Stuck at Home? – Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Still life images like this were what painters often did back before there was photography. This shot needed no fancy equipment. The “light-painted” shot used only a flashlight and a long exposure. This is just one of the techniques you can try if you want to give still life photography at home a try. Canon 6D with Canon 50mm “nifty-fifty” lens, 5 sec. f/14 ISO 100

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.

1. Composition

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
A simple photo that explores some of the standard composition rules – Rule of Thirds, Rule of Odds, Leading Lines, etc. The monochrome version simplifies the image even further, making the shot even more about shape, line, tone, and texture. Sony DSC-HX5V, 1/100 sec. f/10 ISO 125

2. Lighting

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
It’s all about the lighting. I photographed the clock in front of a computer monitor with clock-themed images on it. The clock itself, I light-painted with a flashlight. Canon 50D with Tamron 17-50mm lens, 10 sec. f/18 ISO 100. The kiwi slices were placed in a glass dish and lit from below with an LED flashlight. LG G4 cellphone camera, 1/30 sec. f/1.8 ISO 200

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Learn to see differently. This is a window blind shot as illuminated by the morning sun. The photo was then rotated 90-degrees counter-clockwise. Canon 6D with Canon 24-105 f4 Lens, 1/6000 sec. f/16 ISO 800

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
See if you can identify these household objects. When doing macro, and seeing differently, even stuck in the house you can find subjects for still life photography. (Clockwise from top left – Canon 6D , reversed lens, 1/40 sec. ISO 400, Canon 6D w/ reversed lens, 1/40 sec ISO 400, Canon 6D with Tamron 90mm macro lens, 1/4 sec. f/32 ISO 1250, Canon 6D with Tamron 90mm macro lens, 1.3 sec, f/32, ISO 1250

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Using my shell/beach-stone collection and a pair of my wife’s sandals I was able to make this product-photography-like shot. Note the camera angle looking almost straight down. Canon 6D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, 1/80 sec. f/20 ISO 200

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Often, your cell phone camera can take a great macro photo. This feather was shot with my LG V30 cell phone.

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Don’t have a dedicated macro lens? This extreme macro, (the drop was only about 2mm wide), was shot with an old Vivitar film camera lens. The lens was reversed and combined with three (12mm, 20mm, and 36mm) extension tubes combined with the reversed lens at 28mm. This is also a 2-image focus stack – one for the drop and the other for the flower inside. Extension tubes on my Canon 6D. 15 sec. reversed lens, ISO 100

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Carefully selecting your still life subjects can allow you to create a story. My titles might help you understand what I was illustrating here. “Awaiting Santa” – Canon 50D, Canon 50mm prime lens, .5 sec,f/5.6, ISO 100 , “Family Album Photographs” – Canon 6D, Canon 50mm prime lens, f/22, ISO 800 , “Doc Brown makes a housecall,” – Canon 50D, XX lens, f/XX, ISO XXX , “The Conchologist” – Canon 6D, Canon 24-105 lens, 1/6 sec. f/4, ISO 100

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Sometimes the simplest images can be the most powerful. Canon 50D, Canon 50mm prime lens, 8 sec. f/22, ISO 100. Frozen with flash.
Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Ordinary objects can become much more interesting with dramatic lighting. This one was light-painted with a flashlight. Canon 6D, Canon 24-105 lens, 10 sec. f/11, ISO 100

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
A piece of black plexiglass reflects the jar of marbles. The string of Christmas lights provides a background of bokeh highlights. Canon 6D, Canon 24-105mm lens, 1/8 sec. f/4, ISO 800

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?

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
My Canon “nifty-fifty”, the 50mm f/1.8 prime which often isn’t much over $100 US, is one of my sharpest lenses. It also creates interesting bokeh highlights when opened up to a wide aperture. Canon 50D, Canon 50mm “nifty-fifty” lens, 1/25 sec. f/2.8, ISO 100

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Food photography certainly falls into the genre of still life. This is definitely something to try if you’re having to stay home. Canon 20D, Canon 50mm prime lens, 1/250 sec. f/4, ISO 200

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Light for these shots is provided solely by the sparklers used. The long exposure allows for interesting light trails. Left – Canon 50D, Canon 50mm prime lens lens, 4 sec. f/11, ISO 100 Right – Canon 50D, Canon 50mm prime lens, 1 sec. f/11, ISO 100
Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Who says still life photos must be still? The “Raspberry Milk Splash” froze the action using the short duration of a speedlight, Canon 50D, Tamron 17-50 lens, 1/60 f/25, ISO 100. “Tumblin’ Dice” was a longer exposure with a second-curtain sync flash. Canon 50D, Canon 17-40 lens, 1.0 sec f/13 ISO 100

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
When doing still life photography at home, remember that rather than having powerful studio lights or even Speedlights, you can simply increase the exposure time since your subject isn’t moving and you can shoot using a tripod. Small, inexpensive hardware store LED lights like these can work surprising well.

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 will give you pretty good results.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Note the lighting set-up in the inset shot using just the cheap LED flashlights for illumination. When doing still life photography at home, learn how you can get big results with little lights. Canon 6D, Canon 24-105 lens, 3.2 sec, f/14 ISO 100
Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
I wanted to accentuate the “emergency feel” of this police badge and so used a blue-gelled light on camera left and a red-gelled light on the right. Canon 6D, Canon 50mm prime lens, 2 sec. f/20 ISO 100.

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
Stuck at home? Drag out that collection of whatever you might have and photograph it for fun. “Campaign Buttons” – Canon 6D, Canon 24-105mm lens, 6 sec. f/22 ISO XXX. “Foreign Coins” – Canon 6D, Canon 24-105mm lens, 2.5 sec. f/22 ISO 100

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.

Stuck at Home? - Ways Still Life Photography Can Keep Your Skills Sharp
No flash, but high noon sun, a reflector, an aquarium, a high shutter speed, a fast trigger finger, timing, some luck and a lot of tries were what was needed for this shot. I had a fun afternoon making all kinds of splash photos on a picnic table in the backyard. Canon 50D, Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens, 1/3200 sec. f/4 ISO 400.

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.

Blog credit to Digital Photography School (Rick Ohnsman)