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What do you think of when you hear ‘still life photography’? The traditional mental image is of fruit or flowers photographed in vibrant colours. But what is still life photography exactly?

Still life photography is all about inanimate subject matter. You can photograph food, flowers, ornaments, toys . . . anything that doesn’t move. And it doesn’t have to be in colour!

Black and white still life photographs are beautiful in their simplicity. Looking for a photographic challenge to push your creative boundaries?

Read on for my top 5 tips to get the most out of your black and white still life photography.

A black and white still life photo of a wine glass

5. Be Inspired by Famous Still Life Photographers

Planning and researching a black and white still life photo shoot is essential. The process requires a bit of brain re-wiring. That way you’ll ‘think’ in black and white and choose the right objects, lighting, and story for your photo.

Check out work by famous still life photographers to help with this. Grand masters such as Edward Weston and Karl Blossfeldt were pioneers of photography. They created unique works of art in black and white from every day objects.

Give yourself time and space. Roughly sketch the way you want your photo to look.

What are the first features of the object that catch your eye? Make notes of the lines, textures, or tones you want to emphasise.

A black and white still life photo of a Blossfeldt-inspired Centaurea Cineraria shot at f/8, 1/8sec, ISO100.

My Blossfeldt-inspired Centaurea Cineraria. f/8, 1/8sec, ISO100.

4. Enhance Texture and Shape With Lighting

Without colour getting in the way, you can play to the great strengths of black and white – texture and shape. Look to see where lines intersect and how light accentuates different textures.

Think about this throughout the black and white still life photography process. From selecting your subject matter and photographing it, to post-production and presentation.

I prefer to use low key lighting with either natural light from a window (on a cloudy day), or a soft side light. I usually experiment with and without a reflector. Then I review the photographs in post-production. That way I can see which version works best for texture and shape.

Move your subject around and see how it catches the light from different angles. Sometimes a subtle move of half a centimetre can make a big difference.

Black and white still life photography can often feel surprisingly physical. You’re moving back and forth from the camera to the subject matter!

A black and white still life of a brussels sprout.

My take on a Brussels Sprout. f/7.1, 1/2 sec, ISO 100.

3. Tell a Story – Black And White Still Life Photography Ideas

You’re making a photo without people or movement. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t tell a story. Consider shapes of leaves at different stages of their life cycle. And how grey tones can instill emotion into the photograph.

Black and white photos of flowers reveal the true beauty of their lines and shapes. Black and white flower photography is a great starting point for monochromatic still life photography.

The style and texture of a weathered shoe in black and white tell us about their owner.Even without a human in the photograph.

Antique objects photograph beautifully in black and white. And their story is enhanced using warm or sepia monochrome tones.

Look around your home or garden. See what subjects you can find that tell a personal story. Even the most mundane object can become a work of art. All it needs is the right texture and shape with careful lighting and post-production.

Have a go at some of these black and white still life photography ideas:

  • Jewellery from an elderly relative;
  • Your favourite children’s books;
  • Coffee;
  • The beautiful but slippery flowers that drop on your garden path;
  • An old (or new!) camera;
  • Bunches of herbs;
  • A collection of weeds;
  • Your favourite food;
  • Shells and driftwood from your last beach walk.

A black and white food photography shot

2. Simple Compositions Work Best for Black and White Still Life

Black and white photography is all about shapes, lines, and textures. It’s important to use a very clear and simple composition that doesn’t distract from these elements.

With still life photography, I tend to be a stickler for the rules of thirds and odds. And the golden triangle and ratio.

If you’re uncertain of your composition, remove something from the frame. Or take a step back to include more negative space.

A black and white food still life shot of vegetables

1. Adjusting Colour for Black And White Still Life Photos

When it comes to black and white still life photography, clicking the shutter is only part of the process. Fine-tuning images in post-production is the important final step.

Clarity adjustment, dodging and burning, and spot removal are standard techniques to tidy up your photo in Lightroom or Camera Raw. But the tool I use most with my black and white still life photographs is the HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) colour slider.

Moving individual sliders up or down gives you great control of light and shadows. It can transform your photograph by defining textures and shapes and even changing the focal point.

Blacks, Whites, and All the Grey In-Between

Like most black and white photography, it’s important to include ‘true black’ and ‘true white’. Plus a full range of greys.

Adjusting the HSL sliders is an easy way to lighten or darken parts of a photo. And you’re doing this without over-using the dodge and burn tools.

Still life photographs can be deceivingly complex. Get familiar with zooming in and out of your image (ctrl, +/- or cmd, +/-) to check the black, white, and grey tones. Make sure they work together harmoniously.

Adjusting the HSL sliders on Lightroom

Changing Colours to Change the Mood

Moving the HSL colour sliders can change the mood of a photo. Do you want to tell a story about the strength, clarity, and bold qualities of a flower in black and white? Try adjusting the sliders to show contrast and definition.

For a more subtle approach that portrays a flower’s fragility, try softer greys and less contrast.

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with this method, and it can be quite a subjective approach. Try different versions and review them with fresh eyes the next day.

If in doubt, less is always more!

Garlic flowers converted to black and white, with no adjustment of HSL colour sliders.

Garlic flowers converted to black and white, with no adjustment of HSL colour sliders.

Garlic flowers with green, yellow, and orange HSL colour sliders adjusted.

Garlic flowers with green, yellow, and orange HSL colour sliders adjusted.

Conclusion

Photographing still life in black and white provides great creative opportunities. I’m always surprised at the beauty of a still life scene when the colour is removed.

Keep it simple, start with objects you’re familiar with. And experiment with whatever light and equipment you have on-hand.

Push the boundaries with your black and white still life photography, and don’t be afraid to get a bit arty!

Next, why not check out this great article on black and white landscape photography!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Heather Joy Milne

Heather is based in Christchurch, New Zealand where she specializes in photographing social change and the rebuild of her earthquake-smashed city. She's passionate about the role that photography plays in storytelling and connecting communities and is also a huge fan of penguins, coffee, and tiramisu. You can see more of Heather's work at https://heatherjoymilne.weebly.com/ or follow her on Instagram @heatherjoyphotographs.

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