8 tips for pretty still life photography

Running a blog with unique photos popping up every day (for 6 years!!!) has required me to shoot, style, and direct about 187 photo sessions. Yes, I’ve counted. Over this time, I’ve taught myself – with the help of some very talented friends – how to take great still shot photos of anything from pretty garland to homemade ice cream and beyond!

I’m excited to share with you a few tips I have learned along the way. I am super thankful that I get to shoot things that I love and enjoy creating; and let’s be honest, cake toppers are a lot less wiggly than photographing your babies, or friends.

8 tips for shooting still life photography

Tip #1 Examine your subject

It may seem obvious, but having what you’re going to be shooting in mind really drastically affects your entire process. Observe the colors, shapes, and symmetry of the subject. For example, if you are photographing vegetables, make sure you put them in a bowl that will compliment those colors. It’s also important to note that if you are photographing several subjects, to place them in groups of 3 or 5. Although this may seem odd (okay, pun intended), having odd numbers generally balances out a photo. And don’t forget to try new things; be inspired by your subjects and seriously, the sky is the limit!

We’ve recently started to reverse engineer our crafts and shoots. Before I ever pick up the glue gun, I have a drafted idea of what I hope the final shots will look like. This has helped our work flow and planning dramatically.

Tip #2 Lighting is THE MOST important

This is something that has taken me awhile to grasp, and some days I still struggle with (psst. – every photographer/stylist does). I tend to shoot in natural light with lots of whites and light colors to balance out our bright crafty photos. Our collapsible reflector has been the most important element ensuring the light is just right on any photo.

Side light creates the most variation and dimension. So set yourself up on a white table by a window! Think about it, if you’re shooting flowers, they don’t benefit from direct light because they are so thin, they’ll appear flimsy and weak. However creating side light will give an amazing color contrast and greater dimension to the photo. We almost always shot near a window or in a natural light source, and there is the very rare occasion I use a bounce flash – like in the dead of winter, on a stormy day, with a book deadline just passed.

How to use light for pretty still shot photography

Tip #3 Make sure you have the right kind of lens

Camera lenses can be tricky; it always seems there are so many out there to choose from and it’s easy to get lost in which is which. For still shots, I always recommend a fixed lens and a close-focusing macro lens, tripod, and a reflector to open up shadows and reveal detail. We use Nikon’s 50 mm which is an affordable lens that is perfect for still photography. Erin uses it when shooting for me, so did Carly. It is the lens of choice for our photos and the first one I’d recommend any new photographer/blogger to get.

Picking the right backdrop for blog posts

Tip #4 Choose your Backdrop carefully

You always want a backdrop that will enhance your subject, not muddle or wash it out. As a personal preference, I tend to always stick to a white backdrops with added details – confetti, ribbons, and candy are my favorites! White generally enhances most colors unless you are wanting to give a bolder contrast in which black should be considered.

Using pale poster boards, or even textured scrapbook papers is also something we often do. It’s always important to have a smooth and uncluttered back drop in order to make the subject stand out and make the photo aesthetically pleasing as a whole. You can read more about our white paper experience (the pros and cons of it) right here.

How to arrange props for pretty still life photography

Tip #5 Arranging can be the most fun

Play around with your shots and have fun! Arranging the photos can be the most amusing job in the world if you let yourself! It doesn’t have to be perfect, every time. Some of our most popular shots – like the push pin pumpkins, were leftover “accident” shots that I decided to throw in. The unexpected is often the best stuff. Don’t be afraid to try lots of different shots. Sometimes centering the object is the best for the shot and sometimes putting the subjects diagonally, or to the right of the left of the center, works even better.

Tip #6 You can always ask for help

The world wide web can definitely at times be a photographer’s best friend. If you are having trouble with white balance? Google it. Can’t get your lighting quite right? Youtube it. Have no inspiration? Jump on Pinterest and get creative! Can’t seem to make up your mind on a shot? Ask a fellow photographer or mentor. Always be open to learning and growing as there are tons of great resources out there.

The book Plate to Pixel was foundational in my understanding of still shot styling. Just replace food, with whatever it is you are shooting.

Tip #7 Tweaking the photos as you edit is always an option

Sometimes the perfect shot is just not going to happen. Period. I have those days and it’s totally okay! Photoshop can definitely help cover up those flaws. One of the best ways I’ve learned to brighten up our photos in is to add a screen filter.

How to add screen layer in photoshop

In Photoshop or Photoshop Elements simply open your photo > pick add a new background layer > then go down to where the layers are and choose screen layer. Play with the Opacity until you get the photo just right. Then go back to the layer tab and flatten your image. After putting on the screen layer I often need to increase my contrast, or sometimes I play around adding another layer of soft light to the photo to really make them pop.

Tip #8 Practice, Practice, and did I mention Practice?

You are not going to be a professional right off the bat. It’s so important to practice styling and photography skills and to keep learning. I know it can be super overwhelming learning how to work a new camera, work on focusing issues, and lighting disasters, but do not give up! If this is something you truly love, the experience is going to help.

And get some encouragement along the way. Reach out to local photographers you look up to and see if they can mentor you in any way. Hire someone to shoot a few blog posts for you and drill them about everything they are doing in the process. Take notes, you are bound to learn a ton! Sometimes its even best to ask them if you can just follow them around, pick up props and carry gear and just observe. So take advantage of each and every opportunity to grow – once you get that photo that looks so great, you’ll be happy you tried.

(Photography by some of my favorite still life photographers, in order: Marko Milanovic/Stocksy International, Sincerely Kinsey, Floral Mountains, Sweet Cheery Studio, and Blai Baules/Stocksy International).