Still life photography has always been popular and in demand. And these days, the popularity of this photography genre has not disappeared. Moreover, it is more relevant than ever. Today’s professional photographers are very fond of shooting still life.
These days still life photography is very often in demand by publishers of various magazines, owners of online stores, and food businesses. And this is not surprising because this business is very profitable from the point of view of commerce. Still life photography is needed both for product catalogs and for advertising brochures. And also, in photographic galleries, the still life photos are willingly bought to decorate interiors.
Still life photography is also famous among non-professional photographers and lovers of creative photography. The fact is that when working on still life, the photographer does not need to go somewhere, to hurry, to be afraid not to miss the right moment, as in reportage photography, or to wait for a particular state of the weather as when working on landscape photography. Also, the still life is static. A composition built from various objects can stand for as long as necessary until the photographer completes the work and disassembles it.
Definition: What is Still Life Photography?
Still life photography is a genre of photographic art that depicts inanimate objects in the most aesthetic, expressive, or creative way. Still life photography is in high demand in the advertising industry. Most often, flowers, dishes, fruits, and vintage items are subject to this photography genre.
Did you know that still life is one of the earliest genres of photography? It was the favorite genre of one of the inventors of photography, the French artist and scientist Louis Daguerre. His famous still life photograph is The Artist Workshop, which he made in the year 1837.
The History of Still Life Photography
Still life photography was born in the early experiments of photographic inventors Louis Daguerre and William Talbot. Fixed objects were best suited for this purpose because of the long exposure time. One of the earliest examples of this genre that has survived to this day dates back to 1839. These are Plaster casts by Armand Pierre Seguier.
Nowadays, still life photography is more often used indoors, but in the middle of the 19th century, the photosensitivity of the equipment was low, and it was necessary to go outside. Many were filming in the garden, so their main subjects were watering cans, buckets, and leaves in the early works.
The photographic still life in the 19th century was mostly influenced by painting. The photographers were trying to repeat the content and composition of the famous paintings. The art of the Dutch is a classic example of this.
In the 20th century, photographers began to deviate from tradition and look for new equipment and subject content. They experimented with camera angles, used close-up photography, and used machines as a subject instead of flowers.
In the second half of the 20th century, this genre became popular in the advertising industry. Irving Penn, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, worked a lot in this direction. For the first time in history, his still life photograph got on the cover of a fashion magazine. Now such pictures are found everywhere, including among bloggers on social networks.
Features of Still Life Photography
Working in the still life genre, the photographer does not try to capture the moment, but he creates an image and brings it to full compliance with the plan. The skills required for reportage photography are usually not needed here. We can say features of still life photography are to build a composition, crop, feel color, and light.
New photographers have often faced the problem that the objects in the picture seem to collect disparate things. They must be arranged so that a connection is formed between the objects and the look that perceives the picture as a whole. The selection of the background also requires attention. It can both spoil the image and give things an unexpected look.
Photographing the stationary subjects is a convenient opportunity to hone your lighting and other technical skills. For this purpose, many people turn to that, although the genre is inferior in popularity to landscape and portrait photography.
Basics of Still Life Photography
I hope that this old classic genre of photography will interest you, and you will try to photograph a still life at least once. Bellow, I will give you some tips about working on still life photography. Let’s start with the required photographic equipment.
Many people think that creating a still life requires a studio and expensive and complex photographic equipment, but this is not true in all cases. You can start with an ordinary DSLR, even of an average price level (professionals, of course, work with expensive and more solid equipment).
In still life photography, sharpness should be perfect. You have plenty of time to focus. Because of this, a macro lens is very well suited for still life photography. If you don’t have a macro lens, we recommend shooting in macro mode.
Depending on what kind of lighting you intend to create, you may need a tripod. When working in this genre, a tripod for a photographer is the most faithful and reliable assistant. By mounting the camera on a tripod, you can freely observe what is happening in your frame. A tripod will also help you create great long exposure shots.
Background for Still Life Photography
The background in still life photography is essential. A correctly selected background is already, one might say, half the success. The background should not distract the viewer’s attention from the objects that he sees in the frame, should not attract this attention, should not be conspicuous in the first place.
You can use a plain wall, a sheet of paper or cardboard, and fabric as a background. There may be a discreet drawing in the background, and it should be soft, in pastel colors. It can also be dark or even deep black in general. It doesn’t have to be white.
A textured background also shows itself well in still life photos – for example, a log wall of a house or simply roughing an un-planed board. But in this case, the objects themselves must be in harmony with such a background.
Think about how the background in your still life will contrast with the objects. If you decide that the background of your still life will be simple, then think carefully about its color. The background shade should be selected so that it is harmonious concerning the objects that make up your still life. It complements it tonal, compositionally, and semantic.
If you are photographing small objects, then you will not need an extensive background. You can quickly get by with a piece of Whatman paper or a portion of the fabric of the same size. By the way, black velvet looks good as a background for still life photos. This fabric perfectly absorbs light and creates beautiful tones in its folds.
Lighting for Still Life Photography
For still life photography, there is no particular need to acquire expensive studio lighting fixtures. It is quite possible to do without them. In still life photography, the photographer has a huge advantage: complete control over everything that happens, including lighting.
If you need to get rid of natural light completely, close the curtains or blinds. If this does not give the desired effect and you do not have another room, the still-life shooting can be safely transferred to the dark without windows. But do not forget that beautiful still-life photographs can be taken in natural light, including outside the apartment, in the open air.
If you know how to properly work with certain types of lamps, then using their light can be very productive. Try to focus their light on objects from different angles. The simplest but at the same time, and the most losing option is direct frontal lighting. Pictures in this kind of lighting are flat, dull, and completely uninteresting.
If conditions allow you to use a window as your primary light source, do not be afraid to shoot in such fantastic lighting.
In some cases, you can also use a reflector. If you do not have a reflector (although they are relatively inexpensive and advise you to get them), they can be replaced with sheets of foil, cardboard, or paper. Even an ordinary newspaper can be used as a reflector, no matter how strange it may seem at first glance.
In the middle of the 20th century, the famous Czech photographer and founder of the Czech Photo magazine Vaclav Jiru, photographed magnificent still-life photos in the moonlight.
Choosing a Subject for Still Life Photography
The choice here depends entirely on you; select whatever you want and start taking pictures. Look around. How many exciting things surround you? All these items have a varied shape, texture, and color, and they are all made from various materials. Each item is unique in its way, and each thing is fantastic and amazing. Each thing has its own story.
Many new photographers sometimes think one-sidedly, stereotypically. They believe that still life photography is purely a depiction of flowers or fruits. It’s not like that at all. Beauty can be found in anything: in an old iron, an antique porcelain plate, in the most ordinary book. It would be best if you learned to approach the selection of items unconventionally and creatively. Even regular pliers can be so beautifully presented to the viewer that he will admire them for more than one hour in your photograph.
When shooting various objects, please pay special attention to the material by which they are made. For beginner photographers, I recommend avoiding glare surfaces, things that reflect light at the first stage. Such objects can distort the light in the frame.
Important Still Life Photography Tips for Beginners
When working on still life photography, it would be nice to turn to the experience of predecessors and classics in this type of creativity. In these classic canvases, you can spy on the composition, lighting scheme, and much more. Please take a close look at how artists convey objects’ shape, texture, and color, and this will significantly enhance the quality of still life photographs you create.
Composition is an essential component of a still life photography. Before you start shooting a still life, I strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the fundamental laws and rules of composition in photography. For example – the rule of thirds, the law of the golden ratio, the laws of perspective and direction lines. Having learned the theory of composition, you will be able to boldly and fruitfully apply your knowledge in practice. And sometimes, these laws, this theory, have to be violated. But to break something, you need to know something.
For still life photography, you need to learn to think outside the box, not to follow the beaten path. Think, first of all, about which object, at which point in the frame, the viewer’s eye will fall in the first place. Notice the white space in the frame. How to make the main subject of a still life look the most advantageous? By answering these and many other questions for yourself, you can take a still life photograph wonderful in composition and lighting.
2. The Mood and Atmosphere
Believe it or not, but the quality of still life photographs is influenced by the photographer’s mood, his state of mind, in which he stays while working. It’s like an experienced housewife’s pies. If she is in a bad mood, she will never approach the pies. And if nevertheless, their oven is taken, then they will turn out to be tasteless and ugly. So, it is the same here. Moreover, the mood is essential not only when working on a still life, but also in other genre of photography. If the photographer enjoys what he is doing, if he is passionate about this business, works with enthusiasm, the result will be excellent.
When working in this genre, you need not rush but pay close attention to every little thing, every stroke, every glare in the frame. Slowly set objects, slowly pick up the background, create the lighting you need. Make some takes. Look at these blanks on the monitor screen. If you don’t like something – take another approach, more tries. Fortunately, today there is no need to spare photographic film and chemicals.
3. Camera Setting & Lighting
I recommend shooting still life with the aperture as wide as possible. If you lack light, this will not bother you because you will be photographing from a tripod, which means that the exposures can be arbitrarily long.
If your goal is to create a blurred background in your still life, open the aperture wider. If you want to achieve the perfect sharpness of your photo craft’s shots, close the aperture. By the way, an excellent blurred background is obtained when working with high-aperture lenses.
Let us remind you once again that a still life is not only a photograph of flowers in a vase, beautiful vegetables, or fruits. Any subject can be the subject of shooting. Your main task is to revive it, breathe soul into it. Invest in this work a piece of your soul. Find such items and work with them.
If you received a commercial order to photograph particular objects that may not be close to you in spirit, do not like you, try to love them, understand, set up an internal dialogue with them. In this case, everything should work out for you.
Still Life Photography at Home
It is quite possible to create beautiful still life photographs at home, in an ordinary apartment. The space of your home, its interiors, and textures can be a great source of inspiration and excellent subjects for your work. A window can work very well as a light source. You can also create a background for a still life the way you want, from the scrap materials.
The Most Famous Still Life Photographers
Artisans who fully devote themselves to still life photography are rare. But many famous photographers have left a noticeable mark in this direction. Here are some well-known photographers of still life photography:
Andre Kertesz. A Hungarian-born photographer who has captured still life throughout his career. The strengths of his works are the verified composition and dramatic chiaroscuro.
Paul Outerbridge. At a young age, this master has already been published in Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines. His nude pictures caused scandals. Outerbridge has done a lot to develop color still life photography.
Josef Sudek. The nickname of this photographer is the Prague Poet. He lived simultaneously as Outerbridge but created works that were opposite in meaning – subtle and lyrical.
Boris Smelov. Petersburg photographer, close in style to Sudek, shot classic black and white photos in retro style. With the help of antiques, he recreated the life of a bygone time.
Martin Parr. Contemporary photographer, member of the Magnum photo agency. His still-life photographs are often satirical and even provocative. Parr shows the monotonous everyday life as it is, without trying to embellish it.
Sharon Core. An American artist who reinterprets famous paintings in photography. She repeats paintings from different eras, from Dutch still life of the 16th century to pop art.