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Yes Please

Winter is the perfect time to improve your photography by taking on some indoor projects—particularly still life and tabletop photography.

Still life photography is the photographic counterpart of still life painting. It emerged as a distinct genre and became a professional specialisation in western painting by the late 16th century.

Common subjects for still life painting and photography include natural items—flowers, food, plants, rocks, etc.—or manmade objects—glasses, shoes, tools, and so on.

Tabletop photography is a branch of still life photography that focuses on capturing items that can be placed on a table. The most common photographic subjects of this genre are food photography and product photography, i.e. photographing a product for commercial purposes.

All of the photos found on e-commerce websites, or in magazine and newspaper advertisements, can be classified as product photographs.

Below, is a typical image you might find on a website to sell a pair of boots. The shoes are well lit, the shadows are soft, there is a seamless white background and the features of the boots are visible on both sides of the boots—providing a clear image to the buyer. Here, I went the extra mile by adding a collier as a prop to make the photo more interesting.

A classic still life photography of leather boots A classic product photograph for women shoes.

If you do want to make your way into the product photography game, most of your clients will expect you to photograph things as they are. For the most part, they are not interested in the artistic vision of the photographer.

Improve with Still Life and Tabletop Photography

Even if you are not interested in commercial photography, you can still learn a lot from still life photography.

If you are interested in portraiture, still life photography can help you improve your lighting technique by taking advantage of a subject that does not get bored of waiting for you to finish experimenting.

If you are a landscape photographer, you can improve your composition skills and creativity by crafting and studying a still life scene without worrying about a change in light or weather. You are able to observe how the different kinds of light will affect the scene. Did you know that sidelight from a low light source (either a flashgun or the Sun) is great to reveal textures?

With still life and tabletop photography, you are totally in control of every single aspect of your photo. From staging the scene, to firing the shutter—it is all your decision.

Despite the “commercial” nature of tabletop photography, you are not limited to shooting in a commercial way—you can always create a nice story-telling image like the one below.

 A story-telling still life.

This still is not really advertising the liquor or the flute. It combines the different elements in the scene (the sheet of music, the flute, the used, half empty glass and the opened bottle) to tell a story.

What do you Need to Begin your Still Life Project?

You may think that your gear is not good enough to try still life photography. Maybe you are considering your need for studio equipment—macro lenses, tilt and shift lenses, flashguns, triggers, continuous studio lights and light modifiers. Or perhaps you are concerned that you do not have a studio to house your projects.

Even though a professional may require a suitable set-up and expensive equipment, you can still take amazing photos with fairly basic equipment, directly in a corner of your living room.

Still life photography encourages you to view your subjects artistically.

Keep costs low by getting creative and crafting DIY accessories and solutions to get the shot that you want.

Below, I have provided short lists of materials and equipment that I suggest you have to begin tabletop photography.

Required Equipment:

  • Any kind of photo camera; a digital photo camera is preferred because it is cheaper to run and you can have an immediate feedback, but nothing prevents you from using your film camera.
  • Different materials to create the floor and background for your scene.
  • Small silver and white reflectors to bounce the light back in to the scene. These can be easily built using tinfoil and cardboard.
  • Props: look around your house or visit a flea market for interesting, cheap props to enhance the scene.

Recommended Equipment:

  • At least one flashgun. Ideally, it can be used in manual mode and has adjustable power. I use a Metz 48 AF-1 digital. You will also need wireless triggers or a fairly long E-TTL cord—to enable flash off-camera.
  • A softbox for your flashgun: I use a Lastolite Ezybox Speedlite 22×22 cm, a compact, wonderful and affordable softbox.
  • One tripod. A second one can be necessary if you want to mount your flashgun instead of using it handheld.
  • A telephoto lens and a fast normal lens. Ideally, a macro lens is required, but you can get away with a set of close up lenses. Since I do not own a macro lens, I usually work with a +2 and/or +3 close up lens in order to reduce the minimal focus distance of my lenses. Old, manual lenses are good and usually cheap.

I usually use an old, fully manual, Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm f/1.4 and the Sigma ART 30mm and 60mm lenses, both f/2.8: super sharp and cheap. Note that I use those lenses on an m43 camera, with a crop factor for the sensor of 2x, meaning that those lenses are equivalent to a 100mm, 60mm and 120mm lens for full frame cameras.

How to Approach Still Life photography

  • Keep it simple. Don’t get carried away trying to craft scenes that are overwhelmed with many different objects (or food) and materials. Take a minimalistic approach, where the main subject is easily identified and work the scene to make the most of it.
  • Consider that glassy, shiny and reflective surfaces are the most difficult to work with. Try to avoid them in the beginning.
  • Keep it clean. Still life is all about perfection (even messy setups should be carefully staged) and nothing should be left unchecked. Be sure to clean your props and all visible surfaces of dust, smudges and finger prints.
  • Be patient. Tossing objects into the scene will not give great results. Think about your composition, how the objects play together and consider leading lines and angles of view. Experiment with the light—think about what you want to highlight in the scene, the feelings to convey, the textures to reveal and so on.
  • Write a logbook to note down the camera settings used for each shot. This is particularly useful if you are using manual lenses that do not communicate with the camera body. Also, it is a great way to note how you staged the set and the light setup used, for future reference.

Four Case Studies

If I was to tell you all that there is to know about still life photography, this post would never end. Instead, I want to show you what you can do with fairly cheap and basic equipment in four case studies, from the simplest setup to a slightly more complicated one.

Case Study #1

Gear Used

  • Camera: iPhone 5S
  • Light source: natural light
  • Light modifier: circular reflector

Lighting setup

  • Setup: High Key
  • Key light: a window to the left of the scene
  • Fill light: circular reflector on the right of the scene

setup_case1

The shot

Fresh Sushi.

This is the simplest setup you can create and it is most suitable for food photography and small scenes.

As I had no macro lens for my iPhone, I was unable to fill the frame with the sushi. For this bird’s eye view, I had to stage a scene with some props. I used a pink bamboo place mat on which I placed  a nice cast iron teapot with a cup.

The freshly delivered sushi was displayed using a small plate with some soy sauce and a pair of chopsticks were a nice finishing touch.

Case Study #2

Gear Used

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D EM-10 micro four thirds camera
  • Lens: Olympus Zuiko OM 50 f/1.4  (equivalent to a 100mm lens on full frame)
  • Accessories: tripod and a +2 close up lens
  • Light source: natural light
  • Light modifier: circular reflector
  • White 100x70cm cardboard as background and white 50x70cm cardboard as stage

Lighting setup

  • Setup: High Key
  • Key light: a window to the left of the scene
  • Fill light: circular reflector on the right of the scene

diagram of high key lighting setup for still life photography

The shot

bright and airy still life photography of Belgian pralines decorated with orange peel.Belgian pralines decorated with orange peel.

This is a classic setup in food photography. I decided to photograph dark chocolate pralines, creating contrast by choosing a nice high key image.

I have used a long and narrow white plate, decorated with orange peel, to display the pralines. And then I focused on the first chocolate.

Case Study #3

Gear Used

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D EM-10 micro four thirds camera
  • Lens: Olympus Zuiko OM 50 f/1.4  (equivalent to a 100mm lens on full frame)
  • Accessories: tripod and a +3 close up lens
  • Light source: iPhone 5S
  • Light modifier: circular reflector
  • Black (matte) 100x70cm cardboard as background and black (glossy) 50x70cm cardboard as stage

Lighting setup

  • Setup: Low Key
  • Key light: iPhone 5S running the pro version of the Softbox for iPhone app from above the scene on the right
  • Fill light: circular reflector on the front right of the scene

diagram of low key set up for still life photography

The shot

close up food photography of Belgian white chocolate decorated with caramel.Belgian white chocolate decorated with caramel.

In order to stand out, white chocolate pralines call for low key images.  A dark grey plate was used to display a single white praline decorated with caramel.

The use of a +3 close up lens allowed me to get really close to my subject. I then decided to crop the image in square format, with the subject off-centre for a better and even tighter composition.

Case Study #4

Gear Used

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D EM-10 micro four thirds camera
  • Lens: Sigma ART 30mm f/2.8 DN  (equivalent to a 60mm lens on full frame)
  • Accessories: tripod, light stand (a simple lollipod tripod), 3m long E-TTL cord
  • Light source: flashgun Metz 48 AF-1 digital in manual mode, output power set to 1/16
  • Light modifier: circular reflector, softbox
  • Black (matte) 100x70cm cardboard as background and black (glossy) 50x70cm cardboard as stage

Lighting setup

  • Setup: Low Key
  • Key light: flashgun on the right side of the scene, a couple of meters away
  • Fill light: circular reflector on the left of the scene

diagram of low key lighting setup

 

The shot

A Yashica-MAT LM TLR 6X6 medium format camera. on black backgroundYashica-MAT LM TLR 6X6 medium format camera.

A more complex setup for this low key scene showing my Yashica-MAT LM TLR medium format film camera from 1950 (still in working condition, by the way). The props used to fill the scene were a used roll of 120 film on the right and my favourite hat. I also made sure the Figosa leather strap was clearly visible.

Note that you do not need to be in a pitch black environment to do this kind of low key image: actually, you can even do them in broad daylight, as long as you are ok with using very narrow apertures.

Ideally, take a shot without flash to get a black image of the scene (e.g. using very fast shutter speeds, lowest ISO settings and narrow apertures) and then connect the flash and take the real photo.

The scene will be illuminated by the flash only, regardless of the amount of ambient light. Remember, you can out power the Sun with a flashgun.

This kind of setup is great if you want to reveal textures and make your shot moody, like I did for the used red Camper Peu leather shoes shown in the photo below.

a pair of red camper shoes on black backgroundRed Camper Peu lady.

Creativity is the Key

As you have seen, you can do quite a lot with minimal equipment. You can photograph whatever you want, as long as you have the place to stage it and enough light power to light it.

The main limit is your creativity. Until now, I presented you quite classic still life images, but you can go for completely different things.

I love to use setups based on that of the case study #4 to photograph old, battered shoes—in particular, Converse All Stars (let’s be honest here: we buy them because we love how they age. Nobody likes them straight out of the box) and leather shoes because of the leather texture.

Plus, the low key images are quite moody.

Three photo grid showing still life photography of different shoes on black background

Some low key images from my Shoes Project.

Rotting food and flowers may seem disgusting at first, but they can provide you with interesting photographs that I love to take.

A flower that has seen better days loses its last bit of beauty, while a now mouldy green orange reveals an amazing texture.

And what about Autumn in a vase or a city sunset made out of staples?

For this I’ve put some yellow leaves inside a jar, and lit a candle inside.

Staples can be used to make a wonderful city skyline in miniature. Here, I’ve played with light to give the illusion of a sunset still reflecting on the top of the “skyscrapers”, while the city is already dark.

Technicalities

Low Key Setup

The image below shows my typical low key setup.

view of a low key set up for food photographyMy typical low key setup.

For low key photography, I prefer to work in low light. I build my set with two pieces of black cardboard: the one I use as stage (50×70 cm) has a glossy finish, while the one for the background (100 x 70 cm) is matte.

The flash is off-camera, on its light stand, and I usually place it on the front/side of the set.

This setup is very similar to the one used in the case study #4 and the resulting photo is shown below.

Cast iron teapot with two cups and tea leaves sprinkled on the set floor. Note how clearly visible the texture and drawings in the cast iron teapot are.

High Key Setup

view of a high key set up for still life photographyMy typical high key setup for tabletop photography.

This is my typical setup for high key photography: two pieces of white cardboard where the one for the floor stage (50×70 cm) is resting on a coffee table and the background (100×70 cm) is placed vertically on a rest foot and leaned against a library. All is placed next to a window to ensure a good amount of natural light to work with.

It is best to avoid windows exposed to direct sunlight because of the harsh light that will land on your set. Also, overcast days are the best, since the sky will act as a huge softbox.

Fill Light

In the photo above, you can see my small, double sided silver/white circular reflector (33cm in diameter) from Lastoline.

I use it to soften the shadows by bouncing back some of the light into the scene. The photo below shows a comparison between a scene photographed with (on the right) and without (on the left) a reflector.

The effect of using a reflector to fill in the shadows.

As you can see, the shadows in the right image are softer when the reflector is used and the scene is more pleasant.

A Few words on Focusing and Focus Stacking

First of all, forget autofocus and go manual: you want to have absolute control on what is in-focus and what is not. If your camera has it, use the live view and turn on any possible manual focus assisting function you have, typically image magnification, focus peaking, or a combination of the two.

For this kind of shot, where you have a narrow depth of field, (DOF) and you need to precisely focus, you should have your camera mounted on a tripod and use a remote shutter or the self timer, to avoid camera shaking.

Be aware of one problem that you may have to face when working with macro or close up lenses; the very narrow DOF. Sometimes, even a small subject cannot be all in focus.

If stepping down your lens, (i.e. selecting a smaller aperture is not desirable) or the resulting DOF is still too narrow, the only solution left is to do focus stacking.

Traditionally focus stacking is done in post processing, but there are now some cameras that allow you to do in-camera focus stacking (e.g. the Olympus OM-D EM-1 with the latest firm update).

In Photoshop, focus stacking is done by selectively merging some photos where each photo is focused on a different part of the scene. This technique involves loading your images in to Photoshop as layers and masking out the unwanted parts of the images before merging the layers together to create the final image.

For example, consider the photo below: a bird’s eye view on some of the finest Belgian pralines. To get this final image, I had to focus stack three different photos in order to get all the different elements in focus. The first photo had the wooden board in focus, the second one focused on the coffee beans to the right and for the last one, I focused on the pralines.

A focus stacked bird’s eye view of Belgian pralines on a metal plateA focus stacked bird’s eye view of Belgian pralines.

External Links

If you want to learn more about still life photography, here are few interesting ideas that you may want to check out:

  • Cyrill Harnischmacker’s “Tabletop Photography” book, also available for kindle.
  • Lara Gelroks’ great articles on diyphotography.net about commercial photography.
  • Alex Koloskov’s post on Digital School Photography—if you want to see a professional setup for product photography.
  • Cristina Colli’s interview on how she takes amazing still lifes of flowers with her iPhone, published on iphonephotographyschool.com

These are just a few links, but really, a simple query via google will find you plenty of interesting results.

Conclusions

I hope I was able to convince you that you do not need to invest a great deal of money to wet your feet in still life and tabletop photography. Perhaps I have inspired you to give it a try.

A Complete Guide to Still Life and Table Top Photography

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

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Andrea Minoia

Andrea Minoia is an enthusiast photographer based in Brussels, Belgium. He is mainly active in portraiture and table top photography, but he does enjoy to get busy with astrophotography and infrared photography. You can follow his work on his regularly updated photo stream on 500px and follow him on google+.You can also get in touch with him via his personal website .

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