Finding inspiration in the everyday: still life photography

Photography is an art form that enables us to capture the beauty of the world around us, and still life photography is no exception. It offers the opportunity to create art out of everyday objects, using composition, lighting, color, and other techniques to tell a story and convey emotion. In this article, we will explore the art of photographic storytelling in still life photography, with a focus on finding inspiration in the mundane, creating dynamic compositions, playing with light and color, exploring textures, and using props to create visual interest and coherence.

Still life photography provides a unique challenge to photographers as it is essentially about creating a scene from scratch. Unlike landscape or portrait photography, still life requires the photographer to construct the scene and arrange objects in a way that is visually interesting and tells a story. It is the photographer’s job to create a mood, convey emotion, and tell a story through the objects they choose and the way they arrange them.

Throughout this article, we will delve into the techniques and principles that can be applied to still life photography to create stunning images that tell a story and evoke emotions in the viewer. We will also explore the importance of experimentation and refinement in still life photography, as well as the value of learning from the greats in the field. Whether you are an amateur photographer looking to improve your skills or a professional seeking inspiration, this article will provide valuable insights into the art of photographic storytelling in still life photography.

Photograph of several stacks of hardbound books

The beauty of the mundane: finding inspiration in the ordinary

Still life photography offers photographers the chance to find inspiration in the everyday objects and scenes that surround us. In this sense, still life photography is a celebration of the mundane, elevating the ordinary and overlooked objects in our lives to the status of art.

One of the joys of still life photography is that it encourages us to take a closer look at the world around us. It invites us to appreciate the beauty of objects that we might otherwise overlook, such as the curve of a vase, the texture of a piece of fruit, or the play of light on a cup.

To find inspiration in the everyday, it’s important to cultivate a sense of curiosity and wonder. One way to do this is to spend time observing the objects around you, considering their shapes, textures, and colors. Try arranging them in different ways, experimenting with light and shadow, and see how they look from different angles.

Another way to find inspiration is to challenge yourself to photograph familiar objects in new and unexpected ways. For example, try shooting a close-up of a simple pencil or photographing the intricate patterns on a seashell. By looking at the world with fresh eyes, you can find beauty in even the most ordinary of objects. 

In addition to everyday objects, consider incorporating elements of nature into your still life compositions. Flowers, leaves, and other natural objects can add a sense of life and movement to a still life scene. They can also provide a beautiful contrast to man-made objects, highlighting the relationship between nature and human culture.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different styles and techniques in your still life photography. Whether you prefer bright and bold colors or muted tones, high contrast or soft lighting, there is no right or wrong way to capture the beauty of the mundane. The key is to trust your own instincts and to keep experimenting until you find a style that feels true to your vision.

Creating dynamic still life images

Composition is an essential tool for creating dynamic and engaging still life images. Composition refers to the arrangement of elements in the frame, including the placement of objects, the use of negative space, and the overall balance of the image.

When creating a still life image, the placement of objects should be deliberate and purposeful. Objects should be placed in a way that creates a visual flow and draws the viewer’s eye around the image. Consider the rule of thirds, which suggests dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and placing the main subject at the intersection of these lines. This can create a more visually interesting and balanced image.

Negative space, or the area around the objects in the frame, can also be used to create a dynamic composition. Negative space can provide breathing room for the objects, create contrast, and add to the overall mood of the image. Experiment with different amounts of negative space to see what works best for the image you are trying to create.

The overall balance of the image is also important to consider. Balance can be achieved through symmetry, where objects are placed evenly on both sides of the frame, or through asymmetry, where objects are balanced through visual weight. Visual weight refers to the perceived weight of an object based on its size, shape, and color. A larger or darker object may have more visual weight than a smaller or lighter object, and can be used to balance the image.

In addition to placement and balance, other elements of composition can be used to create interest and movement in the image. Consider the use of leading lines, where objects or lines in the frame lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject. Depth of field can also be used to create a sense of depth and dimension in the image.

Overall, the art of composition is an essential tool in creating dynamic and engaging still life images. By being deliberate and purposeful in the placement of objects, using negative space, and balancing the image, photographers can create visually interesting and compelling images that capture the beauty of everyday objects.

Playing with light: enhancing mood and atmosphere in still lifes

Quality of light is a crucial aspect of still life photography, as it can enhance the mood and atmosphere of your images. Whether you’re using natural or artificial light, it’s important to understand how light can affect the look and feel of your composition.

One technique to consider is using side lighting to create shadows and depth in your image. This can add drama and interest to an otherwise flat composition. Alternatively, you can use backlighting to create a glowing effect around your subject, which can give your image a dreamy or ethereal quality.

Another approach is to experiment with different light sources and temperatures. For example, using warm lighting can create a cozy and inviting atmosphere, while cool lighting can create a more serene and tranquil feel. You can also try using colored gels or filters to add a pop of color or to enhance a particular mood or theme.

It’s also important to pay attention to the direction and intensity of your light source. A soft, diffused light can create a gentle and subtle effect, while a harsh, direct light can create strong contrasts and shadows. You can play with the position of your light source to create different effects and experiment with reflectors and diffusers to control the amount and quality of light in your composition.

Light is an essential aspect of still life photography, as it can greatly enhance the mood and atmosphere of your images. By experimenting with different lighting techniques and sources, you can create dynamic and compelling compositions that captivate your viewer.

Photograph of the top of a metal ladder at the edge of a pool. The edge of the pool is yellow, contrasts with the blue of the water.

The power of color: using color to create stunning still life images

Color is an essential element in still life photography, and understanding color theory can help create stunning and eye-catching images. Color theory is a set of principles used to create visual harmony and balance in art and design. By applying these principles in still life photography, you can make your images more appealing and engaging.

One of the key principles of color theory is the color wheel. The color wheel is a visual representation of the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow, and they cannot be created by mixing other colors. The secondary colors are green, purple, and orange, which are created by mixing two primary colors. The tertiary colors are a mix of a primary color and a secondary color.

To create harmonious color combinations, you can use complementary colors, which are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors create a strong contrast and can add visual interest to your still life images. For example, blue and orange are complementary colors, and using them together in your composition can create a dynamic and visually appealing image.

Analogous colors are colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors in your still life photography can create a sense of harmony and coherence in your composition. For example, using shades of green, yellow, and orange can create a warm and inviting image.

Another way to use color in still life photography is to create a monochromatic color scheme. A monochromatic color scheme involves using different shades, tints, and tones of the same color. Using a monochromatic color scheme can create a cohesive and elegant image. For example, using different shades of blue in your composition can create a calming and serene mood.

In addition to understanding the color wheel and color theory principles, it’s essential to pay attention to the color temperature in your still life images. Color temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of a color. Warm colors, such as red, orange, and yellow, can create a sense of energy and excitement, while cool colors, such as blue and green, can create a calming and soothing mood.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different color combinations and techniques in your still life photography. Color is a powerful tool that can enhance the mood and atmosphere in your images, so take the time to explore and play with different color schemes to create stunning and captivating still life images.

Telling a story: creating narrative and emotion

Still life photography is not just about capturing a beautiful arrangement of objects, it can also convey emotion and tell a story. By carefully selecting objects and arranging them in a specific way, you can create a narrative that evokes emotions and sparks the imagination of the viewer.

One way to create a narrative in still life photography is to choose objects that have a specific meaning or cultural significance. For example, a vase of flowers might symbolize love and beauty, while a skull or hourglass might represent the inevitability of death and the passing of time. By combining these objects in a certain way, you can create a narrative that conveys a particular mood or message.

Another technique to create emotion and narrative in still life photography is to use symbolism and metaphor. For instance, a wilted flower might represent the fragility and impermanence of life, while a broken vase might symbolize the loss of something valuable. By carefully considering the objects you include in your still life and the way you arrange them, you can create a visual metaphor that speaks to the viewer’s emotions and imagination.

Color can also be used to convey emotion and create a narrative in still life photography. Different colors are associated with different emotions – for example, red can represent passion and energy, while blue can evoke feelings of calm and tranquility. By using color deliberately in your still life compositions, you can create a particular mood or atmosphere that contributes to the overall narrative of the image.

Composition is a key element in creating narrative and emotion in still life photography. The way you arrange objects in the frame can convey a sense of balance, tension, or movement, and can contribute to the overall story of the image. By experimenting with different compositions and perspectives, you can create still life images that are dynamic and engaging, with a strong narrative and emotional impact.

Still life photography can be much more than just a simple arrangement of objects. By carefully choosing objects, using symbolism and metaphor, playing with color, and experimenting with composition, you can create images that tell a story and evoke emotions in the viewer. With practice and experimentation, still life photography can be a powerful tool for creative expression and visual storytelling.

Still life photography of old orange slices, wood pieces, tomatoes, and other elements against a black background.

Exploring textures: capturing the tangibility of objects

Still life photography offers a unique opportunity to capture the tangible qualities of everyday objects. By focusing on textures, shapes, and details, photographers can create images that evoke a sense of touch and bring the viewer closer to the subject. To capture the tangibility of objects in still life photography, it’s important to pay attention to the lighting, composition, and post-processing techniques.

When it comes to lighting, using soft and diffused light can help to accentuate the textures and shapes of objects. This can be achieved by using a diffuser or shooting near a window on an overcast day. A soft light source also helps to create gentle shadows, which can add depth and dimension to the image. Alternatively, hard light can be used to create strong, bold shadows that highlight the contours of the objects.

Composition is also a crucial element in capturing the tangibility of objects. By experimenting with different angles, perspectives, and focal lengths, photographers can bring attention to the unique features of the objects. Shooting from a low angle can emphasize the weight and solidity of an object, while shooting from above can create a more abstract and graphic composition. Paying attention to the background and negative space can also help to create a more dynamic and engaging image.

Post-processing techniques can be used to enhance the texture and detail of the objects. This can be achieved by adjusting the contrast, sharpness, and clarity in editing software. Care should be taken to avoid over-processing, as this can result in a loss of natural texture and a more artificial appearance.

Capturing the tangibility of objects in still life photography requires a combination of lighting, composition, and post-processing techniques. By paying attention to these elements, photographers can create images that bring the viewer closer to the subject and evoke a sense of touch and physical presence.

Photograph of a cup of coffee, or tea, with a grey wool blanket in the background.

Styling and props: creating visual interest and coherence

In still life photography, styling and props play a crucial role in creating visual interest and coherence. A successful still life image should evoke a sense of harmony between the various elements in the frame, and styling and props are key in achieving this.

When it comes to styling, it’s important to consider the overall mood and theme of the image. This can be influenced by factors such as color palette, lighting, and composition. For example, a muted color palette and soft, diffused lighting might be used to create a calm and serene image, while bold colors and dramatic lighting might be used to create a more dynamic and energetic image.

Props are also an important consideration when it comes to still life photography. The right props can help to add context and depth to an image, as well as helping to tell a story. When choosing props, it’s important to consider the overall theme and mood of the image, as well as the size, shape, and texture of the objects. In some cases, a simple, minimalistic approach might be more effective, while in other cases, a more complex arrangement of objects might be necessary to achieve the desired effect.

It’s also important to consider the relationship between the various objects in the frame. The placement and arrangement of objects can help to create a sense of balance and harmony, while also directing the viewer’s eye through the image. Elements such as leading lines and repetition can also be used to create visual interest and coherence.

Styling and props are important considerations when it comes to still life photography. By carefully choosing the right props and arranging them in an effective way, it’s possible to create images that are visually compelling, coherent, and engaging.

Experimentation: pushing boundaries and trying new techniques

As a still life photographer, one of the joys of the craft is the opportunity to experiment with new techniques and push the boundaries of traditional still life photography. By stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things, you can create truly unique and compelling images that capture the essence of the objects you’re photographing.

One way to experiment is by exploring different lighting techniques. For example, you could try using colored gels on your lights to add a pop of color to your images or experiment with unusual light sources such as candles or fairy lights to create a magical and ethereal atmosphere.

Another way to push the boundaries is by experimenting with unusual angles and perspectives. Instead of always photographing your objects straight-on, try shooting from above or below or experimenting with extreme close-ups to capture the textures and details of your objects in a new and interesting way.

Also try incorporating unexpected elements into your still life compositions, such as incorporating natural elements like flowers or leaves, or contrasting man-made objects with organic materials to create a striking juxtaposition.

Ultimately, the key to successful experimentation is to stay open-minded and curious. Don’t be afraid to try new things and take risks – you never know what unexpected and beautiful results you might create.

Honing your craft: refining your skills

Still life photography can be an exciting and rewarding genre for photographers who are passionate about capturing the beauty and intricacies of everyday objects. To refine your skills in still life photography, there are a few tips to keep in mind.

Practice makes perfect. It’s important to practice your composition skills. Experiment with different angles, perspectives, and framing techniques to find the most visually compelling way to present your subjects. Pay attention to negative space, and strive to create a balance between the objects in your scene.

Perfect lighting doesn’t exist. Lighting is another crucial element in still life photography. Experiment with natural light, diffused light, and artificial light to see how different types of lighting can affect the mood and atmosphere of your images. Consider using reflectors, diffusers, or light modifiers to control the intensity and direction of your light source.

Arrange for interest. Using props and styling your scenes can also help to create visual interest and coherence in your images. Consider using complementary colors, textures, or shapes to create a cohesive and visually pleasing composition. Try to tell a story or convey a mood through your choice of objects and the way you arrange them.

Don’t give up. It’s important to be patient and persistent in your pursuit of perfect still life shots. Take the time to experiment and refine your techniques, and don’t be afraid to push the boundaries and try new things. With practice and dedication, you’ll be able to create stunning still life images that showcase the beauty of everyday objects.

Inspiration from the masters: learning from the greats

Still life photography has a long and rich history, with many talented artists working in the genre over the last 150 years. Studying the work of these masters can provide valuable insights into the techniques and approaches that have helped to shape still life photography into the rich and diverse genre that it is today. By learning from their successes and failures, photographers can refine their own skills and find new ways to create stunning still life images. There’s much to learn from the greats, here’s a few to check out:

Edward Weston: One of the most notable contributions to still life photography came from Edward Weston, an American photographer who was instrumental in bringing the genre to the forefront of fine art photography. Weston’s work is known for its exceptional technical proficiency and its ability to capture the essence of objects, elevating them to objects of beauty.

Irving Penn: Penn was an American photographer and a master of still life photography who was renowned for his ability to create stunning compositions with everyday objects. His use of light and shadow, as well as his attention to detail, made his photographs stand out from the crowd.

Josef Sudek: A Czech photographer known for his poetic and melancholy still life images of everyday objects, often shot through textured glass or using a shallow depth of field to create a dreamy atmosphere.

Imogen Cunningham: An American photographer who explored the beauty of form and texture in her still life works, particularly in her series of magnified botanicals.

Laura Letinsky: A contemporary Canadian photographer who creates thought-provoking still life images using a mix of found objects and carefully arranged compositions.

Sharon Core: An American photographer who creates still life images that blur the lines between reality and fiction, often recreating classic paintings with modern objects to challenge our perceptions of beauty and history.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the work of Ori Gersht, a contemporary photographer whose work takes a more experimental approach to still life photography. Gersht’s use of unconventional materials, such as exploding flowers, creates images that are both striking and thought-provoking.

The extraordinary in the ordinary

In conclusion, still life photography can be a powerful tool for conveying emotion and meaning through ordinary objects. By using techniques such as composition, lighting, color theory, storytelling, and experimentation, photographers can create compelling images that capture the beauty and essence of the everyday. 

While still life photography may seem simple, it requires a great deal of skill and artistry to master. Through practice and experimentation, photographers can refine their craft and develop their own unique style. By studying the works of masters in the field, photographers can gain inspiration and insights into the techniques and approaches that have been used to create some of the most iconic images in the history of photography. 

In the end, still life photography is a celebration of the beauty and richness of everyday life. Through the lens of a camera, ordinary objects can become extraordinary, imbued with new meaning and emotion. By exploring this genre of photography, photographers can not only improve their technical skills but also develop a deeper appreciation for the world around them.