Still life photography is not just about sticking a flower in a vase and taking a photo of it — it requires a little more planning and studying than that. Still life has been around for a very long time, and sometimes we can learn from that.
Developing an eye for still life composition takes practice, as does any art form, and many years to master it. That does not mean you can’t learn from the greats and improve your images every time you shoot.
Study the masters
While still life paintings have been around for a very long time, some of the most amazing still life came from the 1600s. Masters such as Rubens, Vermeer, Peeters, Aertson, Snyders and more. A grand upswell in both size and subject happened in this period. There was also an explosion of interest in the natural world and lavish botanical encyclopedia recorded the discoveries in the New World and Asia.
Studying their artwork can help with composition, lighting and color, and of course, subject. Modern still life photography may have its roots in this history but much has changed since then. Still life was about capturing just that, everyday life in stills. Capturing day-to-day breakfast, lunch and dinner tables, with fruit and game.
While dead animals are considered (by some) in poor taste now, it was very popular in the 1600s. Often hunting scenes were filled with tables of game in varying states of being ‘dressed.’ Bread and cheese and wines were also popular. Of course, vases filled with flowers as well.
Study new visionaries
There are different genres within still life, as there are in any form of art. Pick something that speaks to you and study what others are doing. Color pallets come and go, but sometimes sticking with your own style helps.
Studying modern masters in photography is also a great way to develop an eye for photography. Taking note of lighting, composition, styling and color schemes. Trying to replicate something similar for practice purposes is a great way to learn. Never copy someone else’s work, but rather take elements from an image that speaks to you and try to recreate something similar.
Keep it simple
When first trying your hand at still life, often people just tend to throw too much into an image. Keep it simple — one flower, one vase, one simple piece of fabric. Still life often makes great use of natural light and reflects light back onto the subject, bringing out the fine details.
If using artificial light, make sure to try to keep to one source, for authenticity and simplicity. This doesn’t mean you should never use multiple lights, but there is a time and place for those with some experimentation. But many of us who shoot this genre still only use one, mostly natural light.
Inspiration is everywhere — social media, Facebook groups, Instagram and Pinterest. Joining groups with like-minded people are great to learn and discuss ideas and be inspired. I keep a secret mood board on Pinterest and anything that takes my interest — props, themes, colors, styling — I add them to it. That way I am never at a loss for my next idea.