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Written by Teagan Cunniffe

'From the artist’s palette to photographer’s camera.'


Still life painting is a centuries-old art technique practiced by famous by artists like Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Willem Kalf, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, to name a few. An exercise in composition, lighting, technique and storytelling, it gives the artist complete control over what subjects they use and how they want to portray them to create a story. From the 19th century, photographers from William Henry Fox Talbot through to Irving Penn and more modern examples of Tessa Traeger and Bas Meeuws have drawn inspiration from this genre.

The genre brings to mind romantic, moody images of subjects like flowers, vases and fruits lit with soft directional light. While still life can be of any subject, these subjects are still popular today because of their photogenic qualities and easy portability. Whether you are using an iPhone or DSLR, these tips will get you started on your still life photography.


Ana Martín Photography

Images by Ana Martín

"Film was expensive so you had to think about composition and light before preparing your camera. I found that objects were easier for me to study at that time. So they let me be methodical. I guess that this is the reason why I´ve always been interested in Still Life photography."

- Ana Martín, Photographer, Madrid.


1. Setting up

You’ll need soft directional light – light from a window works well - and a reflector board.  Reflectors boards can be silver or white and work by bouncing light back onto your subject, filling in shadows. You can easily make your own reflector board using cardboard, paper or tinfoil. Set up a tripod to keep your camera in the same position as you move items in the scene. Start off with your camera level to subjects on your table and when you’re happy with your lighting and positioning of items, experiment with different camera angles.  


Asa Barrington Photography

Images by Asa Barrington

"I like to use morning and evening light, although this can cause problems with grain / noise created by the high ISO, as well as shallow depth of field created by the low light. However the visual roughness that these issues can cause lend the finished image a quality of imperfection that I find aesthetically pleasing. I feel that restrictions and imperfections can be utilized in themselves."

- Asa Barrington, Photographer, Dublin


2. Set the tone

Decide what mood you want to create and choose background colours and textures accordingly, whether dark or light, textured or smooth, patterned or plain. The backgrounds and textures that you choose should relate to your subject and help give your image a storyline and ‘feel’, such as using textured wood and cup of coffee. Photographers often colour grade images or convert to black and white tones to better convey atmosphere.


Ana Martin Photography

Images by Ana Martín

"I always try to include a delicate detail which focus the attention. Messy images are uncomfortable for me to look. I prefer those images that let me study their details calmly."

- Ana Martín, Photography, Madrid


3. Keep it simple

Start off with just one or two objects and a clean surface, and then add items to build your composition. Choose things that fascinate you. Experiment with the object you have, turning it to see how the light affects it. Take your time and enjoy the process of building your scene.


Asa Barrington Photography

Images by Asa Barrington

"It also has a meditative, introspective quality. You are forced to slow down, consider the elements in the composition - how they work in harmony or dissonance with each other."

- Asa Barrington, Photographer, Dublin


4. Compose carefully

Place each item carefully so that they interact with each other in a way that strengthens the composition and story. Use the Rule of Thirds and leading lines to draw the viewers’ attention to your subject.


Ana Martin Photography

Images by Ana Martín

"Lights and shadows reveal and hide the elements forming the scene. They add volume and texture to elements ... It´s also important to take care about composition, of course. The way you prepare your stage makes the viewer to move his eyes for all over the image or not. You can use some elements to point him at a path."

- Ana Martín, Photographer, Madrid


5. Practical uses

Still life skills are used in product and food photography. You’ll find many photographers selling still life images on stock sites. Social media sites such as Instagram are great places to share your experimental still life photographs and can gain you a wide following.


Mastering still life photography is a fun challenge to your creativity- everything is under your control and the only limit is your imagination. Go out there and see what you can create.


Written by


Teagan Cunniffe is a travel and lifestyle photographer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her office is as frequently a desk as it is an airport or a mountain side, and is a firm believer in unscripted travel leading you to the best encounters and experiences. You can follow her on @tea_cunniffe or

Teagan Cunniffe

Images by


Asa Barrington on Instagram

Asa Barrington

Photographer, Dublin/Ireland


Ana Martin on Instagram

Ana Martín

Photographer, Madrid/Spain