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Still Life Photography: The Joy and the Challenge

What is still life photography?

Still life photography captures inanimate objects in a pleasing and artistic way. It is a versatile category used to create a wide range of images, from simple and minimalist compositions to complex and elaborate scenes. The still life genre can be used to capture the beauty of everyday objects, tell a story, or evoke a certain mood.


Key Characteristics of Still Life Photography

  • Focus on inanimate objects: Still life photography focuses on inanimate objects, such as food, flowers, books, and other everyday items.

  • Pleasing and artistic composition: The subjects are carefully arranged to create images that are both visually appealing and thought-provoking.

  • Versatility: There are no rules when it comes to composition or subject matter. Photographers can use any objects they want, and arrange them in any way they want.

  • Storytelling: Still life photography can be used to tell a story or evoke a certain mood. For example, a still life image of a bowl of fruit could represent abundance and fertility, while a still life image of a skull could represent death and mortality.

Still life can be a great way to be creative. By taking the time to carefully arrange and photograph ordinary objects your thoughtfulness reveals their hidden beauty. Still life photography can be used to tell a story or evoke a certain mood. And ultimately, by having control over composition, lighting and setting, you have infinite ways of improving your photography skills.


A black and white still life photograph of three flowers against a dark background.
Floral Tango. The focus here is the interplay between the various flowers in this bouquet, with a very flat, lateral arrangement giving equal footing to each head. The lighting emphasises the veins in the middle flower and spotlights the three of them against the rest of the bouquet in the background. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

 

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Why is Still Life Photography Enjoyable?

One reason why photographers enjoy still life as a genre is that it gives them complete control over the image. Unlike other styles of photography, such as landscape or portrait, where the photographer has to deal with unpredictable factors such as weather, lighting, or human subjects, still life photography allows the photographer to create the image exactly as they want it. They can choose the objects, the background, the lighting, the angle, the focus, and any other element of the image. This way, they can achieve their desired mood, style, and message.


Another reason why still life photography is enjoyed is that it challenges one's creativity. Still life has no fixed rules or guidelines. The photographer can use any objects they want, from fruits and flowers to books and bottles, and arrange them in any way they want. The photographer can also experiment with different techniques, such as macro, HDR, or black and white. This gives them a lot of freedom to express their own unique vision and personality.


Finally, still life is a great way to capture the beauty of everyday objects. Often, we overlook or ignore the ordinary objects that surround us in our daily lives. However, by taking the time to carefully arrange and photograph them, the photographer can reveal their hidden beauty and meaning. Still life can make us appreciate the shapes, colours, textures, and patterns of these objects, and also convey a story or a message about them. For example, a photograph of a cup of coffee and a newspaper can suggest a morning routine, or a similar one of a candle and a book evokes a cozy evening.


A black and white photograph of a dining chair dramatically lit with a spotlight casting shadows into the corner walls..
Missing You. The ordinariness of a(n albeit designer) dining chair is elevated by careful lighting and placement in the corner of the room; not straight-on, it looks to have been pushed away in a hurry, the occupant leaving under a cloud, possibly many moons ago, and the person standing over it is lamenting their loss. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Ultimately, it's enjoyable because it gives the photographer complete control over the image, challenges their creativity, and captures the beauty of everyday objects.


What are the Challenges of Still Life Photography?

One of the biggest challenges of still life photography is coming up with ideas for ideal compositions. A composition is the way the objects are arranged and framed in the image. A good composition can make a photo more interesting, attractive, and meaningful.


While there are no rules when it comes to the still life genre, there are some basic principles of composition that can be helpful to keep in mind. These principles include:

  • Balance: The composition should be balanced in terms of visual weight. The different elements of the composition should be arranged in a way that creates a sense of equilibrium. For example, if there are large objects on one side of the image, there should be smaller objects on the other side to balance them out. Alternatively, the objects can be symmetrically arranged to create a sense of harmony.

  • Unity: The composition should have a sense of unity. The different elements of the composition should work together to create a cohesive image. For example, the objects can share a common theme, color, shape, or texture. Alternatively, the objects can contrast each other to create a sense of tension or drama.

  • Variety: The composition should have visual variety. There should be a mix of different shapes, textures, and colors in the image. For example, the objects can have different sizes, forms, or materials. Conversely, the objects can have similar shapes, textures, or colors, but with subtle variations.

  • Leading lines: The composition should use leading lines to guide the viewer's eye through the image. Leading lines are lines that draw attention to a specific point or area in the image. For example, the objects can be arranged in a diagonal, horizontal, or vertical line. Or the objects can create curves or angles that lead to a focal point.

  • Depth: The composition should have a sense of depth. This can be achieved by using different focal planes or by using perspective. Focal planes are the areas in the image that are in focus or out of focus. To do this, the objects can be placed at different distances from the camera to create a shallow or deep depth of field. Perspective is the way the objects appear to change in size or shape depending on their position relative to the camera. In that case, the objects can be placed closer or farther from the camera to create a sense of scale or distance.


 

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In addition to these basic principles of composition, still life photographers can also be inspired by the work of other photographers, painters, and artists. By studying their compositions, they can learn new techniques and styles. Another way to come up with ideas for still life compositions is to simply look around your environment and see what objects catch your eye. By using everyday objects as subjects, still life photographers can create images that are both familiar and surprising.


A black and white photograph of two chess pieces on a chess board.
The fall of the king: combining macro and still life photography to produce a close up, intimate view of the end stage of a game of chess. The white queen, brightly lit, asserts dominance over the felled king, who fades into the shadows. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

What is Found Still Life?

Found still life photography is a type of still life photography that involves photographing objects that are not deliberately arranged by the photographer, but rather discovered in their natural or urban settings. Found still life photography is a great way to create unique and interesting images without having to set up a studio or purchase expensive props.


To create a found still life image, the photographer needs to have a keen eye for finding beauty and meaning in ordinary objects. These objects could be anything from a pile of rocks on a beach to a discarded toy in a playground. The photographer can also look for objects that have a personal or emotional connection, such as a souvenir, a gift, or a memento.


A photograph of a scarf on a bench on the South Bank in London.
A discarded scarf on a bench on the South Bank in London asks the question, whose scarf was this? Was it cast aside intentionally or simply forgotten? The casual pose of the scarf suggests it was discarded, but then, why? Photo credit: Michael Elliott

They can then use other elements of the environment, such as sunlight or shadows, to add interest to their image. The lighting can affect the mood, tone, and contrast of the image. Natural light can create beautiful effects in still life photography, such as soft shadows, warm colors, or dramatic highlights.


A black and white photograph of some bottles, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, outside on the Greenwich Peninsula.
A rather less sentimental found still life; rubbish can tell just as powerful a story. Here, the story is of a rather boozy affair, but the location is even more puzzling - on the Greenwich Peninsula, in a rather wasteland area yet to be redeveloped. One could imagine that this was the aftermath of revellers returning from a club night at Studio 338 which lies just to the north of this picture, but the answers are not certain. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Focus on the following to ensure that your images are captivating:

  • Look for objects that have interesting shapes, textures, and colours. These can create visual variety and harmony in the image.

  • Pay attention to the lighting. Natural light can create beautiful effects in still life photography. Try to use the golden hour or the blue hour for optimal lighting conditions.

  • Use leading lines to guide the viewer's eye through the image. Leading lines are lines that draw attention to a specific point or area in the image. They can be created by using objects that have linear or curved shapes, such as branches, fences, or roads.

  • Don't be afraid to experiment. There are no rules when it comes to found still life photography. You can try different angles, perspectives, or techniques to create their own unique style and vision.


A colour photograph of a glass bottle washed up on the Greenwich Foreshore.
Message in a bottle. Found on the Greenwich Foreshore, a veritable dream for found still life photography, the various flotsam and jetsam that washes up is always interesting. Here, the sun setting in the background illuminates the (milk?) bottle that has found itself on the damp pebbles, themselves glistening and radiant.

Still Life Photography for Beginners

If you are new to still life photography, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Start with simple compositions. Don't try to create anything too complex or elaborate when you are just starting out.

  • Use natural light whenever possible. Natural light is soft and flattering, and it can create beautiful effects in your images.

  • Experiment with different angles and perspectives. Don't be afraid to get creative and try new things.

  • Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes when they are learning something new. The important thing is to keep practicing and learning from your mistakes.


A black and white still life photograph of a floral arrangement outside.
This floral still life was taken outside in bright sunlight and uses a macro extension tube to allow closer focus to fully fill the frame, but otherwise the setup was not complicated. It simply involved placing the vase of flowers on a table outside, and adjusting the position until the sun cast the right amount of light and shadow across the subject. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

In addition to the basic principles mentioned above, there are a few other tips that can be helpful for still life photography:

  • Use a tripod to keep your camera steady. This is especially important if you are using a slow shutter speed.

  • Experiment with different angles and perspectives. Don't be afraid to get creative and try new things.

  • Use a shallow depth of field to blur the background and focus attention on your subject.

  • Use props to add interest and depth to your composition.

  • Don't be afraid to edit your photos. Cropping, adjusting the brightness and contrast, and removing unwanted elements can help to improve your images.

Inspiration for Still Life Photography

There are many sources of inspiration for still life photography. You can find inspiration in the work of other photographers, painters, and artists. You can also find inspiration in your everyday surroundings. Simply look around and see what objects catch your eye.

Here are a few ideas for still life photography compositions:

  • A bowl of fruit

  • A vase of flowers

  • A stack of books

  • A cup of coffee

  • A plate of food

  • A collection of objects that share a common theme, such as color, shape, or texture

  • A scene from nature, such as a fallen leaf or a rock formation

  • An object that is out of place, such as a toy in the forest or a flower in the snow


A black and white photograph of a trio of pumpkins.
Pumpkins of various patterns. A perfect beginner's choice for still life photography because they can have such different patterns and you can arrange them in different manners. They sit easily, complement each other, and their ridged body provides manifold ways of casting light and shade across the subject. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Conclusion

Still life photography is a genre of photography that involves capturing inanimate objects, usually arranged by the photographer. It is a rewarding genre of photography for several reasons. First, it gives the photographer complete control over the image, allowing them to create images that are exactly as they envision them. Second, it challenges the photographer's creativity, as they can use any objects they want, and arrange them in any way they want. Third, it captures the beauty of everyday objects, by revealing their hidden beauty and meaning. Still life photography can produce images that are both visually appealing and thought-provoking, as they can convey a story or a message about the objects. Therefore, still life photography is a genre of photography that can be enjoyed by photographers of all skill levels, as it is a great way to be creative, to capture the beauty of everyday objects, and to produce images that are both visually appealing and thought-provoking.

 

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