In essence, the art of still life is capturing inanimate objects in everyday settings. Often depicting fruit and flowers, meats and fish.

Origins of still life art

Still life art has been around since man first learned to create art, but it was not until the early 1600s when painters from the Renaissance really brought it into popularity. In the early days, it often had symbolism and religious overtones as well. Primarily it is all about shape and form and light and shadow. These days in photography, it has taken on its own elements with diverse subgenres as well.

Still life or tabletop photography started back in the 19th Century, with photos largely resembling the still life paintings of the Renaissance. Framing and lighting are often more important, having a little more leeway than traditional landscape or portrait photographs.

Days of Old a still life photograph by Julie Powell

Still life is more popular than ever

These days, still life photography is gaining popularity like it has not seen in many years, covering not just fruits and flowers, but food, product and lifestyle photography as well. Some aspects of macro photography can also be included in the still life genre.

Access to digital images and the power of social media has brought still life further into the spotlight. We live in such amazing times, in this digital era, we are constantly surrounded by good and bad photography — every day. There is a constant stream of it via TV, advertising and social media. Now, more than any other time in our history has photography been more accessible or easier to create for anyone. Most of us even carry a camera around with us on our smartphones and tablets.

Still life, whether that is flowers, macro, product or food photography, is arguably one of the most challenging types of photography out there. But it can also be the most rewarding. Like a painting, you start with a blank canvas and build, layer upon layer, as you stage your scene until you reach the perfect balance of reality and art and then capture it with your camera. Everything in the photo is a decision. Every piece is perfectly placed by the photographer. You are capturing something that did not exist before YOU created it!

Coffee a still life photo by Julie Powell

Making still life photos

When you first start out it totally feels frustrating, I know, I have been there. You’re the stylist and the photographer and at first — every decision feels like it is do or die. But if you give in to the act of creation and just go with the flow, you can quickly start to get a feel for what works and what does not.

One of the most important elements of still life photography is storytelling. It really is the key to making a great image as opposed to just a pretty photo. There is the story of your main subject and there is also the story of your props. They back up your focal point and help tell the entire story. They give the viewer visual cues; is this a cooking story, or a lifestyle story. A cupcake surrounded by cooking utensils and ingredients would look like a cooking story. Whereas a cupcake on a plate next to a cup of tea could be a lifestyle story.

Peony by Julie Powell

Each photo, each image tells a story, whether it is fresh spring flowers or a tea party, each photo is styled to tell a little more of the story. Some scenes have more complicated stories than others, and it may sound like a lot of work, but it’s really not.

White a still life photo by Julie Powell

Paris a still life photo by Julie PowellThe art of still life

The art of still life and styling starts long before you press that shutter button. A large part is learning the secrets of what to do; during the gathering, the shoot and the edit. Creative lighting, styling, composition and color theory all play a part in making a gorgeous photo as you see in magazines and online. It is not just a snap of a button and hey presto, a gorgeous still life appears on the screen.

So why do people adore this genre so much? True, it is not for everyone, but there is something to being able to control every aspect of a shoot, from posing (styling), to lighting and direction without the need for models or being reliant on the weather. You can truly get into the zone. Creating a still life photograph can be calming, relaxing, almost a Zen Meditation, without the need to even leave your house. You just need a camera, a few props and some light. It’s all about finding the right aesthetic for your style and tastes. So why not have a try at this genre for yourself?