When we think of photography, we often think of moving subjects or stunning landscapes that grab our attention. However, still lifes are also popular subjects in photography and they come in a wide variety. As with painting, it is above all a question of mastering the staging and the light, but in photography, it is also a question of providing your image with sharp clarity and accurate colors.
The staging: a key step
Subjects for still lifes, which are subjects made up of inanimate objects, can be found easily in everyday life. Food photography, for example, is a type of still life. But while the elements to be photographed are inanimate, it is vital to stage them in order to make the composition and the image as a whole more attractive. It then becomes a question of playing around with shapes, colors, overlays, and texture based on what you intend to communicate and what you hope to achieve. The support surface and decor are also very important and should not be overlooked. In any case, staging is a crucial part of the process of taking a good still life photograph. Do not hesitate to experiment by taking several shots with the same elements and then selecting the staging you like best.
Arranging the right lighting is also essential in order to highlight your composition, to highlight certain elements more than others, or to achieve a perfectly homogeneous look, for example. Still life photography allows for multiple lighting possibilities, whether in continuous lighting or with a flash, and with a quite a number of lights for more complex lighting, depending on your gear. A still life can be photographed without additional sources in natural light for a more spontaneous rendering, even if that gives you less control.
The tripod: an essential accessory
Depending on your photographic objective, we often recommend using a tripod. For still life photography, it's an essential accessory. It's possible to do without it in very good light conditions, but if you're designing your own lighting, it will be difficult to get a shot with perfect clarity and limit camera shake. The tripod is thus essential for adapting to your exposure settings, which will require longer exposure times than usual and a smaller aperture (as we will see in the following paragraph). So invest in a tripod best suited for the kinds of shots you like to take. You can also add a ball joint for even more precision, sometimes down to the millimeter.
Make sharpness a priority
When photographing a still life, sharpness is paramount. In most cases, what we want is for all the elements to be perfectly clear, regardless of how they are positioned. To optimize the sharpness of an image and increase the depth of field, you must choose small apertures such as f / 8; f / 11; f / 16 or more. Be careful however, since, depending on your objective, the very small apertures can cause a slight loss of sharpness due to the diffraction. So don't hesitate to take several shots at different apertures in order to then choose the best image, especially if you're rather demanding with respect to this issue.
The exposure time will be directly affected by the aperture chosen previously, but also by the desired effect and by your lighting. Since you're using a tripod, don't hesitate to increase the exposure times to correctly expose your image directly during the shot. Lastly, if you're able to easily play around with aperture and speed, then lower the sensitivity to the minimum to limit the digital noise generated by the device.
If you want to take sharpness even further, you can do focus bracketing, which means taking several successive shots and gradually shifting the focus, then combining these images in post-production. It can be long and tedious to do manually, but some professional cameras come with automated modes.
Respecting the colorimetry
Respecting the colorimetry of colors is the unavoidable final step in achieving a still life photograph, even if nothing prevents you from breaking with convention. If you're shooting in natural light, a simple automatic or manual white balance may suffice. However, if you've chosen different artificial lighting sources (such as tungsten and halogen with contrasting cold and warm color rendering), colorimetry may be more complex to control. In case you don't really feel like managing the colorimetry in editing, then favor sources with the same color temperature. If, however, you plan to go through the whole post-production process, then do your white balance manually and use colorimetric charts (neutral gray, black and / or white) for your still life. Record a first image as reference with the chart (s) to simplify the management of your colorimetry, then restore the white balance using the white balance pipette, available on most photo editing software.
Photographing inanimate still life subjects is a great creative and technical exercise. It allows you to take your time and carefully control your image, from the staging to the lighting, the shooting, and colorimetric management. In addition, since the subjects don't move, you can start over as many times as you want and spend a lot of playing around until you get the perfect picture.
By Céline Nebor