Creative Still Life Photography | Studio Setup, Lighting, & Composition

Creative Still Life Photography

The best thing about still life photography is that it will let you experiment with shots umpteen times as the subjects in this type of photography don’t move. Whether it’s an arsenal of books, home décor like a set of flowers, or a piece of furniture, you will have every opportunity to set your composition, angle, and lighting for your shots.

If you are someone who takes an interest in photography, still life photography can be the right genre to kick-start. Having said that, still life photography is also challenging as it entails proper studio setup and lighting to yield professional results.

This write-up is all about guiding you on how to shoot creative still life photography, right from studio setup and lighting to photo composition.

Still Life Photography – What is it?

Still Life Photography

Still life photography is a type of photography that focuses on snapping inanimate or non-living objects.

You must be familiar with still life in art—those paintings that depict a series of trees or flowers in a vase. Those are epic examples of a still life. As these objects are immovable, they are dubbed as still life.

In still life photography, the subjects are commonplace objects which incorporate both manmade objects (like vases, clothing items, and consumer products) and natural objects (like plants, food, rocks, and shells).

Different Types of Still Life Photography

Still life photography comes in a variety of subcategories that demand photo shooting in different styles and settings.  Here are some of the key still photography types:

Tabletop Photography

Tabletop Photography

The most common type of still life photography is tabletop photography. Most people when they hear about still life photography, they think about this type.

This category is all about capturing objects that are small enough to fit on a table. The objects can be anything the photographer craves, as long as they’re inert.

Product Photography

Product photography is another example of still life photography. As it entails snapping insensate objects, it can be deemed as a type of still life. However, what makes both categories different is that with product photography, the primary goal is to showcase a product.

These photos usually focus on presenting a crisp image of the product without distractions. In contrast, still life photography is more artistically driven and it offers more opportunities to show creativity.

Food Photography

Food photography also comes under still life and is closely concerned with product photography. Often, the core goal is to depict food strikingly.

Like product photography, food photography often involves setting the scene by composing other food items and tableware around the subject.

Found Object Photography

Found Object Photography

Photos of found object art are considered another branch of still life, even though found object art also usually entails altering an object or placing it in an unusual context.

The term “found object” implies any everyday object that has been repurposed for use in a photograph, artwork, or identical medium.

Found still life photos often include common household items like plates, cups, bottles, and books. It’s up to the artist or photographer to figure out the best way to capture the object creatively.

Think about photography where food or product photographers capture common food items and balloons to produce surreal and thought-provoking images. Even this type of photography also falls under the umbrella of still life, but they go a step further to engage viewers to think about the subject differently.

Still Life Photography Equipment

What makes still life photography an easy choice to go for is that it doesn’t take much to get started. If you’re going to attempt it for the first time, you can just set a table by a window.

Since the layout of objects is a key part of still life shots, you can start experimenting with compositions using your existing equipment like a camera and its accessories. You don’t need any top-of-the-line camera for that!

Still Life Photography Lighting: An In-depth Analysis

Lighting is salient in still life photography. If your subject is a banal object, lighting can make your photography a masterpiece by creating a mood and adding interest to your photos.

Natural vs. Artificial Lighting

natural lighting

When it comes to still photography lighting, one of the first things to consider is the type of lighting you’ll be using. Natural lighting, coming from the soft glow of the sun, is a timeless choice that casts gentle shadows and highlighting textures. It’s ideal for capturing the warmth and authenticity of your subjects.

On the contrary, artificial lighting, like studio strobes or continuous lights, renders precise control over the light’s direction and intensity. This versatile option lets you sculpt your subject and bring out dramatic effects, making it a favorite among professionals.

artificial lighting

The choice between natural and artificial lighting counts on your creative vision and the mood you want to convey in your still life photography. Experiment with both types of lights to figure out your preference and produce a one-of-a-kind visual moment.

Light Direction and Angle

In still life photography, the direction matters a lot. The direction from which light hits your subject can dramatically impact its appearance. Here are the 3 types of lighting —

Front lighting

Front lighting involves placing the light source directly in front of the subject and it’s a classic still life photography strategy.

This technique offers several perks, making it a popular choice for many still-life photographers. By putting the light source in front of the subject, you can create an even glow that displays the details and textures of your objects.

It’s perfect for capturing the essence of delicate subjects like flowers, where you would like to highlight the nitty-gritty of flowers, including the intricate features.

However, front lighting comes with its challenges as you are likely to run into issues like flat lighting or lack of depth when the light source is placed directly in front.

Shadows tend to fall bang behind the objects, leading to a loss of dimensionality. Overexposure and washed-out highlights can also be a matter of concern while using front lighting.

Side lighting

Side lighting is a robust still life photography lighting tactic that can add depth, texture, and drama to your images. It produces wonders in bringing out depth and texture in your still-life photographs. By putting the light source to the side of your subject, shadows are cast, injecting dimensionality and a three-dimensional feel.

This technique is especially effective in stressing textures, like the grain on wooden surfaces or the folds on fabrics. Side lighting discloses complex details that might not show up with other lighting techniques, breathing life into your still-life subjects.


Backlighting is a charming still life photography lighting technique that can add a trace of magic and drama to your images. It requires putting the light source behind your subject, producing a stunning halo of light around its edges.

This technique is ideal for creating striking silhouettes and adding drama to your still life compositions. To produce a silhouette, brighten the background, allowing the subject to show up dark against the glowing light. Silhouettes bring out a sense of mystery and charm to your images, leaving room for your viewers’ imaginations to wander.

Still Light Photography Lighting Gadgets

Even though we mentioned that you don’t need too many tools for starting still life photography, it’s not the same for advance photography. For professional-looking still life photos, you do need some new and extra gear.

The most crucial of which is lighting equipment. Here are some of the lighting gear you can use for your still life photography to yield top-notch results –

Light Reflectors

Light Reflectors

Light reflectors can be the most affordable and easiest way to start taking high-quality photos. A simple light reflector will allow you to manipulate the natural light in your scene, without the need for extra lighting equipment.

Whether you try to soften some shadows, better glow the subject, or highlight the textures in your composition, light reflectors can come in handy.

They are also super easy to get your hands on. You can snap up a light reflector from an accessories store or easily make your reflectors using tinfoil and cardboard if you are hunting for a DIY solution.

Speedlights and Strobes

A speedlight or strobe is another light source that you may want to look into. By having an off-camera flash or strobe to illuminate the scene, you won’t have to bank on natural light from a window. Instead, you’ll have more liberty to light your subject from any angle.

On top of that, a sturdy light source like a speedlight or strobe will provide your photos with a more professional look and let you produce cool effects such as low-key photography.

A speedlight also termed as a flashgun or hot shoe flash is a handy light source to start with. They are more budget-friendly than strobes and will be more than enough for most still life photographers’ requirements.

Strobes are pricier than speedlights but render a few more features. They will enable you to balance the light’s intensity by altering their settings. They usually have a built-in modeling light that will help you identify where to place the strobe to notch up the desired effect.


Softboxes are another key piece of lighting equipment. No matter whether you pick a speedlight or strobe, you should think of picking up a softbox for your shots to scatter light and avoid harsh shadows.

Besides, softboxes can diffuse the light from your flash or strobe into a soft and even light. They also greatly reduce spill light and help with directing your light in exactly the way you want.

Experiment with Lighting and Exposure

Light is the base of any good photograph and most marvelous photographs begin with appropriate lighting and exposure. Depending on how you choose to radiate light on your subject, it can evoke many different things, from dark and moody to bright and perky.

Experiment with the following photographic elements to get the most out of your still life images and watch your still life imagery take on a whole new form.

Still Life Low Key Photography

Still Life Low Key Photography

Low key photography is an interesting type of still life photography in which you can manipulate the light to take on a dark and dramatic aesthetic to create an imposing texture and contrast. Shooting in low light lets you highlight specific elements of your subject and draw attention to them.

A black background, a tripod or steady surface, and a light source, either natural or artificial, are necessary for a low-key still life photo. These components will help to complement texture, depth, and contrast.

Still Life High Key Photography

Still Life High Key Photography

Unlike low-key photography, high-key photography flourishes on bright even glow of the scene to produce stunning and enticing images. A still life high-key photograph reveals all surface areas of your subject to light, occasionally resulting in a light and bright appearance with an airy vibe.

To produce high-key photographs, you will require a bright or white background and large light sources, such as the sun or artificial lights to skip harsh shadows and light the scene evenly. It’s pivotal to note that it’s easy to overexpose your images while capturing with high-key lighting and you may need to examine a bit to get the right exposure settings. 

Light Painting Still Life Photography

Light painting demands painting areas of a scene with light, stressing one aspect of your subject while leaving other areas in shadows. This lighting strategy breathes creativity into your still life work and enriches the image multiple times.

To create this lighting effect, you will require a background, a flashlight, or another mobile light source to brighten the parts of your scene you want to highlight. You may also need a piece of black card, or fabric to guide the light and stave off light falling on certain areas,  as well as colored gels to regulate the color of the light.

Another option is to leverage a light source that lets you set the color temperature and hue to align the aesthetic you’re going for in your image.

Still Life Window Light Photography

Still Life Window Light Photography

Many people would love to light their still life scenes with natural window light as it creates a super flattering, soft, and directional light. Window light has been a cracking source of natural lighting for still life art and that’s true of photography as well.

Window light is a free light source, and it can help capture top-notch photographs while making your subject show up flattering. You can also craft window light effortlessly by fending off or bouncing the light to regulate how much shadow and contrast is showing up in your images.

Although this photography tactic might be challenging, the key to capturing a majestic window light shot is figuring out the best time to photograph with your window and working around that. You’ll need a good tabletop surface, a tripod, backdrops, and a reliable camera to get started.

Still Life Shadow Photography

Shadow photography is an innovative technique that taps into hard lights to add mystery to your photos. The trick is positioning the light source behind your subject to produce a dark and well-defined shadow.

While the sun is ideal for this type of photography, artificial lights can also be deployed in still life shadow photography to create depth and patterns. Leverage the shadow as a compositional element to guide the viewer’s attention through the image to a particular feature you want to highlight.

Alternatively, make the shadow the main focus of the image – a remnant of the original scene, appears only as a cast shadow.

Still Life Reflection Photography

Still Life Reflection Photography

Capturing reflections is a creative way to display your subject with a reflective image of itself. This is a technique in vogue, especially with product photography as it creates a refined and polished look. To attain the mirrored effect, you can place your subject on a black tile or shiny acrylic sheet (plexiglass), a mirror, or anything else with a reflective surface

Translucent acrylic tables are also available that have a curved surface so you can have a seamless foreground and background, while also illuminating your subject from behind or below. This setup provides you plenty of flexibility to get creative with the final upshot of your photos.

To get the most out of a reflective still life photograph, get near to the surface, banish any visible distractions, and play around with your aperture and shutter speed. This will bring out the desired effect whether it’s a sharp, polished, or long exposure image that creates vague and dreamy reflections.

Dark and Low Light Still Life Photography

Taking still life photography in low light can be tough, but it can result in spectacular photos when done correctly. Additionally, experimenting with low light enhances your chances of creating a crisp and high-quality shot.

Instead of waiting for the perfect amount of light, capturing low-light shots in dark locations helps to add a touch of novelty to your subject. To achieve a high-quality low-light shot, set your camera to aperture priority or manual mode.

Still Life Photography Studio Setup

Apart from your camera, lenses, and whatever light or light modifiers you wish to use, the only other piece of equipment to consider is your tripod. Still life imagery produces the best results with a camera in a fixed location.

For the studio setup, you have to equip the camera and then rearrange the subjects and background. You have to also adjust the lighting with natural or artificial lighting sources. All of these are the easiest with a robust tripod that keeps your camera right where you left it.

You need not have a specialized tripod for still life photography, but you are likely to discover that the tripod you choose has a few specialized functions.

For example, certain models with extension arms let you put the camera straight over the subject for overhead shots. Overhead shots are a phenomenal way to add a unique and new perspective to your still life photos.

You can consider capturing in your photography studio too, which will then render you complete control of your photography work process.

Still Life Photography Tips in a Nutshell

The following tips will help you get rid of the most common pitfalls, so remember them when you’re planning out your first still life photo shoot!

Plan your shoot properly. Still life photography provides lots of freedom, and if you don’t have a well-thought plan, you are likely to lose direction. So, it’s worthwhile to pump a bit of time planning out the type of image you want to shoot and brainstorming some still life photography ideas.

Think deeply about the objects you are going to use, some different ways you can compose them, what type of lighting you will use, and what mood you wish to garner.

If you aim to shoot next to a window, go for a window that isn’t exposed to direct sunlight. Otherwise, the light will be too harsh, resulting in overexposed or washed-out shots.

You will get the best natural light on overcast days as the light this time will be soft and even. But if you try to shoot on a bright day and find the light is too harsh, you can suspend a sheer white curtain in front of the window as a makeshift diffuser.

While choosing objects to leverage in a shot, try to pick visually cohesive things. For instance, if one of the objects is an antique, maintain the theme consistency by only incorporating other old-fashioned items.

Also, don’t overlook using items with complementary colors, or items that are related in some way like a book and reading glasses.

Side lighting tends to result in more catchy shots than lighting the subject head-on. It will help produce the textures in your subject. Also, side lighting can create a luminous focal point on one side of the image that helps guide the viewer’s eye through your composition.

Over to You

Now that you have a holistic idea about the lighting, composition, and studio setup of still light photography. You can now proceed to capture any inanimate object effortlessly by focusing on the lighting and composition of your scene.

No matter whether it’s a decoration of foods in bowls, stacks of books, wearables, or any other insentient object, following the above info and tips will help you nail your photography job.

Remember, there is no alternative to practice. Trial and error is a part of any photography, including still life photography. Make use of your creativity and better utilize the camera as well as other accessories to add a “wow” factor to your shots.