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Improve your still life photography with 10 tricks of the trade

In 2020, as the photo industry contended with lockdowns, a new hashtag emerged: #quarantinestilllife. One of the oldest genres of photography was reborn, with people making art using everything they could get their hands on—from household appliances to children’s toys and other nostalgic knick-knacks.

Some incorporated timely props like toilet paper or masks, while others made painterly tableaux with flowers, fruits, or seashells.

This appreciation for still life photography continues to flourish, filling our social media feeds with vibrant images that capture the beauty of objects we ordinarily overlook, from the bread in our pantries to the fallen leaves in our backyards. The great thing about the genre is that it gives us an excuse to let our creativity roam free, whether we’re experimenting with food, items collected from nature or handmade props.

Still life by Julia Potato (@julia.potato on Instagram)

We asked six artists to tell us their secrets for making unforgettable still life images. Read on for ten of their best tips.

1. Experiment with light

Light is everything in still life photography, but as the Moscow-based artist Julia Potato explains, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. “You don’t necessarily need professional lighting for still life photography,” she says. “You can always use natural daylight from a window. It’s even easier to shoot a still life right outside.”

While natural light is the easiest to navigate, there’s no rule that says you can’t use whatever you have on hand. “You can even use a camera flash,” Julia says. “To soften the light, cover it with white paper or point it at the ceiling to diffuse it. Feel free to experiment: try shooting a still life under the light of a projector or table lamp. Even a smartphone flashlight can be suitable for illumination.”

Still life by Julia Potato (@julia.potato on Instagram)

2. Use the colour wheel

“Don’t be afraid of colour,” Julia urges. “Combine two, three, or 100 colours. It is the colour that determines the nature of the photograph, and that still applies to black and white photographs. Use colours of the same hue for a monochrome look, or combine an insane amount of them in one photo.”

Whether you’re using one hue or ten, Julia recommends consulting the colour wheel to make sure they all harmonise. Analogous colour schemes or split complementary schemes can work well if you’re working with three or more colours. The more complicated the palette, the more essential the colour wheel becomes.

Still life by Sophia Hsin (@sophiahsin on Instagram)

3. Collect unique props (or make your own)

One way to make your work stand out is to choose props others might overlook. “When looking for props, I find the best place to go is into nature or vintage stores,” the Vancouver-based photographer Sophia Hsin explains. “I love old and textured objects that tell a story. If I find something difficult to source locally, I usually find a way to make it myself.” Prop inspiration and the start of your collection can often be found close to home.

“For photographers starting out, you really have to love it, commit to it, and hold it loose, so creativity has room to breathe,” Sophia adds. “For me, I do a lot of things outside of photography that may not always be related but do a lot to enrich my creative work. Live a rich life; be curious; learn to notice beauty; see a little deeper, build relationships. I think those are all good practices.”

Self-portrait by Sophia Hsin (@sophiahsin on Instagram)

4. Embrace unexpected combinations

“I like to use everyday objects in my still lives,” the Buenos Aires-based photographer Magali Polverino tells us. “I enjoy going to supermarkets and trying to find beauty in the ordinary: sponges for cleaning the dishes, cheap soaps, baked goods. I then combine these conventional items with objects that have nothing to do with each other. It could be flowers, some object found at an antique fair, or some fabric with a texture and colour that I like a lot. When you combine things that are never found together in real life, new worlds appear.”

“When you combine things that are never found together in real life, new worlds appear.”

Still life by Magali Polverino (@magalipolverino)

5. Make a plan

“When you’re preparing for a shoot, draw sketches,” Julia suggests. “Write down your thoughts, and collect photos from other artists that are similar in mood. Lay out the props before shooting so you’re organised. Improvisation is not always good, especially when creating complex compositions.” Your sketches don’t have to be perfect; they’re just there to guide you and help you stay on track.

Still life by Julia Potato (@julia.potato on Instagram)

6. Learn to simplify

“Props help to create a story, but always make sure to avoid adding too many props in a single frame,” the Chennai-based photographer Preeti Tamilarasan explains. “This can easily distract and take the viewers’ attention from the main subject.” With that being said, one or two props can go a long way, as long as they’re well-chosen. “I’m a prop-a-holic and try to find unique antique/vintage props for my visual stories,” Preeti adds. “I belong to south India, and most of my props are sourced from Karaikudi (Tamilnadu, India), and I sometimes purchase from online antique retailers.”

Photo by Preeti Tamilarasan (@preeti_tamilarasan on Instagram)

7. Move around

“I like to move around the subject and see how the light hits it from different angles first and then build the composition from there,” Aimee Twigger of Twigg Studios in Devon tells us. “Framing can make an image, so after lighting, that is the next thing I think about. Once I have the composition in mind, I style the scene and add props to help with the composition.

“I use props often to reinforce or point to the most important element in the shot. Think about angles and the direction things are pointing. Similar shapes, sizes, and the number of items can help with the composition too. Odd numbers look better, so if I am shooting something with an even number, I like to crop some off. I love to have some negative space in the image as well.”

“Odd numbers look better, so if I am shooting something with an even number, I like to crop some off. I love to have some negative space in the image as well.”

Portrait with still life by Aimee Twigger (@twiggstudios on Instagram)

8. Go conceptual

One overlooked aspect of still life photography is its ability to capture a particular moment in time, so think about the message or idea you want to convey. “I like to explore topics that are relevant to me as well as the global public,” Julia says. “You can speak to today’s problems and their solutions in a still life. Make complex things simple. It could be the pandemic, human rights, ocean pollution, or something else.” She’s explored the latter through a series of still lives made with ocean plastic collected on the beaches of Thailand.

“You can speak to today’s problems and their solutions in a still life. Make complex things simple. It could be the pandemic, human rights, ocean pollution, or something else.”

Still life by Julia Potato (@julia.potato)

9. Make it yours

“The best advice, and what I try to do every time, is to use elements that are very much your own,” Magali tells us. “It could be something from your culture or your country or simply objects with colours or textures that you like a lot without knowing the specific reason. In this way, you make your work personal and true to your identity.”

Still life by Magali Polverino (@magalipolverino on Instagram)

10. Refine your style

This tip is a natural extension of the one before it; as your identity and surroundings start to inform your approach, you’ll develop a kind of artistic signature. Lean into that. “Be true to your style and aesthetics,” the Vilnius-based photographer, art director, and set stylist Martyna Paukštė advises. “It’s important to respond to your clients’ needs and stay on top of what is relevant now, but you also want to combine those things with your point of view and style.

Still life by Martyna Paukštė (@martyna.paukste on Instagram)

“It could be just one small detail. For example, props and objects which recur in your projects. Or concepts and themes which are dominant in your work and true to your beliefs. It could be your choice of lighting, compositions, or even colour palette. That way, after some time, you will be noticed, recognised, and sought after for your unique aesthetic.”

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.