Many find shooting still life images a real challenge when they’re just starting out because it can be hard to know where to start. But taking the time to shoot a great still life can be a rewarding and somewhat meditative pastime for photographers.
Still life photography can help you hone your photographic skills at your own pace while still creating work that can go in a portfolio or be printed for your wall. But styling tabletop images doesn’t come naturally to all photographers, so here are some simple things to think about when you’re next shooting still life.
Choose props for color and mood
Now might be a good time to go and brush up on your color knowledge, because you’re really going to need it when it comes to creating still life images! Everything, including the colors, in your still life scene, will be there because you put it there. Nothing has to make it onto your tabletop studio if you don’t want to include it in your shot.
Colors can be a way of introducing either harmony or contrast. If you were photographing something blue, for example, and you used blue and green backgrounds you’d have a very harmonious and potentially calm image. On the other hand, if you added yellows or oranges into the scene, it would create tension and result in a more dynamic overall feeling to the shot.
You can bring color to your still life images in different ways. Backgrounds, fabrics, plates, bowls, vases – all these items are props that you can start collecting to build up a color library of props. Don’t forget natural objects like flowers and foliage too; they can often really bring a shot to life.
Selecting complementary backdrops
Your backdrops will often be the most dominant colors in your scene, so pick wisely (it’s also hard to change it once you’ve started arranging your props). Pick your backdrops according to the feel you’d like to create in your final image.
Backdrops can be anything that works with the scene you’re creating. It might be a marble countertop, a beautiful old farmhouse table, or a complementary piece of fabric. Whatever helps to set the mood for your images.
As well as the color of your backdrop, think about the texture as well. A scuffed up, blackened old baking tray creates a very different feel to draped silk. Think about the way that different backdrops make you feel as you select them for your scenes and decide if that’s correct for the kind of story you’re trying to tell in your photograph.
Over time you will build up a library of different backdrops to use in your shots. Then you can create a whole variety of different styles of images just by switching out the backdrop. Keep your eye open when you’re out and about for potential backdrops to add to your library!
Thinking about texture
I love including texture in my still life photographs, and it has become a part of my style now. Scouring both high street and artists shops for interestingly textured table linens, bowls, and backgrounds for my still life images are favorite pastimes.
Along with all the other elements of a still life image, texture can really help set the mood. Are you shooting something rustic that would have its story helped by the introduction of some beautiful coarse fabric? Or maybe you’re photographing a more modern scene that would benefit from glossy backdrops and slick, shiny props?
It also adds interest and depth to your final image. If you look around the room you’re in I’m sure you’ll see a whole variety of different textures. Perhaps you have a smooth leather chair with a velvet cushion on it, placed next to a distressed wood coffee table. Our lives are a riot of different textures, and these affect our senses both visually and through touch.
Since you can’t touch the objects in a photograph, you need to tell the viewer what they’re like. Texture is the main way to visually convey what something would feel like if you reached into the photograph and touched it. With that in mind, pay attention to what the textures in your shot are telling your viewer.
Create a beginning, middle, and end
Just like a good story, a photograph needs a beginning, middle, and end. Except we usually refer to these things as foreground, middle ground, and background when it comes to visual storytelling. Creating a layered effect in your photographs helps to create depth in what is a two-dimensional object.
Try building your still life scenes intentionally. First of all, place your main object roughly where you think you’d like it to be. It helps if you put your camera on a tripod for this because you can keep the framing and focus consistent.
After you’ve placed your main object try creating some foreground interest. This could be some petals if you were photographing flowers, or perhaps the curled corner of table linen if you were shooting food. Anything that leads the eye into the shot without distracting too much from the main focal point is good. You want something that adds to the story.
Lastly, place a background element in your scene. In the shots above, I’ve added a yellow napkin which both creates interests and adds a contrasting color, but you could be more subtle. Your background itself could also be your background element if it were sufficiently interesting! It should be like a “full stop” to your composition; ending the viewer’s attention the same way that a full stop ends a sentence.
You might find it easier to play with compositional colors and shapes for the foreground and background if you use a shallow depth of field. Rendering these elements as out of focus in your scene helps to keep the viewer’s attention on the main focus of your image.
Finishing an image in post-processing
There’s no rule in creative still life photography that says the colors have to be true to life. Using different colors – or even turning your digital files black and white – can result in a change of mood and story.
Processing your still life images in Adobe Lightroom allows you to create duplicates of images and try out different color treatments while comparing them side by side. It’s great for black and white conversions too. The best thing about Adobe Lightroom is that the editing is completely non-destructive to the original file. This means you can try out everything from wild color treatments to something more conservative and always go back to the original file.
I touched on color grading your still life photographs in a previous article. It can help evoke different moods, bringing different colors to the fore. It can also help to make items really pop off the page if you use color grading in a way that emphasizes your main subject.
Color grading your shots can also help to contribute to a more coherent style in your work. You don’t always have to treat the color in your images the same way, but over time you might notice that you seem to pick up a style the more you shoot. This can help to make your work recognizable which you might find desirable.
Put it all Together
Now that you know the simple ways that you can improve your still life images it’s time for you to have a go. Get some inspiration, shoot some images, and then come back and let us see them in the comments!
Don’t be afraid to work slowly and try new things when you’re shooting still life. The objects in your scene are not going anywhere, and they won’t run out of patience as a portrait subject will! Also remember, you don’t have to show anyone the images if you’re not completely happy with them.