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A Beginner’s Guide to Taking Still Life Photography

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Still life and tabletop photography is a great way to improve your photography skills. In this article, we show you how to get those perfect still life photos!

So what constitutes a still life photo? Still life photography is the photographic counterpart of still life painting. Common subjects for still life photography include inanimate items—flowers, food, plants, rocks, etc.

Tabletop photography is a branch of still life photography that focuses on capturing items placed on a table. The most common photographic subjects of this genre are food and product photography.

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Why You Should Try Still Life Photography

You can learn a lot from still life photography. For example, you are able to observe how different kinds of light will affect the scene. Did you know that sidelight from a low light source 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’re not limited to photographing still life in a commercial way. You can always create a nice storytelling image like the one below.

Atmospheric still life photography shoot of a clarinet and bottle of Disaronno

What Do You Need for Your Still Life Project?

A professional may require a suitable setup and expensive equipment. But you can still take amazing photos with basic equipment in the corner of your living room. Keep costs low by getting creative and crafting DIY accessories and solutions to get the shot that you want.

Below, I have provided a list of the materials and equipment you need to begin tabletop and still life photography.

Required Equipment

  • Any kind of camera. A digital camera is cheaper to run, and you can have immediate feedback. But nothing is stopping you from using your film camera.
  • Different materials to create the floor and background of your scene.
  • Small silver and white reflectors that bounce light back into the scene. These can be easily built using tinfoil and cardboard.
  • Props. Look around your house or visit a flea market for interesting props that enhance the scene.

Recommended Equipment

I usually use an old, manual, Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm f/1.4 and the Sigma Art 30mm f/1.4 as they are super sharp and cheap. Note that I use those lenses on an m4/3 camera, with a crop factor of 2x.

This means that those lenses are equivalent to 100mm, 60mm, and 120mm lenses for full frame cameras. Generally speaking, for still life and product photography, you are better off staying between the 50 and 120mm focal range.

Black tea pot and mug with bokeh background

How to Approach Still Life Photography

  • Keep it simple. Don’t get carried away trying to craft scenes with lots of different objects (or food) and materials. Take a minimalistic approach so the main subject is easily identified. 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 fingerprints.
  • 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—which feelings to convey and what textures to reveal.
  • 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. It is a great way to note how you staged the set and the light setup for future reference.

A still life shot of a bottle of whiskey arranged with rpops and flowers

Four Still Life Case Studies

If I were to tell you everything about still life photography, this post would never end. Instead, I want to show you what you can do with cheap and basic equipment in four case studies. From the simplest setup to a 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

This is the simplest setup you can create. It is most suitable for food photos 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 placemat and placed a nice cast iron teapot with a cup.

I displayed the sushi using a small plate with some soy sauce. And a pair of chopsticks added a nice finishing touch.

An over head shot of sushi, teapot and tea cup for still life photography

Case Study #2

Gear Used

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mark IV
  • 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 lighting
  • Light modifier: circular reflector
  • White 100x70cm cardboard as the background and white 50x70cm cardboard as the 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

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 that I decorated with orange peel to display the pralines. And then I focused on the first chocolate.

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

Case Study #3

Gear Used

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D EM-10
  • 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 the background and black (glossy) 50x70cm cardboard as the stage

Lighting Setup

  • Setup: low key lighting
  • Key light: iPhone 5S running the pro version of the Soft Box Color app from above the scene on the right
  • Fill light: circular reflector on the front right of the scene

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.

Using a +3 close-up lens allowed me to get really close to my subject. I then decided to crop the image in a square format with the subject off-center. It provides a better and even tighter composition.

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

Case Study #4

Gear Used

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D EM-10
  • Lens: Sigma Art 30mm f/1.4 DN (equivalent to a 60mm lens on full frame)
  • Accessories: tripod, light stand, 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 the background and black (glossy) 50x70cm cardboard as the stage

Lighting Setup

  • Setup: low key
  • Key light: flashgun on the right side of the scene, two meters away
  • Fill light: circular reflector on the left of the scene

A Yashica-MAT LM TLR 6X6 medium format camera, on a black background
Yashica-MAT LM TLR 6X6 medium format camera.

A more complex setup for this low key scene is showing my Yashica-MAT LM TLR medium format film camera from 1950. (Which is still in working condition, by the way.) I used a roll of 120 film and my favorite hat as props to fill the scene. 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.

It is best to 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). 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

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

a pair of red camper shoes on black background
Red Camper Peu lady

Use Creativity for the Best Still Life Shots

You can do 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 with quite classic still life images. But you can go for completely different things.

I love to use setups like the one I used in case study #4 to photograph old, battered shoes. My favorites are old Converse All-Stars and leather shoes because of the texture.

Three photo grid showing still life photography of different shoes on black background
Some low key images from my Shoes Project.

And what about Autumn in a vase? For this shot, I put some yellow leaves inside a jar and lit a candle inside.

A still life photography image of leaves and a light inside a jar

Technical Tips for Still Life Photography

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 for the stage (50×70 cm) has a glossy finish while the one for the background (100×70 cm) is matte.

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

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

A dark, moody shot of a teapot and teacups for still life photography
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

This is my typical setup for high key photography—two pieces of white cardboard. The one for the stage (50×70 cm) is resting on a coffee table. The background (100×70 cm) is vertical and on a footrest. The setup is next to a window to ensure a good amount of natural light to work with.
view of a high key set up for still life photography

It is best to avoid windows exposed to direct sunlight because of the harsh light that will land on your set. 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 Lastolite double-sided silver and white circular reflector.

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

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

An image of a rotten and moldy orange peel can make for interesting still life photography

A Few Words on Focusing and Focus Stacking

First of all, forget autofocus and go manual. You want to have absolute control of 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. This could be image magnification, focus peaking, or a combination of the two.

For a shot where you have a narrow depth of field and you need to focus manually, mount your camera on a tripod. Use a remote shutter or the self-timer to avoid camera shake.

Be aware of one problem that you may have to face when working with macro or close-up lenses—the very narrow depth of field. Sometimes, you won’t be able to get even a small subject entirely in focus.

If stepping down your lens, (i.e. selecting a smaller aperture is not desirable) or the resulting DOF is still too narrow, you’ll have to focus stack.

Focus stacking tends to happen in post-processing. But now there are cameras that allow you to do in-camera focus stacking (like the Olympus OM-D EM-1).

In Photoshop, focus stacking is done by selectively merging some photos. Each photo is focused on a different part of the scene. This technique involves loading your images into Photoshop as layers. You then mask the unwanted parts of the images before merging the layers to create the final image.

For example, consider the photo below—a bird’s eye view of some of the finest Belgian pralines. To get this final image, I had to focus stack three different photos 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. For the last one, I focused on the pralines.
A focus stacked bird’s eye view of Belgian pralines on a metal plate


You do not need to invest a great deal of money to wet your feet in still life and tabletop photography. With just a few simple pieces of equipment, you can create your own little home studio. 

And you can find a ton of everyday items around the house to begin shooting. Still life and tabletop photography are both very accessible types of photography. I hope I have inspired you to give it a try!

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