Living the Still Life

Does anyone really have anywhere they can go right now? Maybe it’s the perfect time to start crafting your images for our February 2021 contest!

Since still-life subjects tend to be … well, still, it’s important to get every detail right. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Photo by Carolyn V from

Put the life into still life

Typically, still-life subjects are inanimate objects that are also relatively commonplace. The challenge is turning something you might overlook on a table into something you would hang up on a wall. To do that, you’ll need to consider many factors, including the arrangement of items, light, composition, color, and so much more.

Photo by Carolyn V from

Choose carefully

Shooting a still life is much like creating a painting. And you have all the time you need to compose a masterpiece. So carefully consider your equipment, subject, and point of view (both the camera angle and your own personality).

Almost all camera types can be used for still-life photography, including cell phones. Usually, subjects are represented as they would appear in real life, so you’ll want to use a lens that doesn’t distort the view. Anything from 50mm to 125mm should be fine. A 50mm prime lens is the favorite choice of many. Keep in mind that it will work more like an 80mm on a cropped sensor. So you will lose some of the area surrounding your subject, which may not be a bad thing.

Photo by Carolyn V from

Subject matter ranges greatly for still-life photos. Food and flowers are very common choices. The end result is less about what you choose and more about how you capture it. But picking an interesting subject is a good start. On the other hand, doing something amazing with a boring object may be more impactful.

The angle of your shot also matters. The most common perspectives are slightly above your subject or directly overhead. The object isn’t going to move, so the photographer should. Take the time to see what angle looks best. It often boils down to what emotion you’re trying to evoke.

Prop it up

Photo by Jane Ackerley from

The use of interesting props can delight your viewers and keep them in the photo longer. But props can also work against you. Try to select items that are in the same visual key:

  • similar shapes and tones
  • complimentary colors
  • items that belong together

An antique pocket watch might look odd next to something modern like a cell phone, unless that contrast is the point of the photograph. Too many attention-grabbing items will compete with each other, unless you use depth of field and color choice to manage the presentation.

Photo by Clarissa Carbungco from

Have a hierarchy. Remember, the eye typically goes to the brightest spot first, especially if there is strong contrast. Color can also attract or distract, so use it wisely. In general, simpler is almost always better, so choose your props judiciously.

Stay focused

Since your subject is sitting still, there is really no excuse for it to be out of focus. A tripod will help immensely here. After you’ve determined the best angle for the shot, clamp your camera down to keep it in place. Then use a shutter release or the two-second timer on your camera to prevent any shake caused by your finger pressing the shutter button.

And stay in manual focus mode.

Photo by Ornella Binni from

Keep in mind that other factors will affect the sharpness of your photograph. Prime lenses are typically sharper than zoom lenses. Selecting a small aperture (f/16 or beyond) may cause some diffraction, so try to shoot a little more open, e.g. f/8. Of course, this will reduce your depth of field, so you may want to stack the focus.

Focus stacking is done by simply taking a series of images while moving the focal range from foreground to background, whatever you want to be sharp in the final image. Then use Photoshop or another post-processing software to combine the shots and create a final image in which every important part is in perfect focus.

See the light

Lighting may be one of the most important aspects of still-life photography. Many photographers like to work with natural light because of it’s beautiful qualities; however, that varies with time and cloud cover. Artificial light is more controllable, but not everyone has access to that equipment. Your on-camera flash will rarely give you a pleasing result. Still life images are often lit from the side to accentuate textures and add dimension.

Some pros recommend having the light come from the left side which puts the shadows on the right and helps direct the eye through the image. If you’re using artificial light, play around with angles and distance and see how it affects your shadows. Also, use reflectors to fill in the dark areas and soften the contrast.

Tell a story

Photo by Mae Mu from

It’s quite a feat just to capture an image that is well lit and composed. But photos that evoke some emotion from the viewer will score even better. One shot may create a sense of nostalgia (like an antique leaning on a dusty table). Another may have a slight edge (like a Popsicle about to drip onto a white lace tablecloth). Or maybe it’s just creating energy with color and shapes, like this eggs-and-milk image.

So think about your shot. Should you use low-key lighting to create a dramatic mood? Or should you try high-key lighting to show more detail? Those images could also come in handy for our April 2021 contest (High or Low Key Images).

Sweat the details

Still-life photography is less about capturing a moment and more about creating one. Everything in the photo should be contributing to the overall impact. Choose a background that matches your intent. Some are completely neutral because they are to be ignored. Others are textured, or colorful, or chosen because they help tell the story. Foreground elements are often out of focus and simply help lead the eye toward the subject.

Photo by Daniel Cheung from

Make sure everything is clean, unless it’s supposed to be dirty. Remove dust, fingerprints, and any other distracting marks or smudges. If you’re shooting shiny objects, be careful about reflections and/or any hot spots they may cause in the image.

Place your most important elements using the rule of thirds, unless you have a good reason to break the rule. Remember that clusters of odd-numbered items tend to be more visually pleasing than evens. Vertical and horizontal lines communicate stability. Diagonals add some tension and excitement.

Photo by Loli Clement from

To better assess your shot’s composition, try using the live view on the back of your camera or tethering to a laptop.

This was a long article, but there’s much more to know. Consult the internet for pages that will inform and images that will inspire. Good luck in February and all of 2021!