’s a masterful depiction of capturing the everyday magic of the world.

The function of still life photography is to hint at stories off-camera, whether it’s a story that’s already happened or is currently happening. This niche can be used to sell a product in an advertisement or to invoke an emotional response in the viewer. As long as inanimate objects are the focus, the photo qualifies as a still life.

Since still lives have static subjects and mundane subject matter, they’re very approachable for beginner photographers. Basic photography equipment such as a light source and tripod will be plenty to capture interesting shots. However, switching between narrow and micro lenses will be useful for expanding your growing visual vocabulary.

There’s magic in the everyday. Still life photography is a sturdy foundation that will enhance not just your photography skill, but how you engage with your life.


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