Tips for Still Life Photography

When setting up lights for a still life shot, keep in mind that we are most used to having our major light sources shining down from above. When we simulate that kind of angle, the work generally looks most pleasing. I generally angle my main light from 30o to 60o above and from 45o behind to directly in front of the subject (depending upon the amount of modeling I desire). If a fill light is being used, I generally make it 1 to 2 stops lighter than the main light and place it so as to reduce but not necessarily eliminate the shadows created by the main light. I often work with strobes or flash for still life as that offers me the highest degree of control of light, with the most repeatable results.

The kind of light is not as important when using digital cameras, as you can adjust the color temperature or white balance (the point where you have a true white) manually either in camera, or if shooting in RAW format after the fact. The color temperature the film is chemically adapted for is predetermined and one must use filters to make the light match the film’s color temperature (the filter can be applied either on the camera lens or on the lights).

Reflectors can also be used. Just as the old masters of painting often used white and black panels to add or subtract light around their studios, modern photographers use the same tried and true methods. The advantage of reflectors is that they can be easier to obtain or make than artificial light sources.

Most of the time, I try to keep my depth of field shallow when shooting still life images. I do this to minimize the background distractions, which in turn helps keep your eyes from wandering out of the frame. On digital cameras, shooting at the lowest possible ISO and shooting at the widest aperture the lights permit does this. There are times when one has to reduce power in the flash units by diffusing, scrimming or turning down the power to the unit (or a combination of some to all of the them).

For best results when processing images digitally, regardless of the kind of photography, CALIBRATE YOUR MONITOR! The only way you can obtain reliable, repeatable, and accurate results is to have your monitor set up to the accepted industry standards. If you plan to have prints made, the currently accepted industry standard color temperature that printers are set up to is 5000oK. If you calibrate your monitor to this color temperature, what you see is going to be very close to what you get back from the printer. This will be true for the majority of the labs you send work to.

I addition to color temperature, color space is also important. Some labs use Adobe RGB 1998 for their standard because it provides a very wide gamut (range of colors that can be displayed), but they are rare. Most use sRGB IEC61966-2.1 because it requires the least amount of work to maintain calibration (due to the reduced gamut). Excellent results can be obtained using either one.

After uploading the image from the card to the computer, I use Adobe Photoshop. The steps I used to use (I incorporated them into an action to save time) are as follows.
1: Save as <file name> so that the original image is never harmed.
2: Make levels layer and adjust levels to eliminate colorcasts.
3: Make Hue and Saturation layer and increase saturation by about 10% to 20% if needed to make the image look its best.
4: Make curves layer and adjust for bumping up contrast.
5: Create duplicate layer of the base image.
6: Set duplicate layer to luminosity
7: Run unsharp mask to improve the details of the image.
8: Save

Tips for Still Life Photography


Mesa, United States

  • Artist
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