Still life photography is a vibrant and often lucrative niche. It’s also great for expressing your creativity. And it can make you money through stock photography or sales of art prints through a variety of websites.
The great thing about still life photography is that you don’t need a fancy studio or a lot of space. All you need is a table by a window. If you end up getting serious about it, you can eventually get a continuous light like an LED panel, but to start, all you really need is natural light.
Start With the Right Lens
As with any genre of photography, having the right lens to suit the subject you are shooting is crucial. There is no one-size-fits-all lens. But you don’t need a big assortment of lenses to do still life photography. A couple will do the trick.
If you’re shooting on a full-frame camera, I suggest starting with a 50mm. You can do flatlays and tablescapes, and straight-on shots with this lens.
When it comes to still-life photography, a 50mm lens is considered a wide-angle lens. If you’re only shooting one or two objects, or if your subject is small, there will be too much of your surface or background in your shot. You’ll also have to get very close to your subject to get rid of what you don’t want in the shot.
Scale is a very important aspect of still life photography. Some objects can look a lot bigger or taller to the camera. And a lot of background visible in your shot can dwarf your subject.
To shoot still life straight-on, I recommend a 100mm macro lens. A macro lens isn’t just for tight, close-up shots. When you’re shooting with a longer lens, you typically only see the subject and the surface that it’s placed on.
If you move farther back from your subject, it’s perfect for portrait style shots. I often shoot still life photos at 70mm or higher on my full-frame camera.
If you have the budget, then a 24-70 zoom lens is another great one to have in your kit. A zoom lens is not as sharp as a prime lens, but I have this one in Canon’s L-Series and it’s very sharp and worth the hefty price tag.
I’ve been using it for years and find it very versatile, especially if I’m doing different types of set-ups in the same shoot.
If you’re serious about selling your still life photography through stock agencies or as prints or canvases, getting a sharp, high resolution image is mandatory. This is where the more expensive lenses come in.
Start With Good Light
If you’re shooting product photography for clients or working in advertising, you will undoubtedly need an artificial lighting system. But if you’re shooting editorial style photography or still lifes such as those that are popular on Instagram, natural light will do you fine.
You don’t need to invest in a lot of equipment right off the bat. In fact, you may never need to invest in a lot of equipment. It all depends on what your end goal is. There are excellent photographers working primarily with natural light in every genre.
The key to successful still life photography is learning how light works and using whatever tools you need to sculpt the light to do what you want.
When shooting straight-on, have your light coming from the left side, if possible. Having the light on the left helps lead our eye through the image, as the eye is first attracted to lighter and brighter parts of the frame.
Do an experiment where you take a shot of a set-up with the light on your left. Then take another shot with the light coming from your right. Notice how the light affects your scene differently.
To get the most out of the natural light, be sure to work with reflectors and bounce cards, as you will need to redirect some of the light back into your scene. Natural light in particular falls off quickly.
You can buy a 5-in-1 reflector kit that comes with gold, silver, black, and white reflectors. These usually come with a diffuser as well, which is key for softening hard or direct sunlight and is crucial for that bright and airy look we all love.
If you don’t have the budget for a diffuser, try hanging a sheer white curtain in front of your window.
You can also buy some pieces of white and black cardboard or poster board from the dollar or craft supply store. These are inexpensive and placed opposite your subject, and can help you shape the light to how you want.
Use a Tripod
Working with a tripod is a must when it comes to still life photography. Still life is a slow and deliberate process of building and assessing.
What this means is that you need to place your subjects onto your set, assess your composition and how the light is hitting your scene, and make adjustments. Sometimes this means adding an element or taking it away, or otherwise tweaking your composition.
Working with a tripod frees up your arms to work more carefully and efficiently. It also helps you maintain the same position from shot to shot. This is important if you’re working on a series or product photography, where you may need to focus stack or use scripts in Photoshop.
However, be sure to move your tripod around and try shooting from different angles. Working with a tripod doesn’t mean you need to have it in the same place all the time. The great thing about hand-holding your camera is that it can be more freeing.
Bring some of that same freedom into working with your tripod. Try different heights and angles. You can move around your set if need be, but just be sure not to cast a shadow onto your scene.
You can also get an extension arm for your tripod so you can hang your camera over your set-ups for flatlays. Overhead shots have a more graphic quality. These are great for fitting several elements into a scene since the angle flattens everything and diminishes depth.
Having a shutter release is also useful. When photographing still life in natural light, you may have to use slower shutter speeds.
Even when you’re on a tripod, pressing the shutter can create a minute vibration. This may introduce camera shake into your images and prevent them from looking as sharp as they should be.
A shutter release can prevent this. If you’re shooting tethered in Lightroom, you can also use the program to activate the shutter.
Find Unique Props
The right prop can really enhance your still life photography ideas or even tell a story on its own. You probably already have many household items that can be used for props, such as old books, teapots, pieces of linen, or eyeglasses.
Even shots of antique cutlery or fresh vegetables can make nice still life shots – perfect for kitchen prints.
Look around your home and think about the items you have and how you can put a few together to make a story. Make sure that the props you use work together visually.
For example, if you’re doing a vintage look, keep everything vintage looking. Don’t use shiny flatware in rose gold alongside an antique silver tray. It may look pretty, but visual storytelling is about being cohesive as well as creating something beautiful.
Flowers also can be considered a prop and add a beautiful touch to flatlays or lifestyle-based photography. Or they can be photographed on their own to create beautiful floral still life pictures.
Think about texture and colours when choosing your props. I recommend that most of your props be neutral, so they work together for many shots and you can get a lot of use out of them. Sometimes if a prop is too colourful it can draw the eye away from the main subject.
One thing to be aware of is that shiny items can be quite problematic in still life photography. Photographers who shoot product for a living can take a whole day to get one proper shot of a shiny kitchen appliance because the shine reflects all the surroundings.
These reflections take time to manage and can be difficult. You might have already noticed this if you have shot cutlery or glassware of any sort. There is a product on the market by Krylon called “Dulling Spray” that can be found at craft stores and sprayed on these items to reduce the glare.
Just keep in mind that doing so makes these items no longer food safe. Personally, I keep my props separate from my everyday kitchen items.
Use the Right Background
Whether you’re shooting from overhead or straight on, you will need a proper background. There are companies that sell professional backgrounds for food and still life photography. You can also make your own with a bit of elbow grease and ingenuity for a fraction of the price.
This is another area where you can unleash your creativity, as the possibilities are endless. One of my favourite backgrounds for still life photography are pieces of painted canvas.
You can purchase a large canvas painter’s drop cloth and some paint samples from the hardware store to create backdrops with a beautiful and subtle texture. One drop cloth can be cut into four to six pieces. They are inexpensive and can be rolled up and stored away easily.
You can also buy sheets of pine wood or laminate and paint them as well. Search online for “paint effects” to give you ideas about textures and colour combinations you can use.
I’m partial to a concrete look, or a look of three or four colours layered on top of one another. Thin pieces of wood can be painted and placed together to mimic the look of a picnic table, as in the image above.
With props, it’s best to use backgrounds in neutral or subtle colours that will not overpower your subjects and will ensure that your backgrounds can be used in many ways.
Black, white and greys are good choices, as well as brown and shades of blue that are not too bright.
Plan Your Shoot
Photography can be such a technical endeavour. We sometimes lose sight of the artistic side of it in the effort to achieve the technical stuff.
Take your time to think about the visual story you want to tell and the best way to execute it. I like to do sketches and keep all of my photo ideas written down in a book.
Having a rough idea in your head of what you want your final image to look like. A certain vision may mean sourcing or purchasing props or fabric, or botanical elements.
Another fun approach is to grab a few random items as a prompt, and see if you any of them work together to create a visual story. But again – keep it cohesive.
Implement Compositional Theory
The rules of composition are not really rules; they’re more like guidelines to help you take better pictures. Art is highly subjective. A picture can still be amazing even if it doesn’t fall into a prescribed aesthetic.
That being said, the best photographs usually do follow compositional theory in some way, whether it’s intentional or by accident. Take the time to study composition for still life photography ideas. Art books are particularly good for this, as still life photography is a genre which closely follows painting.
When it comes to composition, a particularly useful concept to get intimately familiar with is the Golden Ratio. This is a mathematical concept that expresses a phenomenon of symmetry found in nature.
When implemented in art and design, it helps create compositions that are pleasing to the eye.
Several post-processing programs have compositional grids that express the Golden Ratio. You can overlay these on your images to help your cropping, or even use them in creating your compositions if you’re shooting tethered.
Remember that colour is also an important aspect of composition. Refer to the colour wheel to help you plan your colour schemes. Colours that are opposite on the colour wheel, like blue and orange, are called complementary colours and are powerful visual combinations in art and photography.
Colour can also be an important part of your style. If you look at the most popular accounts on Instagram, you’ll see that most have a consistent colour palette, whether it is bright and bold or monochromatic.
Develop Your Eye
Evocative still life imagery depends on a strong aesthetic. The more you do something, the better you get at it. This is true with photography. Practice is important. But it’s also important to be a student of your craft.
Observe the textures in the world around you. Study the paintings of the Old Masters. Notice the light in the works of Vermeer and Caravaggio, or the compositions of Cezanne.
Studying the form, colours, and various shades used in still life painting will help you enormously in your own photography. Becoming visually fluent involves constant and careful observation.
Adobe Lightroom can give you all you need to make unique and beautiful still life photos.
Although I don’t recommend them for food shots, Lightroom presets or Photoshop actions can be useful to create a workflow that is repeatable and cuts down on the time that you spend in front of the computer.
If you’re working in Lightroom with some presets you like, study the settings to understand how they affect the various elements of the image. Presets can also be a great starting point that you can tweak to your individual taste and aesthetic. We have a great article on using for focus stacking for still life photography you can check too.
Post-processing your images can be quite involved, depending on what genre of still life you’re shooting. Editing food requires subtlety to keep it looking appetising and real. But florals or images suitable for art prints allow you to get really creative with your colours and tones.
The most important thing to remember is to take your time! Still life photography is not something to undertake while the clock is ticking and you need to get dinner on the table or pick the kids up at school.
I find that when I’m in a rush or just shooting to get it done, my flow is off and my pictures don’t turn out the way I want them to. Set aside enough time to work your angles and play around with your still life photography ideas and compositions.
When it comes to still life photography, you’ll often find the images you took later in your shoot will be the best ones.
Also, when it doubt, keep it simple. Sometimes the most beautiful compositions are the ones that are the most minimal.
Looking for some creative still life ideas? Check out our water splash photography tutorial for fun food photos!