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Still life photography tips

Gary Hickin Shows you how to set up and shoot a still life.

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Words and images by Gary Hickin.

The set up
First shot
Rearrange the shot
Adjust the lighting
Change the background
Adjust the display
Tweak the lighting
Set-up at night
The results
Final points

Still life set up
Still life set up.

1. The set up

In the following sequence of images and notes I have outlined the general process I use to produce a traditional / classic still life in a style similar to Renaissance Dutch and Flemish artists. Often their paintings used a single diffused source of light seemingly coming from a window or open door.

I usually have a pretty good idea of how I want a finished still life image to turn out, but as you will see I experiment and refine the arrangement and lighting quite a lot. I recently produced a sequence based on a small still life group in a portable lightbox in issue 3 2010 of Pentax User magazine. It showed that a still life can be taken in quite a small space. But what if the size of your planned still life exceeds the size of your light cube/box/tent? In this sequence I wanted to show that a larger still life can be successfully arranged and lit using cheap and readily available materials and equipment. The first shot shows a few of the things needed to produce the final image entitled ‘Posh Squash’. The spirit level is there so that you can check that you have a level base to start with, especially important if you are relying on tripod spirit levels and/or levels in camera.

2. First shot

The above shot shows the objects with black card so that a fade to black background can be achieved in the final image. The base is two old kiln shelves to which I have randomly applied water-based colour washes to give a time-weary stone shelf effect. The lighting is from a simple desk lamp and fairly even ambient light in our northwest facing conservatory. At the moment the desk lamp lighting is somewhat overpowered by the ambient light. I could, of course, wait until dark to take the shot, but I wanted to experiment and explore the options during daylight hours.
Group's closer to the front edge of the shelves

3. Rearrange the shot

Here I have decided to re-arrange and move the group closer to the front edge of the shelves - the greater distance to the black card helps fading in the dark background. In traditional still life painting the subject matter is sharp front to back: there are a couple of ways to achieve this. The first method is to stop down the lens to f/22 or beyond, hopefully increasing the DoF sufficiently to get the front to rear acceptably in focus. This can cause problems: the DoF may not be sufficient and diffraction can affect the resolving ability of the lens and lead to a softer feel than is required, especially when making large prints.

When taking a shot this way I usually make sure that my PoF is on the desired focal point of the arrangement (in this case the end of the stalk on the large squash)- it costs nothing to take a test shot and see if the whole arrangement is sharp enough. The second method is to use a technique called focus stacking. This involves taking a series of shots focusing on different parts of the arrangement, gradually progressing typically from front to back. I usually end up with five to six shots but this varies according to the size and overall depth of the arrangement, plus your working distance. This enables you to use your lens at its sweet spot: if you don’t know where that is you can always start at F8 - it can be a little either side but that’s a good place to begin.

The aperture and shutter settings have to remain constant throughout the sequence of shots: it is best to focus manually, although it is possible to use auto focus for a small stack, but this means that your auto focus points must correspond with evenly spaced key areas within your still life. Obviously this requires the camera to be mounted on a very sturdy tripod - it is very important that the camera should not move. Take a look at the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT if you're in the market for a new, strong tripod. Software such as Helicon or CZM can then be used to stack the images into one super sharp image front to back. Of course you can try and do it manually in Photoshop.
The lighting at this stage is still too harsh and flat.
The lighting at this stage is still too harsh and flat.

4. Adjust the lighting

In order to deal with the harsh light from the desk lamp, I use an old cheap tripod to support a water pipe insulation tube (safe and light) pushed on the tripod handle ( a stick taped onto the handle would suffice- just don’t poke your eye out on the end!). This acts as a boom that supports a sheet of translucent plastic parcel packing - you can scrounge these from anywhere, including huge sizes from furniture shops! Other materials such as net curtains can also be used. Simply double up layers if you wish to vary the strength of light. The black card has been temporarily removed, as I have decided to try different backgrounds, including my false rural wall (plaster or filler and straw on plasterboard).
False rural wall and black card now in the background

5. Change the background

I have now placed my false rural wall and black card back on the old dressing table: the mirror supports the backgrounds well; the heavy kiln shelves help to keep them in place. I have also experimented a little with the group, adding two larger green pumpkins. Some light is needed on the right, so I have added a homemade reflector – kitchen foil crumpled and straightened out then stuck on folded card, so that it is self-standing and can be moved about easily.

6. Remove the pumpkins

After a few test shots I have decided not to include the large pumpkins: they overpowered the main group (no harm trying them out !). The foil reflector adds in enough light on the right and will probably work well with the fade-to-black background but I felt there was still too much ambient light spoiling the modeling effect of the diffused light from the left. I decided to experiment with a large piece of card (white side), folded so it is self standing, to act as a reflector and also to support a stick that I have placed on the tripod boom. As you can see, this supports the sheet of black card (dark side facing down) that was previously used as a background - the rural wall taking its place. This arrangement really emphasizes the side lighting and its modeling effect.

7. Adjust the lighting (again!)

I’m forever changing my mind and trying to refine the lighting. Here I have decided to turn the card on the right around to its dark green side, as the large expanse of white was adding in too much light in the background area. This means that at this stage I have lost the right fill-in light to the group.
In order to get that light back in from the right I have replaced the foil reflector
In order to get that light back in from the right I have used the foil reflector. I have positioned it so that it adds light back in to the main group, leaving enough area of dark card at the rear to shade the background, helping to focus attention on the main arrangement. Strips of card and small reflectors carefully positioned around your still life can really enhance the lighting, casting shadows, creating window frame effects etc. The sheet of card supported above the still life arrangement not only helps to control the amount of ambient light, but can also help prevent any unwanted reflections on shiny objects: in this case from the roof beams of our conservatory.

Still life shoot at night

8. You can work at night

I have included this shot to show how the arrangement works at night. As I have no large horizontal reflective surfaces in this still life, I don’t need the sheet of card above the arrangement to prevent reflections or help control ambient light. Due to the absence of ambient daylight the effect of the diffused light from the left is much stronger, so I have opted for the larger area of white card on the right to help fill in and balance the shadow areas. The black card background is the option here, but once I have set up a still life I will try and take as many different shots as is practical, using different backgrounds and refining the arrangement as necessary.

The results:

I have included three different versions of the final ‘Posh Squash’ image- each with a different background, lighting and colour balance. I have included a shell in one, often seen in still life paintings of the time. This was symbolic of wealth: shells from faraway places were keenly collected by Dutch merchants.

Posh Squash
Posh Squash
Posh Squash with shell

Final tips:

It is a good idea to choose items that are of different sizes, colours and textures to add interest to your still life image; it is also a lot easier if they look as if they belong together. Many still life paintings of the Renaissance period contained various symbolic references to many aspects of life, death and faith. This led to sometimes bizarre combinations of objects that had to be skillfully arranged to produce convincing and aesthetically pleasing images. I think ‘Posh Squash’ is fairly straightforward, both as an image and in the message it conveys.

Search for Renaissance still life images on the internet: they will provide an excellent source of inspiration, and attempting your own version of a favourite painting is a good idea. There are many books and articles on drawing, painting and photography that deal comprehensively with the technical aspects of composition and are well worth reading.

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27 Dec 2012 10:24AM
I have to give you top marks. You really are an inspiration to myself and I'm sure many others. I have seen some of your work in other areas of the internet and you never fail to inspire and impress.
Regards Malcombe

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