How To Create a Well Balanced Still Life Photographic Composition

Still life photography, more so than other types of photography, such as landscape or portraiture, gives the photographer more leeway in the arrangement of design elements within a composition.

Montecristi still finalweb

Greetings: I am going to begin to share some of the assignments that I give to my students in 2nd year photography University Level. There are lists of what to consider and how to proceed. I hope it provides some insight into the making of a Still Life Photograph. The still life above was done for a recent job here in Santa Fe NM. The Gourd still life was shot with an 8×10 and printed in Platinum and Palladium as were the Birds of Paradise still, Egg Press and Family Matters_quince family which was also hand colored with charcoal and pastels.

Natural Light Still life: Window light or ambient light from your chosen location. 3-Prints due…1 print-with Fruit as part of theme…1 print-with Flowers as part of the theme. You can treat the objects anyway you like…use your creativity and give it some thought before you start, remain open for new ideas during the process of composition and lighting. 1 Print-your choice of objects and or shooting your still life in the studio for those with studio access; or shooting a found still life. Print quality will be as important as the content of your imagery.

There are basically two types of Still Life’s, Found and Created. When most of us think of a still life photo, we generally think of a created still life where we build the entire composition–from choosing the most photogenic bowl, to what fruit to use, to how to position and light all the other elements. But, when you are walking down your favorite mountain trail and run across a fallen leaf sitting on a particularly attractive rock, that’s a still life, too.

© David Hoptman 2011
© David Hoptman 2011… made with iPhone and fisheye lens

Still Life Photography is the depiction of inanimate subject matter, most typically a small grouping of objects. Still life photography, more so than other types of photography, such as landscape or portraiture, gives the photographer more leeway in the arrangement of design elements within a composition. Color, Texture, light and dark values are the ways in which an artist can create a mood or make a statement much like a poet can using the written word. It is your choice of objects, background, foreground, lighting, etc. which will convey the mood and reveal your intent with the creation of your still life images.

Still life photography is a challenging art form, one in which the photographers are expected to be able to form their work with a refined sense of lighting, coupled with compositional skills. The still life photographer makes pictures rather than takes them. Knowing where to look for prop’s, surfaces and locations is also a good skill to develop. Personally I like to frequent antique and second hand stores for ideas and affordable props. You never know what will come your way and many times you will be able to borrow objects or if not pay a 10% cost of the object selling price to the owner enabling you to use those items for a few days. Many times I have been able to trade a print of my still life work to the store owners for the use of their materials.

ppbird_paradiseBR8_10webBuilding a set…Table Top…Still Life Photography: Things to consider before beginning.

When setting out on you still life venture, keep it simple the first few times as there is lots to consider in the process. You may consider using your kitchen or another room in your home or a friend’s home. Working on location has a few advantages over the studio in that you are usually able to find objects that make sense within the living environment you have chosen to use. i.e. Kitchen, place settings, surfaces, backgrounds, flower pots, decorative containers etc. etc.  Keep in mind; when shooting in a studio setting you have to bring it all with you when you come, props, objects, backgrounds, surfaces etc. etc. Studio table tops take a bit more planning and organization, its usually worth the extra effort and all part of the creative process.

Window light or backlit window light is a good light source for still life work. If you like the drama of backlit window light keep in mind you can use HDR to compensate, Flash Fill and or Reflectors to help balance the lighting. These are techniques that work great when shooting still life imagery when not in a studio situation and are all tools that we have practiced with during the semester.

Having a small kit with widgets, erasers, small rags for dust, clips, rulers, screwdriver, etc. etc. is always a good idea to have along with you when making still life imagery.

A relatively good tripod is essential to creating still life imagery, please arrange to have one until the end of the semester with Chris if you do not already have one.

Scale is always something to consider… working smaller may make it easier on many levels. If you decide to work with relatively large objects you will need a larger table surface and more space most likely to move around in. Personally I enjoy working on location as opposed to working in the studio. Many times on locations you will find fascinating objects, textures, tools that will give an insight into the shop, studio or space you have decided to work in. Your audience for the most part will not have ever had an opportunity to visit such places and everything you include as well as the surrounding environment will have a huge impact on your viewers as they become in a sense Voyeur’s. It is then the job of the artist to find where in the space will be the most interesting place to shoot to communicate the essence of the environment using still life techniques.


EGG PRESS PPweb1.Try to keep your objects relatively the same size…usually placing the slightly taller objects in the background will make it easier not to conceal smaller objects in the foreground.

  1. keep object sizes in mind when considering your available work area. Remember a smaller work space for the most part is easier to maneuver in.
  2. Your chosen Background and Table Top Surface will play a major role in creating the mood and or feeling for your still life. Color, Texture, Value etc. etc. are all important considerations and part of the creative process.
  3. Keep in mind that the background of a still life is much like the background for good portraiture, it should be relatively simple and not distracting but support the main subject.
  4. Your working space if possible should be large enough to light the still life objects and the background separately, {this applies more to a studio situation} or be able to control the key light from hitting the background using flags, gobos etc.

Fill cards or reflector are always handy to have nearby to fill in deep shadows. A tripod is necessary in order to fine tune your composition and enable you to control your depth of field by using longer exposure times.

 Chiaroscuro is an Italian word meaning light and dark… and in the 2 dimensional arts understanding this affect and learning how to use it is highly beneficial. This effect is commonly used in Portraiture as well as in still life photography. The idea is to create the illusion of depth and space by using light and dark values in your image in a particular way.

quince familyBR10_8WEBStill Life Photography Setup

Now we come to the whole point of doing still life photography: to master composition. You won’t have much in the way of compositional options if you only have one object to choose from. You should have a number of objects that fit the theme you are going for. Pick and choose which ones to add and take away. The more options you have, the better. All of the composition rules come into play here; that’s why still life shots are so valuable as a learning tool. You have the rule of thirds, leading lines, diagonals, geometric shapes, and visual weight (determined by either the object’s size or color).

                                                  Still Life Lighting

In landscape photography, there isn’t much we can learn about how to set up and control light. We generally have to work with what is there and about the only control we have is the time of day. In portrait photography, we have all the lighting options: main light, fill light, background light, hair light, accent lights and so on, but we are restricted on the amount of time we can take. If we tweak and adjust too long, our subject will get tired of waiting and leave. As in the composition arrangement, one of the main benefits of the still life photography lighting setup is that we can take as long as we want. We can tweak and fiddle until it is perfect. I can’t over stress how important still life photography is to understanding and mastering lighting.

mara 3b8_12WEBIn portrait photography, we have a number of basic lighting setups designed to create drama, minimize flaws and accent the good features of our subject etc. In landscape photography we are mostly concerned with the directionality of light, time of day, weather etc. In a still life set-up, it is up to us to create or find the light quality within a location that will suit are still life image the best. Side and Top lighting balanced with one as the fill and the other the key light are most commonly used for still life imagery, products etc.







I am and have been a professional photographer for more than 30 years and have been teaching almost that long. I am currently teaching photography at The Santa Fe University of Art and Design. I also teach workshops in Santa Fe NM and in Tuscany Italy. Originally I am from Detroit and attended college at The College for Creative Studies Art and Design.

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