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Learn Photography

Photo Tips > Still Lifes


Photographing an assemblage of objects can teach you about light, color, tone, and composition.

What you learn can be applied to whatever genres of photography in which you work.

Hunting v. Making

Doing a still life may be difficult for some photographers, those who prefer to hunt for photographs.

Making a photograph can feel less inviting.

Of course, few photographers, no matter what they may say, are actually operating at these extremes.

A photographer at Yosemite, may be be mostly hunting, but he or she is also making.

Raison d'Être

Your still life needs to have a reason for existing, such as an idea, formal notion (color, tone, etc.), mood, theme, point of view, a communication, or ?

You need not start out with a reason, but as you go along, it must develop.

Otherwise, how can you decide how to use the tools of photography, such as light?

Subject Matter

The subject matter in your still life, the physical objects, may be far less important than how you photograph them.

A dull subject can shine with the sensitive use of light, color, and composition, for example.

Whereas, an appealing subject can be dimmed by not using the tools of photography adequately.


Keep it simple.

The more elements you add, the harder it is to make them work together.


If you can leave the still life set up, you can make adjustments over a period of time.

Your third draft will be better than your first draft of the still life.


A tripod can help with composition.

A stationary frame allows one to:

• Study what's near the edges and corners of the frame

• Identify elements and motifs that are repeating, in contrast with one another, or are out or in balance

• Reveal how well you're using the three-dimensional space, often described as planes, such as foreground, field, and background.

As you may have little light indoors, a tripod will allow you to use a long shutter speed.

Use the camera self-timer or a remote release to trip the shutter.

A tripod can limit your use of a photography tool—vantage point.

Your still life may require a perch for your camera that's impossible with most tripods, such as an aerial view.


You can use window light if you're close to the window.

Consider using pieces of white cardboard to reflect light into the shadows.

Other light sources include desk lamps, candles, flashlights, and LCD screens.

You can also use work lights on stands from the home center, or a photo flood.

Be sure to experiment with the four rules of lighting.


Because your probably close to the subject matter, you can experiment with depth-of-field.

Use the aperture-priority mode (A or Av), and decide where to place the focus.

You may need to switch autofocus off, and manually focus the lens.

Then, decide how much of the scene you want to be acceptably sharp, the depth-of-field.

Use f/4 for very little, and at the other extreme, use f/22 for more.

If you're using f/22, the camera will select a slow shutter speed, unless you're using bright lighting.

Use a tripod.

You can preview the amount of depth-of-field by pressing the depth-of-field preview button found near the lens on many cameras.

Painting with Light

Using the shutter-priority exposure mode (S or Tv), set the shutter speed to eight or fifteen seconds.

You'll need to support the camera with a tripod, or else set it on something.

Turn the lights off, and trip the shutter.

Switch on a flashlight, and paint the still life with the flashlight.

You can aim it from one angle, and can then cover it, reposition it, and paint from another angle.

For example, you could light from the front, and then add some backlighting.

If the light from the flashlight enters the lens directly, you'll get flare, which is not always unwanted.

You can change the color of the flashlight with filters.

The filter doesn't have to come from a camera store.

For example, change the color with a red plastic cup.

Go to Painting with Light.

Floor & Walls

Experiment with different material for the surface and backgrounds.

Don't forget to consider using foreground, such as framing the still life by shooting through an opening cut in sheer fabric.


Fingerprints, stray hairs from the dog, and so forth, will become prominent in a still life.

Polish, blow off, and dust, before pressing the shutter.


Doing still lifes can frazzle and liberate.

You have total control.

You're responsible for everything.


Zeke Berman

Ron van Dongen

Barbara Kasten

Adam Makarenko

Lori Nix

Olivia Parker

Victor Schrager