When we think of still life, the first image that comes to mind is a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. We think of drawing still life and depicting the object that is right in front of us. With still life photography, the emphasis is placed on your creative freedom to create an image, as opposed to merely capturing an image. The simplicity and stillness of your subject allows you to truly zero in on elements such as arrangement, lighting and composition, and try out new techniques.
So how should one go about approaching this genre?
The hero of a still life image is the subject matter. Observe your surroundings and pay attention to different textures, colours and shapes. Choosing objects that work together visually and keeping a similar theme allows you to tell a cohesive story within a single image. When deciding on your subject, you don’t necessarily have to stick to the traditional flowers or fruits. Older, antique subjects could be interesting, as their wear and tear has a subtle, untold history about them, making you wonder what they’ve been through. Alternatively, create a more modern still life photo by using more contemporary stylish trends and colours.
Your subject matter can be visually pleasing, or it can be extra personal. What you want to achieve with still life photography is to create something new out of an ordinary object and challenge your viewer to think about the subject in a different way. Only then, will you be able to create truly impactful works of art that aren’t merely limited to what the object is.
What can you do with your set up to make it eye-catching and interesting, and create a lasting image in the viewer’s mind? Still life photography pushes you to explore the limits of your creativity. Try out different backdrops and textures, such as cardboard, burlap sacks, or even newspaper, and see how the mood of your image can change with just a simple tweak. The general rule of thumb is to keep to more neutral tones such as whites, greys and blacks, all while remembering that whatever you use should not distract from your subject matter.
Lighting is one of the best ways you can adjust the mood or inject an interesting element to your visuals. With natural lighting, simply place your subject by the window and angle it in different ways to test out how the light hits your object. Furthermore, being patient and snapping shots at different hours of the day — morning, afternoon, golden hour, blue hour — could yield vastly different effects that might surprise you!
As for artificial lighting, light reflectors can allow you to manipulate natural light in your scene. Other equipment can also be used to soften shadows, illuminate the subject and highlight different textures. The trick to making your picture seem like it has been taken in a professional studio is to set your camera to a very fast shutter speed, low ISO setting and a narrow aperture. Doing so will keep ambient light out of the image and give you more control over the light from your flash.
No matter what kind of lighting you decide to use, the fool proof way to master still life photography is through trial and error. Take your time with it — after all, your subject isn’t going anywhere!
A good composition can make a masterpiece out of even the simplest and dullest objects. A bowl of fruit could be elevated just by adding elements to help guide the viewer through the image. In this sense, still life photography can be said to be deceptively simple, as most of us would dive headfirst without actually planning, causing you to lose direction during your shoots.
Try incorporating frames to divide your still life composition, such as chalk drawing or separate compartments, and add a unique aspect to your images. To break the monotony, place objects at an angle or overlap them to emphasise volume and depth. The final image can be as minimal or maximal as you’d like, after all, there’s a world of possibilities for you to explore in this genre.
Whether you’re a budding photographer or an experienced professional, still life photography serves as a way for you to build on your portfolio and apply those photography skills in a setting that gives you the creative freedom to experiment and explore. There’s opportunity waiting for you at every corner, just have a look around you and put together something amazing for your next still life masterpiece!