Photographing still life, more than most genres, gives you more control. You can control your subject, location, lighting, composition etc. when you make still life pictures.
Photographing just about anything else gives you have far less control, or it’s much more difficult to control the photo session. Landscape photographers must rely on external factors like the weather and vantage point. Sports photographers are restricted by how close they can get to their subjects. Wildlife photographers are often hampered by their subject’s movements. Portrait photographers have to deal with all manner of moods and emotions from their clients.
Photographing inanimate objects can happen just about anywhere. A studio space is not necessary. You can use your kitchen and set up on the table. Backyards and public parks can be great locations for outdoor still life photography.
Subject matter options are wide open. What do you like looking at? Find something you like – it will be more engaging. Small (but not too small) objects are easier to manage. Still life with large items like refrigerators or park benches will be more challenging to work with. You are not restricted to fruit and bunches of flowers.
Whatever and where ever you chose, you can improve upon three essential skills by photographing still life.
You have unlimited freedom to place and move your subject material about. This can help you gain a better understanding of composition.
Moving your objects around you will see how they relate differently to each other. You can overlap them or choose to position each one so it’s independent.
Camera position can view your set up from any angle you imagine. Experiment with high and low angles. Watch how this can dramatically affect your composition. Doing this in a situation where you have control and freedom to move about will help you learn to do so other times you are taking photos.
Backgrounds can be varied. You can use just the natural surroundings or add in your own backdrop. If the room ambiance is conducive to the images you want to make, use it well. However, if there are distracting elements behind your set up, insert a backdrop of your own. This can be a piece of card or cloth or something else to help enhance your composition.
Hopefully, photographing still life will stimulate your imagination. Having the freedom to manipulate your compositions will enhance your photography in general.
Working with inanimate objects is a great opportunity to learn more about lighting. With people, animals and other things that move about, being consistent with lighting can be challenging. Landscapes and architectural photography can have more complex lighting demands.
Starting with a simple light set up is good if you are new to photography. The kitchen window if your objects are on the kitchen table. Start making your series of photos and then open the kitchen door to let light in from another direction. Compare your photos and see the changes adding more light makes.
Switching on an artificial light source allows you more control. Use a lamp or flashlight. These allow you to see the effect of the light, unlike using a camera flash. Vary the position of the lights. Lift them higher or drop them down lower. Moving them further away will lessen the amount of light on your objects.
Reflectors can be made good use of in still life photography. Even a sheet of white A4 printer paper can be an effective reflector. Try different reflective surfaces of varying sizes and study the difference they have on your scene.
Look at the direction of light and shadows. How do they interact when you have more than one light source?
By trying different light sources and setups you will develop a better eye to discern light in other situations where you are taking photos. It can help you to know when to add another light source or reflector.
Taking Your Time
Setting up for a still life photo session somewhere you can leave it a few days or weeks has its benefits. So often people are in too much of a rush to get a photo and move on. Take your time, and work slowly as a painter does. There’s no rush.
Being able to go away and come back to your arrangement of inanimate objects allows you to see it with fresh eyes the next day or next week.
Maybe you will see the relationship between elements differently. The lighting will have changed from morning till afternoon if you are using natural light. You might think of another object you want to add to the scene that will really make the photo. Ideas will come that you had not thought of initially.
Changing lens focal lengths is also good to experiment with. Compare how the objects interact with each other and the background as you view them with different lenses.
Setting up outdoors, you can photograph at different times of day and night to see the effects of different light. Does moonlight provide the most interesting lighting for your composition? Or is it best first thing in the morning?
Find yourself some space. Gather together a few of your most aesthetic things. Take your time to move them around and change the lighting. Think about how the objects relate to each other. Think about the different results you achieve when you change the lighting. If you don’t like what you photographed one day, come back another and make some more photos.