Hoping to try your hand at Still Life photography?
With so many styles and genres of photography, there is none as versatile as Still Life. It gives the photographer the most creative freedom, as you control all aspects of the image from composition, lighting to the subject matter. It is also one of the best ways you can brush up on your photography skills because you are not trying to chase that elusive toddler or wait for the perfect lighting situation. What you photograph is entirely up to you, and you can practice anytime. Anywhere.
Equipment you’ll need.
Before we dive into what exactly is Still Life, let’s take a moment to discuss what you will need. Any camera can capture great images. For photographing in low light or to avoid camera shake, a tripod is a must. Most Still Life images are shot at f/8 or f/11 so that most lenses will do the job just nicely. The 24-105 mm f/4 is the most highly recommended, along with a 100 mm macro f/2.8 for taking those close up shots. But, this is your creative journey. So experiment with different focal lengths. Do not be afraid to challenge yourself or try something new.
What exactly is “Still Life” photography?
By definition, Still Life is the art of photographing inanimate objects which can be natural (flowers, food, plants, rocks, etc) or man-made (books, vases, glasses, jewelry) typically arranged in small groups. The French refer to it as “nature morte” or dead nature. To me, this just sounds disturbing. When I think of the term still life, I think of art class and that vase of flowers or bowl of fruit placed onto the table top. But, in truth, it is so much more.
Created or Found: It’s “Still Life.”
Imagine you are out for a walk in the woods. You turn the corner and bam! You see the most exciting composition of branches near a fallen tree. Or a leaf pile ablaze with fall colors. These are examples of found still life, where you do not control the subject matter or composition. Think of a bicycle rack with tire after tire in line casting long shadows on the ground. Rusted train tracks embedded in weeds. A covered bridge tagged with graffiti. A shiny leaf is glistening in dew. Once you begin to see these everyday items as potential subject matter, you open up a whole new realm of artistic expression.
When you create a still life image, you decide what you want in the photograph. It may be that proverbial bowl of fruit as mentioned above, or it can be your son’s matchbox cars. Tiny tennis shoes with laces undone. A shiny red apple with a bite taken out of it. Or for those wedding photographers like myself, wedding bands showcasing a glorious diamond. The possibilities are endless. Chose what matters to you.
No matter what you select as your subject for Still Life, there should be something interesting about it. The shape, texture, color, or some other feature which makes it stand out.
The Power of Three
They say that things which come in three are funnier, more satisfying and more effective. Odd numbers are visually more appealing, and three is the start of a pattern. It is used in storytelling, songs, jokes and of course photography. In art, three is the magic number. Three items help create a visual triangle, drawing your eye in the photograph. We also have what is called the Rule of Thirds. Where your picture is divided up into a grid of three equal parts horizontally and vertically, and your subject is placed on one of the intersections between third lines.
Most cameras today are equipped with this grid built into the viewfinder to assist with placement. You can also check your images in software programs such as Photoshop or Lightroom to see if you are maintaining the Rule of Thirds. Once you train your eye on this concept, your images will continuously improve.
Now that we understand the Rule of Thirds let’s think about composition, or how the subject is placed in your frame. There are seven elements to consider in photography: Line, Shape, Form, Texture, Pattern, Color and Space.
The line is the most important of these elements, as your eye will follow the line in the photograph whether it is visible or invisible. There is the term leading lines in which something in the image creates an actual line, pulling your eyes toward your subject. Now, think of actual lines themselves and the feelings they evoke. Soft curvy or horizontal lines are more relaxing, and diagonal lines suggest movement. Consider what emotion you want to portray in your image. Use a line to set the mood.
A shape is the outline of the subject, while Form is how shadow and light add depth to your shape. The texture is the details on the surface of the shape. The light will emphasise either the softness or the roughness of the image, depending on its direction. A pattern is the repetition of shapes or textures. Color sets the mood and can be calming or impactful and bright. Blues, greens, and purples are cool colors and feel calm, peaceful or even sad. Where red, orange and yellows are warm colors and feel alive and full of energy. Lastly, we will talk about Space.
Space is another very important aspect of photography composition. It is the distance between objects, the perspective, and proportion of the object. You can vary how something appears, by bringing it closer (more substantial) or farther away (smaller). Another essential aspect is Negative Space, or what you put into the area around your focus or subject.
Perspective is the position of the human eye about the subject; it also refers to the space between objects. For example, the further away it is, the smaller it appears. We can also create the appearance of distance by placing a more massive object in the foreground. Think about those railroad tracks again. As you look down them, they seem to get closer until they meet in the distance. That is because straight objects tend to converge the further they get away from the viewer’s eye. We can change the way an object looks depending on its size its distance from the camera. Shoot your scene from above. What about eye level. Shoot from below. How does this affect your image? Sometimes giving a “different” look or something that is different from the usual eye view can add interest and make your photograph more impactful.
We know “what” we want to photograph, and talked about composition to make the picture more visually appealing. Now, the background you chose for your Still Life is just as necessary.
With still life, it is best to keep it simple, so your main focus does not get lost in the background. What about a light colored wall? A dark piece of granite? Choose something which compliments your subject matter. Experiment with white foam board, or a reflective surface like a mirror. Change it up and play with color and textures. A clean background, such as a plain white sheet will also give you greater control over how light impacts your subject and make it stand out.
One object can look very different when shot from different angles and lighting.
Light and Still Life Natural vs. Artificial
The beauty of still life photography is you can do it anywhere or anytime, day or night. You can take your set up outside, or place it by a window for natural light. Use a white reflector, or make one out of white poster board or foam core.
Now, try using a table lamp or studio lighting to illuminate your subject. Place it to the right, the left, or even behind. Watch how the shadows fall. Does it emphasize or distract? What about lighting from above, or directly below? When using artificial lighting for still life, it is best to use diffused light like a softbox for more even lighting. Whereas a robust straight bulb will create harsh shadows, or hot spots and wash your subject out. Practice with your light until you are comfortable, and your style emerges.
Traveling Lego exhibit “The Art of the Brick” photographed on location in Tampa, Florida.
I understand Still Life, now what?
You have practiced and have added some pretty excellent still life images to your collection. So, what’s next? There are many ways you can market your new skill in Still Life. Media and publications utilize this form of photography. Instagram and Facebook are filled with still life showcasing products, locations or businesses. Take your camera with you, and snap a quick shot of your beverage outside your favorite coffee shop. The marquee outside your favorite theatre. Network with local businesses, and you may establish yourself as a product or food photographer. Wedding photographers highlight detail shots of the rings, shoes, invitations, etc. Whatever form of photography you enjoy, Still Life plays a vital part.
So get out there and give still life a try. Experiment. See what works, and what doesn’t. Still life images are a fun and creative way to expand your photography skills. And who knows? You may create something spectacular and moving out of something as simple as Still Life.