When photographing still lifes, composition, lighting, and styling are all key factors. Consider using interesting props and a clean, simple setup with a complementary color palette.

Lighting

Whatever lighting you plan to use, whether it’s a studio flash, window light, or sunlight, it’s important to control your key and fill lights in order to correctly expose your subject and background. Avoid flat lighting and use white fill cards in your still life set to bounce light into shadowy areas and smooth specular highlights. Conversely, you can use black subtractive cards to control overexposed areas in the scene.

Example of good lighting and composition

Image by Maglara. Example of good lighting and composition.

Controlled lighting is key to photographing appealing still lifes.  Balanced lighting will produce dimension and create even tones. Unless you’re using a hard light to create a statement in your image, it’s a good idea to avoid specular lighting as it will produce harsh shadows and blown out highlights. This is especially true for still life nature imagery because flowers and leaves are glossy and highlights are easily blown out.

Example of poor lighting and bad composition

Example of poor lighting and bad composition. Lighting is flat and elements in the background are distracting.

When lighting your set, try positioning a light from above and behind, as well as in front of the subject as this will reduce flat lighting and create depth. Lighting from above and behind is especially complimentary for food imagery.

Image by Lisovskaya Natalia. Opened Oysters on metal copper plate on dark wooden background.

If you’re using window light, use a bounce card as your fill light to produce an overall natural look. If you’re using studio light, use a combination of fill cards and diffused flash to make the overall scene look like it’s lit by natural light.

Styling and Shooting

When styling your still life images, it’s a good rule of thumb to be meticulous with the props you use. The surrounding props and background shouldn’t distract from the focal point of the image. A clean background free of dust, debris, and other distracting elements increases the chances of your image being successful. For example, if you have dust or dirt in a close up or macro shot, they might appear larger in the final image and distract the eye. In a wide-angle shot, be especially aware of elements in the background and compose your shot to limit these distractions.

Example of a well-composed and styled image

Image by Sean Wandzilak. Example of a well-composed and styled image.  Surface is clean, guacamole is fresh, bowls are not chipped or scratched.

The most appealing and marketable food imagery is clean and well-composed. When photographing food, pay close attention to your setup and choose clean and fresh subjects to photograph. If you’re photographing your food on a plate, make sure there are no visible chips in the plate, spots or food splatters. It’s much easier to wipe up spills while you’re shooting than to clean them up in post-production.

Example of a poorly lit and badly styled composition

Example of a poorly lit and badly styled composition. Crumbs on the table, harsh sunlight, and distracting elements on the table.

It’s just as important to be meticulous with your props and backgrounds in other types of still life shots, especially of nature. Use fresh flowers and remove dust, debris, cobwebs, or wilting leaves that will be distracting in the final image. Just as with food, keep your styling simple and be aware of elements in the background. Whether shooting macro or wide-angle shots, look past your focal point to be sure there aren’t any distractions. For example, if you’re shooting a garden setup against a hedge, make sure there aren’t any dead branches or discolored leaves. Large distracting elements are hard to remove in post-production and will increase the chances of your image being unsuccessful.

Image by Africa Studio. Garden tools on grass in yard.

Using the Right Gear

Finally, be sure to choose an appropriate lens to capture your subject. Shallow depth of field and tight composition work nicely for both food and nature still lifes. Try using a macro lens or crop tighter in frame for small objects. Alternately, a wide-angle lens works best if you want to get sharp focus on the props and background.

Image by Shebeko. Nice flowers.

When you’re ready to shoot, photograph your scene from a variety of different angles. It’s wise to create both a horizontal and a vertical image of the same scene to give the client options, but aim for variety of angles and composition, including a few options that include copy space.

Most importantly, use a tripod. No matter what surface you’re shooting on, this is crucial to minimize camera shake and motion blur, especially for close-up shots. A tripod also makes it easy to make changes to your set during the shoot without losing the perfect angle.

Image by Marysckin. Fresh raspberries.

We hope these simple suggestions will help you create some amazing images!

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Top image by Ruth Black.