Stuck at Home? – Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
As I write this, many of us are holed up at home. So what can we do to continue to practice our craft as photographers, have a bit of diversion and enjoyment, and maybe learn some new techniques? I suggest you give still life photography at home a try.
If you’re a landscape, sports, fashion, portrait, or type of photographer who does work requiring you to get out and about, working at home doing still life photos on the kitchen table could be a new thing. Still life? Really? Why? Well, stay with me here and we’ll explore all the things you can learn.
In much of photography, you deal with the scene as you find it. Maybe one of the best things about still life photography is you are in complete control. You pick the subjects, the arrangement, and the background.
Making a shot in a hurry before the moment passes isn’t an issue. You can take your time, practice compositional concepts like the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, leading lines, negative space, simplification, background choice, depth-of-field, and many other artistic concepts of composition.
You set the scene and are in complete control. Few other genres of photography offer such an advantage.
Let there be light.
You decide what type, how many sources, whether to use hard or soft lighting. Might some colored lighting using gels give the look you want?
How will you use light to draw the viewer’s eye where you want it?
Have you explored the use of reflectors, fill light, or “flags” to block light from certain portions of the scene? Do you know what a gobo or a cucoloris is? A shoot, grid, or gridded-snoot?
Still life photography at home lets you be the set and lighting director.
3. Explore camera angles
A distinction between a snapshooter and a photographer is the former sees a scene, raises the camera to their eye, and snaps a shot. Little thought is given to composition and most photos are taken from the eye-level of the photographer. Yawn.
In a world where we are inundated with images, making yours different is the only way to stand out. Finding perspectives others haven’t thought of is one way to do that.
Rather than always shooting from eye or tripod level, mix it up. Get up and look down for a birds-eye vantage point. Get down and try a worms-eye view. Have you heard of a “Dutch-tilt”? Maybe try looking through objects, using them as frames for your subject.
Much of my photography is landscape work, so I’m a dedicated tripod shooter. The advantages of that are, of course, stability and repeatability. I can leave the camera in a fixed spot and move other things; the lights and subjects, use long and different exposures and have variations of the same shot.
There’s something to be said, however, for getting off the tripod.
Going handheld will help you move more easily and explore different angles. Whatever you do, let me repeat something I said earlier…work to make your image different.
4. Lens selection
Doing still life photography at home is a great time to explore how different lenses can give you different looks.
You won’t have to worry so much about dust getting on your sensor as you change lenses and you’ll have a place to put lenses down while you do change them (rather than fearing a fumble onto the ground).
Try some things. Note how a wide-angle lens emphasizes the size of objects nearest the lens, how a telephoto compresses space between objects, or how a wide aperture reduces your depth-of-field. Learn what the “sweet-spot” is of each of your lenses, that aperture where the lens is at its sharpest.
Table-top photography is also a great opportunity to play with prime lenses, moving the camera or subject rather than zooming. I’ve grown to love my little Canon “nifty-fifty” for use in doing still life photography at home. This economical little lens might be one of my sharpest.
5. Get close with macro
If you’ve not tried macro photography, being sequestered at home is a perfect opportunity to give it a try. It requires practice, patience, and a controlled environment where you are in charge of the composition and lighting (and there’s no wind). Being able to slow down and pay careful attention is a real plus, as being meticulous is a key to making good macro shots.
So you don’t have a macro lens? Try some alternatives.
The reversed-lens macro technique is a great way to dip your toe in macro waters on a budget. You will also find that common household objects become fascinating subjects when photographed at a macro level. Just be careful – macro-photography is contagious.
6. Tell a story
When choosing your subjects for a session of still life photography at home, give thought to telling a story. Rather than just choose random objects, think like a movie set director using the scene to tell the story.
Use your objects, background, lighting, camera angle, and whatever other photographic tricks you can summon. Your objective is to make the viewer see the story in your photo. A picture can be worth a thousand words, if you choose those “words” carefully.
7. Simple is better
A photo friend once said something that has stuck with me about a good photo – “Anything that doesn’t add, detracts.”
It’s important that, with a glance, the viewer immediately “gets it.” Without even thinking, they know what your intended subject is and what you are trying to communicate.
Landscape photographers must find ways to simplify the scenes they photograph, but as a still life table-top photographer, you have complete control.
Carefully consider what to put in and what to take out, where to concentrate the light, what to leave in shadow, and what is in and out-of-focus. The strongest photos will be those with a single, powerful message.
8. Reflect on this
Reflections can elevate an otherwise ho-hum subject to a new and exciting level. When doing still life photography at home, a good method of creating a reflection is to use a piece of black plexiglass under your set-up.
Unlike a mirror, which will create two reflections due to the surface and the mirrored back of the glass, the acrylic sheet creates just one. Of course, the inventive photographer will find other ways to create reflections as well.
9. Bokeh and how to use it
“Bokeh” (however you pronounce it), is defined as the “blurred quality or effect seen in the out-of-focus portion of a photograph taken with a narrow depth of field.”
Still life photography is a great opportunity to explore how you can use it to simplify the background, keep viewer attention where you want it, and enhance the story you’re trying to tell. You can also try some special effects bokeh using patterns cut in pieces of paper and put on your lens. If you’re a shut-in frustrated photographer, why not brighten your day making some fun “bokehlicious” pics?
10. Food photography
Food photography is by its very nature, still life photography.
Top food photographers make good money by making food images look especially delicious. Study great food photos for clues as to composition, lighting, backgrounds, props, camera angles, and other tricks. Then see if you can emulate those tricks.
Maybe grab some cookies and a glass of milk, or a beer and some pretzels, and see what you can do to replicate great photo photography looks. Not only will you hone your photo skills, but when you’re done, you can have a snack.
11. For my next trick
Two different years I did what some call a “Project 52,” a photo assignment a week for an entire year. I made it a point to try some special tricks I’d never tried before – photographing smoke, water splashes, flames and sparks, and oil and water abstracts.
Using both long exposures, as well as the extremely short duration of a flash and a camera trigger, were things I learned.
If you need ideas, search dPS, or Google “creative photography” and see what catches your eye, then figure out how to do it yourself. Part of the fun of still life photography at home is using your creativity to make shots you’ve never before attempted.
12. Advertising and product photography
Making the ordinary extraordinary is why skilled advertising photographers get paid the big bucks. Pick up a magazine and study the way common objects are staged, lit, and photographed. Then find some objects at home and see if you can emulate those looks.
What might look like a simple shot is often much more complex if you were to take a look behind the scenes. Don’t have a studio with a bunch of fancy lights and modifiers? No worry, see what you can do “on the cheap” with simpler lighting equipment. You might be surprised at how using brains rather than bucks can still result in a stunning photo.
Something else to consider is making photos for items you’d like to sell on places like eBay, Craigslist, or other online sites.
Your item with a nicely lit and composed shot will attract much more attention (and perhaps even fetch a higher price) than a “quicky” snapshot someone else made with their cellphone.
If you plan to do a lot of this kind of work, you might also look into buying a simple light tent or perhaps making your own. For smaller objects, a collapsible light tent can be had for under $20.00 U.S. and will give you pretty good results.
13. No travel required
Even in times when we feel more comfortable traveling, not all of us can get to the exotic hot spots where we see other photographers going. I’m not expecting to get to Iceland anytime soon.
When doing still life photography at home, that’s not an issue. No one is going to guess that the location where you took that really cool still life photo was your kitchen table.
I formerly wrote for another now discontinued online photo site, Improve Photography, and did an article called “Tips for the Non-Traveling Photographer.” I’d encourage you to have a look, as almost all of the images in that piece were done at home or within 20-miles of my house. Imagination can often take you much further as a photographer than a passport.
14. Exercise for photo fitness
Want to be more photographically-fit? The key is the same as increasing your physical fitness – work out more.
The key to being a better photographer is routinely making more photos, learning new techniques, and practicing. Waiting to pick up the camera until you go on a special trip, attend an event or make family photos isn’t going to cut it if you want to be good. Unless you’re taking photos at least a few times a week, you’re probably not getting enough “photographic exercise” to be a strong photographer.
These are unusual times. You may find you’re not able to get out as much, perhaps not even going to your regular job. So why not use that free time to keep yourself engaged, entertained, and further your photo education?
Try some still life photography at home. Shoot, review, repeat.
As you get better, do as you would with exercise, and make the next session more challenging. Then post your images online and here in the comments section of this site so we can admire your work.
Be engaged, be productive, be learning and growing as a photographer and above all… Until next time, be well my friends.