Better Still Life Photography

Still life photography is deceptively difficult to pull off.  In regular landscape photography one is trying to find an abstract slice of the reality in front of them.  You see a scene and then look at it at different angles until you find the right composition.

With still life photography one creates the entire composition from scratch – from the selection of props to the arrangement to lens choice, focal length decisions and lighting.

Still life photography is a genre of photography used for the depiction of inanimate subject matter, typically a small group of objects. It is the application of photography to the still life artistic style. An example is food photography.

This genre gives the photographer more leeway in the arrangement of design elements within a composition compared to other photographic genres, such as landscape or portrait photography. Lighting and framing are important aspects of still life photography composition.

Some tips:

  1.  Choose a theme – pick objects that support a concept or theme of the photograph.  Is it your father’s old desk with writing instruments, a tea time setting, a musical theme, fishing season, romance, nostalgia or what have you.
  2. Think triangles.  Arrange objects in triangular relationship to each other so that the viewer moves from one object to another and back.  You can also think of this a circular pattern with the idea that the viewer should scan the image but always be returning to it not going out frame.
  3. Rule of thirds – The rule of thirds comes in hand when positioning objects in the scene.  Try to get the main object in one of the golden spots.
  4. Use color and light and dark areas to attract the eye into the triangles.  A light area over a dark area or a serious of red objects can attract the viewer.  Use these to create triangle.
  5. Simply.  Simplify the image with shallow depth of field.  Focus on the main subjects of the image and let the rest fade into the background.  You can also achieve this with lighting.  Think of the dramatic lighting used by the old masters.  Let the background fade to black and highlight what’s important with beautiful glowing light.
  6. Create depth.  Just like a good landscape, a still life can have a foreground, middle ground and background.  It can also include other com-positional elements like leading lines.
  7. Tell a story.  Create a story for the objects. Maybe its an upcoming wedding, getting a Dear John letter or something.  Select and arrange the objects to they tell a story.

Here are some example of my still life work and why I think these images work.

Photography Prints

This still life featuring my grandfather’s old shaving set is a study of angles. I moved in close with a 50mm Macro lens so that I could create an almost abstract arrangement of the similarly colored objects. The warm weathered brass razor is close enough to see the years of tiny scratches but the shallow depth of field allows the rest of the image to fade to the background. Dramatic side lighting highlights the teeth of the old brass safety razor.

Sell Art Online

This Champagne bottle still life is a good example of a theme, concept and storytelling.  You immediately get the idea that this is a scene of then end of some kind of party or celebration.  You just know the just wed couple is enjoying their honeymoon somewhere because of the evidence left behind.  The focus is on the detail of the cork and its glorious texture.  The empty bottle stands out in the background – black on the lighter wooden surface while the glasses stand out against the dark background.  The eye travels down a lane, cork, cork wire, bottle, glasses – ah I see what’s going on here!

Sell Art Online

This still life of old books and an apple is a good example of a concept or theme.  It’s also a simple image and one that strictly follows the rule of thirds.  The elements are arranged so that the apple occupies one of the golden spots as well as the corners of the book.  With the camera mounted on a tripod and the rule of thirds grid on, the objects were carefully arranged into this composition.  The apple and the corners of the books also create a triangle which brings the viewers eyes around the image.

Photography Prints

Composition comes into play with this shot of blueberries on an old sliver spoon but this macro shot is also about the texture of the blueberry skin and the tarnished silver.  Ultimately though this shot is about the beautiful low key lighting that highlights that one blueberry.  Its a combination of studio lighting was well as post processing work of dodging and burning to bring out the highlights while letting the lesser important details fade to black.  Don’t forget the lighting – after all photography is all about capturing light.
Art Prints

Here is another blueberry still life that using the rule of thirds to aid the composition.  The lead blueberry resides in one of the sweet spots and the bowl of blueberries balances out the “white” space at the bottom of the image.  Here the overall lighting is flat with very little dark areas.  The image is simplified by its limited color range of white to light blue.

Like I said, still life has a lot more going on behind the scenes than you might think at first glance.  There is a lot of effort made to make the final image appear effortless.


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This article gives examples and tips for creating beautiful still life images.  The concepts of composition and lighting are discussed as well as an analysis of several still life photographs by fine art photographer Edward M. Fielding


Bonus: Master Photographers to study

Irving Penn

Still life by Irving Penn
Still life by Irving Penn



Edward Weston