Still Photography: Everything You Need to Know

What is still photography and what is still life photography? Are they the same?

still photo

In this article I will describe the differences and all you need to know about them, including techniques, equipment, lighting and selling photos.

The idea behind still photography is that you shoot images of items that are non-moving. A lot of things qualify for such a genre. Everyday household items like flower vases, pencils, coloring tools, watches, electronic items, utensils, everything qualifies as still photography subjects.

The terms still photography and still life photography are sometimes used interchangeably, which is both right and wrong at the same time. You see, still photography is any photography. The term still photography comes as a juxtaposition for video work. More precisely, when I say still photography, I mean images of non moving subjects.

Even in motion pictures and 3d animation, a still is one frame of a sequence, which alone represents a moment captured in time, unlike the changing scenery of a sequence.

What qualifies as a still life photo?

Throughout history still life has always shared this intimate relationship with artists. Everything qualifies as still life photography, from a vase of flowers to a bowl full of fruits and the modern Instagram image of a plate of food at a restaurant.

still photo of flowers and fruit

If you have ever taken art classes, you have probably been introduced to the idea of still life subjects in the form of a fruit bowl, a flower vase, or even a rock. You should be aware of the classic still-life look of still-life photography. This is the most simplistic example that I can give of what a still life photo looks like.

For those who have no prior art experience, a photograph that depicts an object at rest, in other words, not moving, is considered a still-life photo. Please note a picture of an animate thing or a living being, even when resting, does not qualify as a still life photo.

Still photography often focuses on objects that are typically not the focus of attention daily. These could be household items or simple stuff lying around in your home.

As a still-life photographer, you can make these items appear special using lighting, composition, and advanced editing techniques.

I will discuss the equipment you need later in this article. But for the moment, let’s say as a beginner still life photographer, you don’t need too much equipment to get started. Apart from a camera and a lens, a simple flash is more than enough to get started.

Types of still photography

There are many different kinds of still photography that you can practice. Believe it or not, there is more than one type.

Product photography

Much of the technique used in still photography is also used in commercial photography, such as product photography. The method is used to photograph small items like watches, smartphones, or a bottle of wine.

Although the photography technique might be similar, the lighting technique isn’t. It depends on the exact product you’re photographing, its nature of light reflectance, and how it can best be represented to determine how the product needs to be lit and photographed.

Lights play an essential role in the whole setup of product photography. It would help with a multiple light setup, modifiers, and diffusers to ensure that the product is appropriately lit.

Yes, I mentioned you don’t need too much equipment to shoot still life photography. But that was for getting started. Once you grasp things and want to move on to the next stage, you will need additional equipment.

There are two distinct types of lighting used in illuminating products for a commercial still photography session. One is a bright and cheerful, almost high-key lighting setup. The other is a darker, gloomy, and often moody and high-contrast low-key lighting setup.

photo of watch

The picture of the watch above is an example of a brighter lighting setup.

The picture below is that of another watch, but this time it’s lit in a way to render a darker moody vibe.

dark lit watch

Abstract Photography

There is a whole wide world of abstract photography done with small items such as pieces of rock, collectibles, and odd items of everyday use. There is simply no limit to what you can do with this genre if you have both the imagination and the will to experiment.

Modern Still Photography

The widespread availability of digital cameras, the advent of smartphones with fantastic built-in camera systems, and the growth of social media are the key driving force behind the adoption of still photography by the masses.

Today everyone has access to a smartphone. Every family reunion, every weekend trip to the bar, every staycation is an opportunity to shoot more still photography and still life photography.

I bet even you’re guilty of photographing a plate of food at a restaurant before eating it at least once. It’s highly contagious, and the simple fact that you have a camera with you at all times makes it worth the while.

Today, millions of still photos are shot and uploaded to social media platforms every day. And the numbers are only going to go up.

One of the significant platforms that have helped is Instagram. Photographers feel that this is a platform that works for them. Many photographers prefer to use this as their primary platform to showcase their work.

Food photography

Speaking of commercial photography, the second most important still life photography genre is food photography. Food photography is a booming business, and skilled food photographers are highly demanded.

food photograph

Food photography demands that the product, which is a plate of food, must look good in the photograph. Often food photographers hire specialist food stylists to help them make a platter presentable before photographing for their clients.

Food photography is mainly done with a high-key lighting effect. Everyone loves a brightly lit photograph of a food plate that clearly shows the details and is tempting. That said, some food items can also be given a low-key effect for the best results.

Equipment for shooting still life photography

Photography is an equipment-heavy pursuit once you decide that you will leave the shores of amateur photography and get into professional stuff. No matter the genre of photography you are interested in, you have to have some additional tools beyond the mandatory ones to shoot more than decent photos.

However, when it comes to still life photography, you can start with the bare minimum items. A camera, lens, and a single light are more than enough.

You could add a reflector to fill in the shadows.

However, to reiterate, you will need additional items for professional results, especially if you’re interested in shooting commercial photography and product photography as a career option. It would help if you had tools like artificial lights, light stands, modifiers, reflectors, diffusers, and many other tools.

Best camera for shooting still photography

Let’s discuss the best camera for shooting still photography like products and commercial photos.

Any camera is good enough for shooting still photos. It’s imperative to note that still photography doesn’t require expensive equipment. It would help if you had a camera and a lens. You can even shoot with a smartphone with a built-in camera with decent resolution. If you have a budget point-and-shoot camera, even that will work.

Therefore, start with whatever equipment you have with you. You can always upgrade when the time is right.

Some simple tips to shoot still life photography

A lot has been said about what qualifies as a still-life photo. But now is the time to get head-on with the actual process of making these images. Photography is a hands-on subject, so the techniques can be best explained when using examples.

Composition

The first thing you need to pay attention to is the composition part. One of the primary things about still life photography is that you can and have to do many experiments.

If you ever wanted to try out all the rules of photography, still life photography is one genre that allows you to do that—changing things around, playing with the positioning of the object being photographed, and so on. You can do a lot with just the composition bit.

You can play around with things like the rule of thirds, the golden rule, the rule of odds, leading lines, and more.

Lighting

Whether you’re shooting with natural or artificial lights, you can change and experiment with things. In terms of lighting, you can play around with shadows, textures, and shapes.

The option to change things around will be more if you’re using artificial lighting.

If you can afford one or more lights, you can experiment with them. Use one as the key light and the second as the fill, rim, or background light.

Additional lights will help you to create depth and dimension in your photos. This is what allows you to create an interesting image.

Don’t fret if you do not have multiple lights. Even one light is helpful for many types of commercial photography. You can use the low-key effect easy to create with one light in specific commercial photography applications.

As a beginner, you can use a window that lets abundant natural light work as your key light. If the light is hard, you can diffuse it by using a diffusing material like a piece of translucent white fabric.

This will help you create a soft all-encompassing light that will produce very minimal shadows. Adding a reflector to this equation will make a bright high-key lighting setup.

Camera angle

Still, life photography has evolved, and so have the camera angles used to shoot still life photography. Previously, during the golden days of film photography, still, life photos were shot entirely from a tripod set up with the object set on a table or bench.

The standard camera angle was straight on. The camera angle would rarely change. Things have evolved since those times. Still, life photographers are experimenting with the camera angle and coming up with new approaches to shooting.

A tripod is an excellent tool to have, along with a PTZ head, to exploit different camera angles. Some tripods like this Neewer 72.4-Inch Aluminum Camera Tripod comes with a 360-degree rotatable center column.

Although a tripod is an excellent accessory to experiment with the camera angle, it’s not always necessary. With a bit of ingenuity, you can try out different camera angles.

Take a small ottoman or bench and stand on that to shoot from above. Get low down to shoot from the same level as the product to look closer.

How do still life photographers make money

The best way to make money doing still life photography is to become a commercial product photographer.

These days, the boom in online shopping warrants the requirement of many images for listing products on online marketplaces. From fashion items to room decoration, anything and everything that can be sold and shipped requires a decent photograph so that customers may get a feel of the product before they get their hands on them.

The best images are always appealing, give a good idea about the product and its features, and compel a user to buy it. Ideally, it results in a sale.

Online shopping is a platform that does not allow a buyer to get a physical feel of the product. So, a product photographer has an immense responsibility to depict the right colors and a sense for the product, and an honest representation of the product on a two-dimensional platform.

Note I mentioned ‘honest representation.’ This is important. These days, with powerful photo editing applications at our disposal, it’s very easy to get overboard with possible edits.

How to become a still life photographer

It’s easy to start shooting still photography as a hobbyist photographer. As has already been explained in this discussion, it does not take a lot of effort or specialized tools to get started as a still photographer. All you need is a camera and a lens, and you can get started.

If you have a large window with a lot of natural light coming in, you also have your light problem solved.

Perhaps you could get yourself a few reflectors, and you have your fill light problem taken care of as well. If you don’t have readymade reflectors, you can make a few using DIY methods.

But those are the tools and the accessories. Beyond that’s the theory and the practice. Let’s find out what else you can do to become a still photographer.

Join a workshop

The best way to become a still life photographer is to join a workshop. Joining a workshop has many benefits. First and foremost, the advantage is that it’s a professional environment, and the trainer is usually a professional from the industry with experience in one or more branches of photography.

If you’re lucky, you can even learn from a commercial photographer with experience in product photography.

Suppose you’re looking to start a career in product or commercial photography. In that case, this is the best way to grasp how everything works, right from the process of setting up a product for photographing to setting up the lights, the best camera angles, and even post-processing techniques. You can learn everything at a workshop.

Learn from YouTube and social media

Social media, mainly YouTube, is a repository of information on every conceivable subject. Still, life photography is no exception. You can learn a lot if you research YouTube about still life photography.

Many professional still-life photographers, commercial photographers, and product photographers publish regular videos on various aspects related to their genres of photography. These are mostly free to access and give a ton of information on multiple aspects of still life and commercial photography.

You can subscribe to the top channels and get regular updates when fresh videos are uploaded. That way, you can study those videos even when traveling or when you are in your spare time to update your knowledge.

Many aspiring still-life photographers, commercial photographers, and product photographers have started this way. They have self-taught themselves the basic techniques of still life photography from such social media resources.

It’s a learning process

Still life photography is a learning process. It’s a continuous process because the art is dynamic. As new avenues of still life photography start evolving new approach is necessary.

Fifty years ago, still, photography was but entirely shot in a studio environment. No one thought that in 50 years, people would be shooting such photos on the move, in places unimaginable, and sharing them in the blink of an eye.

Below is a video on shooting still lifes:

Conclusion

Still life or still photography is a multi-faceted and dynamic photographic genre. Many of the traditional techniques are still in use, but they have been refined and adapted for the demands of modern consumers.

Still life photography is easy to get started in, but you need a suitable investment in gear, time, and learning once you decide to achieve professional success.

Thanks to the burgeoning online business and digital marketplaces, still photography genres like the product and commercial photography have seen many resurgences in terms of demand. So it’s possible to get success after a few years in brand building and marketing.

I hope that the above tips will help you get started on the right note.

Click the link below for tips on black and white still life photography.

By Nicholas Mitchell

Nicholas is a staff writer at Photodoto. His interests include photography, collecting cameras old and new, video editing, and all things 3d. If a new gadget comes out on the market, he's sure to be the first to try it. He enjoys experimenting with low light photography, very long exposures and high speed filming.