A detailed guide to creative still life photography

Abstract images of fruit; colourful collections of books; styled sets of stationery… If you’re looking to get creative with your photography and make the ordinary seem extraordinary, then still life photography is probably for you.

One of the best things about still life photography is that you can get creative and test your photography skills using almost anything you have laying around the studio or your house. You also don’t need very much equipment. And if that’s not enough to persuade you, still life images can also be a great way to make money.

Food still life photo of a floral cup of tea.

What is still life photography

Still life photography is basically any image depicting an inanimate subject, either natural or man-made.

Often confused with product photography, still life photography is often more an arty or conceptual form of photography (it isn’t necessarily designed to sell the item you’re photographing). This allows much more artistic freedom than product photography, which means it’s a great genre of photography to test and challenge your creativity.

Still life photography ideas

There’s no shortage of inspiration online when it comes to still life photography. If you search on Google you’ll get thousands of still life photography examples, not to mention the numerous classes you’ll find on Karl Taylor Education (you’ll find a few great classes to try yourself at the end of this post).

Get creative with your ideas though, make them your own. Still life photography isn’t just about bowls of fruit with moody lighting. Typically any inanimate subject matter, still life photography could be any combination of objects. Take the time to look around you and think about creative ways to showcase everyday products.

Toxic egg still life with oil spilling from egg shell
Lipsticks still life sinking into a red liquid backdrop
Creative still life photography using flower frozen in block of ice
Colourful still life photography of colorful macarons

How to get started with still life photography

What camera to use for still life photography

One of the biggest draws of still life photography is its simplicity. You can shoot great still life images with any camera, whether you’re using a medium format camera, full-frame camera, crop-sensor or mirrorless camera.

What is the best lens for still life photography

Similarly to product photography, still life photography generally aims to portray an accurate reflection of the item you’re photographing. This means the best choice of lens is one that produces minimal distortion. For full-frame, crop-sensor or mirrorless cameras, this is generally around 60mm-70mm (approximately 80mm-100mm for medium format).

Useful accessories for still life photography

As I mentioned before, you don’t need much more than your camera and a subject to get started with still life photography. However, other additional accessories that you may find useful include a tripod, a selection of backgrounds and different props.

Still life photography lighting

When it comes to still life photography, you could use natural light, you could studio lights, you could even use desk lamps if you wanted to! The key thing is how you control that light.

Photography tips for still life shots

1. Develop a creative concept

Having a strong concept is key to creating a stand-out image. Think about what you want to say with your photography and how you’re going to say that.

Take the image below as an example — I didn’t simply place lipsticks amongst fish hooks because I had the props lying around the studio. I very deliberately placed these items together to provoke thought about lipstick, or makeup, being used to hook the opposite (or same) sex. The image highlights concepts relating to relationships, desire and sexual attraction.

Lipstick still life photo with fishing hooks and a black backdrop

This example is a more conceptual still life image, but still life photography can also be more simplistic. This image of the rubber ducks, for example, is far more straightforward, highlighting the global pollution crisis and its impact, particularly on wildlife and animals.

Pollution awareness still life photo (using rubber ducks)

2. Plan your image

Once you’ve developed a concept for your shoot, don’t just rush into it. Planning is a key part of any successful image. As you may have seen in some of my photography classes, I always take the time to think about and plan a shoot, and a key part of this process is pre-visualisation. I’ll often draw simple sketches to help visualise my idea, which helps me see where I want to place my items, what angle I’ll need and where my lighting may come from.

Planning still life shots with pencil and sketch
Final whisky still life photo

By taking the time to plan the shoot, you can often preempt the challenges you may face. For example, with my flying tea food shoot, which I did with professional food photographer and stylist Anna Pustynnikova, by quickly sketching our idea I knew where we needed to place items, how we could suspend the items without them interfering with each other or the lights and what the different steps would be to get the final image.

In another, more simple example, I used a basic drawing to determine the composition and what props I would need for this whisky photography live show.

Mood boards are another great way you can plan your shoot. Look around for ideas that inspire you or for types of lighting you like and put those together to help you create your final image. I did something similar with my Clinique style advertising shoot, where I replicated the clean, fresh style typical of Clinique advertising images. Before starting the shoot, I collected some reference images that I could use to guide me throughout the shoot, particularly when it came to the lighting and feel of the image.

Planning still life photos
Final product photo with splash

3. Lead your viewer’s eye in the image

When it comes to photography, the goal is to create an image that stays with the viewer. This sounds straightforward, but how do we do that? Quite simply, we have to maintain the viewer's attention, and to do this, we have to keep their eye in the frame. Many photographers would refer to this as ‘composition’, but to maintain the viewer’s attention we need more than just the rule of thirds.

Consider introducing elements such as leading lines, layers, symmetry and even colour. Each of these will help add interest to your still life compositions, and therefore keep your viewer’s attention. In addition to these common techniques, I also incorporate elements relating to the science of our human visual systems to help guide the viewer’s eye.

4. Get creative with your lighting

If you’ve taken the time to plan and think about the shoot, you should have a basic idea of what lighting you want and how you’re going to achieve this before you even start shooting.

Lighting is one of the easiest ways to get creative with your photography, but the key thing, with any image, is to use your lighting to convey a particular mood or emotion in the image. You can create many different results, even if you’re photographing the same object (I demonstrated this in a previous live show, where I photographed an egg in a number of different ways using very simple lighting setups).

Still life photography example
LIVE PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP

Lighting Control - The Egg Challenge

Now available to watch on replay

Karl demonstrates how, by thinking outside the box and applying an understanding of light, it’s possible to achieve great results, even when photographing simple subjects.

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I’ve used everything from bare bulbs with cut-up pieces of card in front of them to, occasionally, more specialist modifiers such as picolites with projection attachments to achieve many different creative results. To do this, you simply need to think about what lighting you want to achieve and how you can do that.

Studio lighting class
PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS

Understanding Studio Light

A complete introduction to studio lighting

This highly popular photography class covers the fundaments of light, equipping you with the knowledge you need to confidently work with studio light.

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Summary

The possibilities are endless when it comes to shooting still life photos, and the points above will provide a good guide to help you get started. The next step is to look for inspiring ideas and get out there and practice. Remember to think carefully about your shot, what you want to achieve and how you can do that. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t let a lack of equipment be an excuse. Get creative with what you have — you might be surprised by what you can come up with.

Recommended Content

To learn more about how to photograph still life images, take a look at some of our step-by-step photography classes. Below is a selection that you may find useful to help you get started.

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