Looking for a spark of inspiration for your still life photography ideas? Feel like you’ve tried everything and there’s nothing left to discover? Or on the contrary, you’re just getting started and feel a bit lost in an ocean of opportunities and choices?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. There is no universal recipe for getting inspired. But every photographer has a set of tricks and go-to ideas to kickstart the process.
Here are 10 ideas to try in your next still life experiment. They are simple but versatile, and don’t need any complicated gear or rare props. Surely one of them is exactly what you are looking for.
1. Play With Shapes
A metaphor is a powerful tool in a photographer’s hands. Even if you’re not looking too closely, you can still find unusual connections between objects and make a beautiful picture out of it.
All you have to do is to compare to dissimilar subjects that have one thing in common. That could be their colour, shape or any other formal resemblance.
For example, a globe is round. So is a CD. So you can shoot a CD in the wooden frame taken from the globe and say that the world is full of music. This is a very cool tool when you’re thinking of minimalist still life photography.
Find a mundane object that reminds you of something more interesting. Make this visible.
Let’s get back to round objects. Oranges are round. What else is round? Bicycle wheels, the Moon, headphones,cups, vinyl records, tennis balls, darts targets, and camera lenses. Also, balloons.
Why not turn some oranges and lemons into a bunch of balloons? For this transformation, you will need only a few strings. For others, you can draw the key details with a marker right on the backdrop, cut them out from paper or bend from a string of wire.
2. Try Adding Words
Photos always have to say something. Sometimes they can do it literally. Here dimensional typography comes into play! Beautiful texts made from flowers, confetti, chocolate, wire, stationery clips, and spices!
The easiest way to get started is to find objects similar to letters and united by one theme. Pick a theme: sweets, flowers, outer space, toys, autumn, you name it.
That’s your new alphabet now! Cookie with a bite is for C, a spiral of a peeled orange zest is for S. Write Y with carefully poured mustard. Use two crossed flower stems to form X. Create W from a broken slinky and make a specific button stitch is for Z
Make a list of possible objects and find corresponding letters. Now you’re ready to write something witty, nice and funny.
Another way to play with words is to work with a template. Print the text you want to use and cut it from a sheet of paper with a layout knife. Fill the template with something free-flowing like sugar, sprinkles or confetti. Carefully remove the template with tweezers and photograph the letters.
Wish someone good morning, spelling it with bacon and eggs. Offer another waffle with letters made from syrup. Add some spice to your nachos with letters made from chilli paper.
3. Have Fun With Patterns
Patterns always look good. There’s something soothing in rows of alternating objects. Even more, it’s the best way to make an impressive photo with limited props.
Pick a theme: sweets, fruits, leaves, embroidery tools, ceramics, accessories, anything you like. Collect your objects, set your camera on a tripod. Arrange a composition, starting with bigger items and moving to smaller details.
Take a shot from above, and voila!
The most important thing here is to keep your items similar, organized, but not boring. I have a sweet tooth, so naturally, as an example, I’m going to use my patterns of sweets, coffee cups, and cookies.
Сookies in a checker board pattern make a boring picture. But add some lemon zest here, a chocolate swoosh there, and a couple of star anise to fill empty spaces. Now your pattern is pleasant to look at.
Avoid monotone, don’t be afraid to break the rhythm. That’s what keeps the music interesting.
4. Use Coffee
One of my favourite creative exercises is choosing one object and trying to come up with at least 15 sketches with it as the main hero. Yeah, I know it may seem hard and even tedious, but in fact, it’s pretty fun. The key is finding an object with wide narrative opportunities.
For me, this object is always a coffee cup.
You may think of an artist who got oblivious and put brushes and pencils in their espresso. Or you can imagine blimps and zeppelins flying in a steam rising above hot coffee. Or you can have coffee cups competing with cinnamon sticks in a game of tic-tac-toe.
Take your time, and spend 5 minutes (have a countdown!) on each thought. Write every idea down without criticising it. And don’t be afraid to sketch something stupid.
Look at a coffee cup and try to brainstorm at least 15 stories about it. You’ll be surprised at how swiftly your imagination can work once you give it some fuel.
5. Tell a Story
Things can tell a lot about their owners, especially if you don’t look for random objects, but for tools of their trade. For me, desktops look not only intriguing but magnificent. All these interesting objects that belong to an artist, a ceramist, a silversmith, an embroiderer or a writer!
All the details make these tables alive.
You can ask your friend with an interesting profession or hobby for permission to photograph their workplace (don’t miss the chance to include their hands in the frame!). Or you can try to recreate something more unusual by yourself.
What would a workplace of a botanist look like? A cartographer? A retired pirate, a witch, your favourite writer or, say, Hermione Granger?
Which items would they keep? Would their tables look neat or be a complete mess? Which objects are essential to their profession and which are just cute little details? Answer these questions, pick an appropriate background and tell your story.
6. Include Chalk Drawings
Combining a flat drawing with real objects is always a good trick. You can create a new reality for ordinary objects transforming them with a couple of chalk lines. Turn one thing into another or even create a whole new space!
All you need is chalk, drawing surface and sketch. I’m absolutely helpless at drawing, so I always find extremely simple subjects. I can’t make a cupcake or part of an elaborate castle, but I can draw a fiery tale and let it be a comet.
If you’re not drawing with a marker, but with regular chalk, keep it wet. Don’t use dry chalk. Dip it in water before drawing. And keep do it during your work. At first, the lines will look a bit faded, but let them dry.
The drawing will dry bright white and the lines will look the same. But drawing with wet chalk is much easier. You can also draw on a wet board if you prefer.
Spend 20 minutes on sketches. You’ll see that drawing a jam jar around fresh berries or adding a chalk teapot to sugar cubes, mint leaves, lemon slices and cinnamon is just a start.
7. Try Flower Photography
Flowers are a perfect subject for still life photography. It’s practically impossible to have flowers in the frame and get a dull image.
Especially if you think of a story you’re trying to tell beforehand.
Say, your character is a writer, who’s working on a sweet and romantic novel. Let’s get a bunch of pink flowers and arrange them around a typewriter adding some pencils and crumpled paper balls.
Or your hero may be a young botanist who’s collecting field flowers for his first herbarium. Then photograph a neat and accurate flat lay with papers and gardening scissors.
Or your character is a daydreamer who’s drying fern leaves between the pages of a fantasy book. In that case, shoot something light and airy in high key.
You can even get a little destructive and paint flowers with metallic spray paint (choose golden ones for a Midas reference!), drown them in water (wait for bubbles to form on the surface), dip in acrylic paint of matching colour (and shoot falling drops of liquid) or encase in ice cubes (perfect for hot summers!).
Let your imagination run wild! With such a beautiful subject as flowers, there’s practically no chance for error.
8. Play With Your Food
Food photography is wide and versatile enough to talk about for days without stopping to draw a breath. Oftentimes to take a shot you need to be a good cook or a food stylist. Or at least to work with one. But there’s no need for that if you’re shooting raw ingredients.
Disintegrate your favourite meal, and show how it’s made. Make a pie chart from your breakfast cereal: this sector is for oatmeal, this one for berries aaaaaand this tiny one is for a pinch of vanilla.
Or take it a step further and photograph a comprehensive recipe. Arrange a flat lay with ingredients, paper arrows, and stickers with written instructions.
Another way is to fantasise how easy cooking could be with magic! How with one spell or one pentagram you can avoid all that fuss with cutting, roasting, sauteing, dressing and blanching.
I can’t bake a proper doughnut to save my life. But I can imagine how I summon a tasty chocolate doughnut with help of transfiguration seals from Full Metal Alchemist.
Food is one of the most promising themes to work with. So, if you’re struggling for ideas, just look at your plate.
9. Catch retro vibes
Remember old 8-bit video games? I’m very fond of them, so an idea of making them real seems fascinating! Take something resembling a pixel (a simple sugar cube would work perfectly) and recreate a scene from Space Invaders or Pack-Man.
Make it a fight not for completing the level, but for your breakfast or after lunch cookies.
You don’t need to build an entire screen pixel by pixel, but note the key elements and make sure you have them in your scene. Sometimes just one element like one tetromino figure will do the trick.
My friend told me that the traditional name for the Tetris playing field usually called the “well” or “matrix” is the “glass”. My mind immediately produced an image of Tetris tiles filling a real-world glass. Later I transformed this image into a smalls series where Tetris figures fall into teacups and create beautiful splashes.
Now I’m really interested to see your take on this! Remember your favourite 8-bit game and bring it to life. Even if it’s going to destroy your breakfast.
10. Build Your Own Tiny World
What’s the absolute best thing about still life photography? It’s all about world-building and reality-warping. There’s a tiny world, full of petite adventures, hiding in plain sight.
Picture a conventional still life scene and populate it with tiny people. They could build a tree house on your cacti, steal your cookies with a UFO or sail the length of your soup plate.
Ideas are endless! Place a paper silhouette of a sailboat on a bookshelf, add some stones and seashells and you’re ready for a story full of storms and pirates!
Spill some ink, borrow a couple of police cars from your child or little brother, and add an obligatory yellow tape with POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. Here, you have a crime scene.
Put a teepee you made from paper and twigs on your table with glass jars full of clover and books about Indian Tribes. Light a bonfire with a match, look at smoke rising to the dark skies, and take a picture.
Imagine your own tiny world, live in it, tell its stores. Check out our macro photography article for tips and advice!
This list of still life photography ideas, as any list of ideas, is useful only if you really try to do something. Just making a mental note of ‘oh that’s really cool, I should try it sometime’ won’t work.
Actually drawing a sketch, arranging a composition and taking photos, however, will work. So, choose one idea you like best, transform it to match your vision, style, skills, and props. Plan the shooting and then actually do it.
Have fun and don’t be afraid to make mistakes! That’s how we learn.
Looking for more cool still life ideas? Check out our tutorials on food art typography or water splash photography for fun food photos!
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