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Photographing Still Life Motifs

Updated on June 25, 2013
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0 | Source

Creating a still life motif or theme is an art. Still life is not just simply throwing several items onto a table and recording the image. It involves arranging the selected subjects in a pleasing array that also evokes a feeling from the audience.

A still life shoot should clearly "tell" the viewer what theme, what period or what atmosphere is intended to represent, and this is often not easy to accomplish.

"Still life photography is the depiction of inanimate subject matter, most typically a small grouping of objects. Still life photography, more so than other types of photography, such as landscape or portraiture, gives the photographer more leeway in the arrangement of design elements within a composition.

Still life photography is a demanding art, one in which the photographers are expected to be able to form their work with a refined sense of lighting, coupled with compositional skills. The still life photographer makes pictures rather than takes them. Knowing where to look for propping and surfaces also is a required skill." Wikipedia

Attention has to be given to the articles and how well they complement each other. One item that is out of place; does not fit with the others, can often be the downfall of an image.

Before starting the project you should first decide on what it is that you want to represent; a time period, a specific setting, a specific mood and so on.

Lets say that you want to create a setting reminiscent of an old country lifestyle. You will need an old looking and rough wooden table, some fresh looking country vegetable seemingly just picked out of the ground dirt and all, some rough looking table ware, preferably wooden plates and utensils, some country style bread in chunks, and chunk cheese perhaps.

Once the material are gathered, cut a large chunk from the bread or cheese or both and lay it close to its source, make sure to leave some crumbs nearby. Place some fresh looking flowers around them in one bunch, maybe use one or two candles set right on the table, use subdued light and an rough looking background such as a earthen wall or mud bricks and proceed with your picture taking.

Lets take a medieval or viking style theme. Set your materials in a seemingly random order on to of a rough table; although nothing should be placed at random, this is where the artistry in you comes into play, place some time appropriate clothing nearby, add other interesting materials such as coinage, chain mail, helmets and such that appear to be from the era and photograph. Again, subdued lighting works best as does the background which should be in line with the materials used as the principal focusing points.

You want to set a romantic theme yet want it to look antique in its motif, then using some dried flowers, elegant yet antique looking wine cups, some candles, some lace, a women's leather or lace love, some ribbons and other appropriate things, arrange them and record the image.

It is always a good idea to either take some test shots and share them with others to evaluate their themed presentation power, or have others present and ask them to evaluate it. A better question would be to ask others what does the setting reminds them off?

Most of these items can be obtained form antique stores, theater production companies and you can even make your own. If you plan this project with enough time in advance, you can get some of the materials, leave them outside to the mercy of the elements and they will often achieve a weathered look which always works well in photographs. Keep in mind that to achieve this weathered look it may take at least three to four months.

For the shoot it is better to use a studio setting and a photo snoot or diffused light such as from a light box . Place your light source at a 45 degree angle on one side and a reflective material on the other. Often working with still life requires careful planning and most sets will be re-arranged several times plus candles do not do very well in even the slightest wind.


Make sure to thoroughly research your intended theme as well as to look at other's examples.

Carefully choose the items for their artistic appeal and compare them to the entire set to see if any items do not match; do not belong.

Consider building a background that can be used with other projects.

Arrange everything carefully and do not despair if you seem to constantly be changing things around. Keep in mind that often simplicity is your best ally.

Check and re-check your light. Take some shots in full color and some in black & white and then compare with which you get the best results.

If using a digital format this is much easier to do since most modern digital cameras have the function available that can instantly transform a color image into a black and white or even sepia or you can always use Photoshop to turn color into monochrome.

Still life photography is tricky and truly tests you artistic inclinations or talents. As the saying goes "practice makes perfect".

Take some shots today and re arrange the scene at a later time and re-take the photos.

You may be surprised as how things change from time to time when you have had a change to think.

Worth thinking is that still life photography is really suited for the fine art gallery market and good images can often demand better prices that other types of photographic art.


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    • FormerPeacock profile image

      FormerPeacock 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

      I'm still fairly new to photography, so I hadn't thought much about still lifes. However, as someone studying to be a graphic designer still lifes can be a great asset when designing specific pieces with a theme. Thanks for the tips! I look forward to testing them out!

    • spangen profile image

      spangen 5 years ago from Woodstock, Ontario

      Photo really comes alive - does anyone paint it? Really enjoy it!

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Michael and Sandyksk: thank you both for your nice comments

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Lynn; I thought I made you

      thanks for the comment.

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 5 years ago

      those photos make me swoon.

    • MichaelGallinger profile image

      MichaelGallinger 5 years ago from Detroit, MI

      Beautiful, as always. Love your articles!

    • Sandyksk profile image

      Sandy Jauregui 5 years ago from Sanger

      I've been meaning to get some of my 'stuff' (antiques) out to see how they photograph...thanks for the inspiration...:)