Chances are that if you look around the homes of people you know, somewhere there is a print or painting of a still life. In simple terms, a still life is the depiction of something that is natural or man made but is inanimate. The most common images that come to mind are pictures of fruit, or flowers in a vase. Pottery, and kitchen items also seem to be popular. If you Google “still life painting” you will see hundreds of examples.
In todays age, you can re-create or invent your own still life image with your camera. It is a great exercise in learning how to compose a shot, and also a great lesson in using natural light. Over the past weekend I tried it for myself and so I want to share with you how to do a basic still life photo.
You will need to collect a single item, or a small collection of things that tell a story or have visual interest. You will also need a solid surface, and a very plain background. This allows the objects to be the focus, and not the background. Most people recommend a plain piece of fabric. Black velvet seems to be most popular. You could also use a plain wall if no fabric is available. You will see at times that backgrounds are slightly more elaborate, but the key will always remain that the objects are the primary focus. I suggest you keep it simple to begin with.
You will also need the light from a window, and most of the time a still life works best when the light source is at the side of the objects. This adds depth, texture and dimension to the items and helps create a mood. I usually use a south facing window which at this time of year always has diffused light. You may need to experiment with various windows, times of day, and even during different weather situations in order to get the best light as you will not be using your flash.
Once you have found a window and a surface, place your backdrop and start arranging your items. You will most likely need to arrange and rearrange the items until you feel they are telling the story you are hoping to achieve. You may need to add or take away something that doesn’t look right, so keep at it until it feels correct.
Now grab your camera, no matter whether it is a Point and Shoot, Digital SLR, or even your iPhone and start taking photos of your arrangement. Have fun with it. Take the images from all different angles. Looking down, in front of, from the sides, at various heights, etc. The lighting will be different from all these different angles, and therefore so will the feeling in the photo. If you have sheers on your window pull them open or closed for another layer of different light. Just remember too harsh of lighting will wash out the objects, and too dark will not allow the items to expose properly.
As with all things in photography, practice and have fun. I myself, know too well that some of my best shots happen by accident, and some of my most planned shots turn out…..well.. less than desirable. But I enjoy the process, and hope you do too.