Artists have been creating still life images since the Renaissance, and they never really seem to go out of style. In the 1600s, Dutch and Flemish artists kind of went a little nuts with still life paintings, creating timeless images of flowers, tables clad with drooping table cloths and pitchers of cold water, and musical instruments awaiting their musicians. There’s something really inviting about a great still-life image—it’s almost like a little window into the life of someone from another time and place. And did you know that you can take photos that look almost exactly like some of those old paintings?
Garlic In The Light by Flickr user Bill Gracey
Of course those Dutch masters had one big advantage over you, the photographer. If a flower wasn’t perfect they could just paint in (or out) some extra details. If the light wasn’t just-so, they could paint in a sunbeam. They could change colors and shapes to whatever suited them. Or they could just invent the whole scene out of their minds.
You can’t do that as a photographer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take amazing still life photographs anyway. You just need to make those creative changes in real life, rather than with a paintbrush.
You don't have to take still life photos that look just like Renaissance paintings, although I do think it's a pretty cool look myself. But you do have to think very carefully about things that you probably don't ordinarily think about when you're out shooting snapshots. Light is always important, but in still life photography it's nearly everything. Second on that list is the perfection or perceived perfection of your subject. Now I am the first to acknowledge that there really isn't any such thing as a perfect photography subject. Nearly everything has flaws, and the camera is particularly good at finding those flaws and capturing them for the world to see. But if you go back and look at all those wonderful Renaissance still life paintings, you're not going to see many, if any, imperfections. So you need to take steps to remove, angle out, or otherwise obscure any imperfections in your still life subjects. That means no bruised apples, no dried-up flowers, and no chipped dishes.
Equipment and settings
For still life photos, you don’t really need anything special in the way of camera equipment—any lens in the 50mm focal length range will do. But you will need to have a tripod, especially if your light source is filtered or otherwise indirect. A tripod will allow you to select a small aperture, which might be necessary if you want to achieve good clarity from the front of your arrangement to the back. Remember that in low light, small apertures require long shutter speeds, and long shutter speeds require stability. To go with the tripod, you will also need a cable or remote release, since the simple act of touching your shutter button can be enough to introduce camera shake into the scene. If you don't have a remote release, try using your camera’s self-timer feature. Set it to five seconds, which should be enough time for the vibrations to stop after you've manually pressed the button.
Unless you are actually trying to duplicate those Renaissance still lifes, there's no need to limit yourself photos of fruit, clay pitchers, and linens. Pretty much anything around your house can make for an excellent still life image, provided it falls into that category of visual perfection. Before you decide on a collection of objects, though, you need to ask yourself a series of questions. The most important question is this one: will those objects play well together? A bowl of fruit, for example, really isn't going to go very well with your kid’s Transformer figure. Now I suppose there's always some way to make that work on a comedic level, but for the most part we are looking to create images that won’t make you viewer scratch his head.
The next question you need to ask yourself is about the way in which the objects can be arranged. Objects that are more or less the same height will make for a somewhat static and boring photo. Objects of varying height, on the other hand, will encourage your viewer’s eyes to move all around the frame, rather than just from left to right.
Leather and Lace by Flickr user gfpeck
Next, look for color combinations that work well together. The Renaissance masters tended to choose colors on a more earthy palette—even their flowers didn't seem particularly brilliant. You don't have to stick with the earthy the palette for your photos, of course, but you should make sure that you have a good understanding of which colors work best with which other colors. If you're not sure, check out some of my articles on color theory. Complementary colors, for example, are almost always a good bet. Analogous colors, or those that are adjacent to one another on the color wheel, also work very well. But keep in mind that the mood of most still lifes is supposed to be one of peace and serenity. That means you can't have a lot of clashing colors or bold colors in your still life images. Keep it toned down for the best effect.
Still Life With Veggies - Explored by Flickr user Bill Gracey
Finally, when choosing an object for your still life, look for subjects that have interesting texture. An object with a smooth surface can be an interesting subject, but since still life images are really all about the light you're going to end up with a much more engaging photograph if you choose subjects that have interesting texture. The skin of an orange is a good example. A clay pitcher (ala Renaissance painting fame) is another great example.
As a general rule, you should avoid highly reflective objects such as wine glasses and silver when you’re first starting out with still life photography. It can be really challenging to light shiny objects well, and you’ll spend a lot of your time trying to compete with glare and reflections and too little of your time working on composition. Once you really start to get the knack for still life photography, feel free to add some shiny objects to the mix.
Think in odds—the rule of odds says that human beings feel more comfortable when they view odd numbered groups of objects. Start with three objects and then try five, but don’t go overboard—you don’t want to overwhelm your viewer by giving him too many things to look at. Still life photos should be full of shape and texture, but too much of anything can be a bad thing. When in doubt, simplify.
Now you know what you're going to photograph, you need to start thinking about the light. Fortunately, you don't need to have an expensive indoor photographer’s studio to do this well. If you have a kitchen window that has good light, all you really need to do is set up a little table next to it and you’ve got an instant home studio. If you don’t have a window with perfect light in your home, you can also use table lamps fitted with daylight-balanced bulbs. If you can’t find daylight-balanced bulbs, never fear—use your camera’s custom white balance setting and even still lifes shot under incandescent light will still look pretty natural. All cameras have a slightly different way of setting the custom white balance, so consult your manual if you decide to go this route.
Just as important as the quality of the light is the direction of light. The really nice thing about window light is that it is soft and even, but that's not going to make a difference if you don't position your subject to make the very best use of that beautiful light.
Most still lifes look best when the light is coming from the side. By contrast, when you back light your subject, you can end up with a photo that's too dark, or has a distracting burned-out background. If you front-light your subject, you get an image that, frankly, is a little boring. Front light can make a subject look flat and dimensionless, because shadow is necessary for enhancing detail. When you front light a subject, the shadows fall behind the object, which means they are no longer visible to the camera.
You can use some extra light to fill in the shadows if you find that you're not getting the right amount of illumination from the window or from a single light source alone. Do this with a second lamp, or simply bounce light into the shadows using a reflector placed on the opposite side of the light source. If you’re using a second lamp, remember that for the most drama your main light should be closer to your subject then your secondary light source is.
A still life photo should be about the objects in your arrangement, not about the things in the background. If you have a look at some of those famous paintings from the Renaissance, you’ll discover that the backgrounds are almost exclusively dark and plain. The same should be true for your still life photos. Choose a simple backdrop—it doesn’t necessarily have to be dark, but it should be free of distracting elements, multiple colors and bold colors that overpower your subject. A common mistake that beginners make with still life backdrops is using wrinkled cloth or worse, cloth that has creases in it. These little flaws don’t really stick out much in person, but when you capture them in a photograph, your viewer’s eye is going to go right past your subject and straight to the wrinkles. To avoid this, get out your iron—make sure your backdrop is crisp and wrinkle-free before you hang it up behind your subject.
To get that Renaissance look, try setting up in a dark room and using a single flashlight as your light source. This technique is called light painting, and you can use it to more closely simulate that classic Renaissance style. The advantages of lighting your subject with a flashlight is that a smaller light source will give you better overall color saturation, and because it’s also a mobile light source you won’t get any hard shadows. A flashlight is completely mobile, so it allows you to light the scene from multiple directions and to selectively add more light to some areas and less light to others. And if you use bulb mode, you can keep the shutter open for as long as you need in order to get light in all the places you want it.
When you paint with light, remember that larger beams of light create a softer, flatter effect and small beams of light enhance texture and color saturation. Use side lighting just as you would with a constant light source—side lighting enhances texture and dimension and adds drama.
Still Life by Flickr user kirtaph
The great thing about still life photography is that you can take your time, try different camera angles, different arrangements and different lighting combinations until you hit on one you really like. You’re not constrained by the impending boredom of your subject or the changing weather. If you’re using window light you are somewhat at the mercy of the time, but other than that everything is in your control. And because you’re shooting digital, you don’t have any restrictions on the number of frames you shoot, either. If something didn’t work, well, that’s what the trashcan button is for.
I always find that it helps to look to other photographers for inspiration, but in this case I’m going to suggest looking to the Renaissance masters for inspiration. For fun, you could even try copying some of your favorite paintings in your photos—don’t worry, the great masters are too dead to complain and all their work is in the public domain. Trying to simulate the great paintings of bygone years is going to help you really get an understanding of light, texture and the pleasing arrangements of objects. After you’ve ripped off a few of the masters, it’s time to come up with some pleasing arrangements of your own.
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