How to Get Started With Still Life Photography

If you were anything like me when you first discovered photography, then you were completely obsessed. I photographed everything. I read dozens of photography books to learn more. I scoured the internet for information on camera functionality, composition and lighting, lines and white balance and just about everything else related to photography. And I loved it all! I couldn't take information in fast enough.

Then came the time when I questioned exactly what type of photographer I wanted to be. I loved taking pictures of people. Was I a portrait or street photographer? I enjoyed capturing tiny details in my images. Was I a macro photographer? I was very fond of exploring and taking photos of places I visited. Maybe I was a landscape photographer? Then I started experimenting with still life photography and, oh, yes, I loved that, too!

The reality is, I enjoy multiple photography genres and have found balance in my career by shooting several different subjects. In the winter, when portrait season slows down and the weather isn't conducive to landscape photography, I find myself in the studio working on still life.  It allows me to continue to be creative and hone my skills in all areas of photography from shooting to the final edit. It also provides subject matter that I can sell to clients and/or submit to the stock photography company with whom I work.

With this alternative genre, I've been able to introduce additional income streams and keep my creativity flowing, even in the off-season. If you're interested in expanding your repertoire and learning a new photography genre, then I hope you find my still life photography tips helpful and inspiring! 

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Still Life Inspiration

To get started, you must find inspiration for your still life compositions. I let personal items inspire my still life arrangements such as family heirlooms, artifacts or keepsakes, and even personal collections. Additionally, flowers, books, food, or even dish ware and recipes often find their way into my compositions. Simply looking through a magazine or taking a quick browse on Pinterest (Is it ever quick?) can inspire me to create a still life piece. I encourage you to let the simple, every day objects lead your compositions as these will be the easiest for your clients to utilize for their own imagery needs. 

Planning the Image

Once I've decided on the main subject of my still life, I begin to think about the lighting, supporting props, and backgrounds that will convey the feel, mood, or story that I envision. Do I want a dark, moody aesthetic? Would a light, airy, and soft setting suit the subject best? Will I be creating a flat-lay (more on this shortly) or will this subject be best photographed from above, beside, below? I often shoot each composition from different angles and levels because a certain vantage might create an even better image than what I originally had in mind.

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Once I establish the look of the image, I then consider the position of the lighting. How do I want the light to fall on the objects? When arranging the props for your composition, let the angle of the light be your biggest guide. I like to include elements of different heights and textures to add interest and to allow the light to play a major role within the image. Consider the length and intensity of the shadows the light casts. Will natural light or studio lighting work best? Be sure to test all options to determine the best lighting for your composition.

Often times I will attempt to lead the viewer's eyes through the frame by giving them plenty of elements to explore. Other times, I want the viewer to appreciate a simple composition so I allow for lots of negative space around a single object. With still life, you can even pull the viewer into the scene to make them feel as though they are part of it. As if they could easily step into the scene and begin using the items within it.

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A lot of preparation and planning is required for a still life image which must happen before you ever take our your camera. But if you've planned accordingly, just a few clicks of the shutter will be all you'll need.

Setting Up the Scene

Once you've determined the best arrangement and lighting, finish by hanging the desired backdrop and placing the foundation on the table or floor. Next, start layering the pieces that you'll be using in your still life. Ensure to make visual pathways that might be circular or triangular so that the viewer's eyes continue to explore the frame and stay engaged within the composition. Once things are placed, take a step back and study the scene. I will often take a few test images and then shift objects as necessary.

Creating a Flat-Lay

A flat-lay is simply a still life image that is taken from overhead, parallel to the floor/table. This style of image is very appealing and is a great way to capture a still life. When creating a flat-lay, I have found it easiest to set my camera on a tripod arm so that the lens is parallel to the table or floor. Hang a weight on the opposite end of the tripod arm so that the tripod arm is balanced – camera on one end, weight on the other. We don't want that camera to go crashing down because of an imbalanced tripod! 

I also suggest using a small leveling cube that attaches right to your camera. This way you can easily see if the lens is parallel to the flat-lay and avoid any possible angle distortions. Another handy tip is to attach your camera to a digital tablet which will allow you to easily see what your camera is seeing so you can adjust the scene accordingly.

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When capturing a flat-lay, ensure that all elements are arranged to be viewed from above. You'll want to arrange all objects so that they are facing directly up at the camera so the viewer sees each object as it's meant to be viewed. If you do choose to stand the object up-right, be sure that it is still recognizable when viewed from above. Flat-lays are also best captured with lighting directly above the composition, or just slightly off to one side. Severe shadows can distract from a flat-lay and add unnecessary confusion to the image.

The Benefits of Multiple Photography Genres

One of the most wonderful things about being a multi-genre photographer is that whenever I begin to feel fatigue over a particular genre, I can switch to another with ease. After a winter full of still life work, I'm ready to transition to landscape and portrait photography again having developed and strengthened my skills during the slow season. If you have yet to try still life photography, I hope you will after learning my process. You (and your clients!) may just enjoy this new genre it as much as I do! 



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About Nadeen Flynn

Nadeen Flynn is a multi-genre fine art photographer living in rural northern California. She enjoys capturing the unique beauty of everyday moments, people, places, and things. As a native of the Sacramento area, Nadeen loves to take advantage of the beautiful California scenery. You’ll often find Nadeen and her husband heading to the coast, the mountains, or Napa Valley for a little getaway. When not photographing, Nadeen enjoys hiking, walking the beach, gardening, dining out, baking, and exploring new places. Nadeen also mentors fellow photographers and will soon be announcing her new in-person still life workshop:  Life Exposed – Capturing Still Life Moments.


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Nadeen Flynn

Nadeen Flynn