What You Should Know About Still Life Photography Lighting

When taking a break from portraiture, I like to reconstruct lighting for photographing objects.

Still life photography lighting is good to master, since lighting works differently on objects, then on people.

When deciding how to light your objects, the best way to look at it is to try to depict a specific feeling you want to convey. Different lighting will connect to different associations. Do some research on images that inspire you and build moodboards to better plan your photoshoots.

For example, if you’re photographing objects that are connected to summer and warmth, presenting them in natural sunlight would then best convey the atmosphere you’re looking for.

When choosing your still life photography lighting, inspiration images will help you to understand what kind of lighting is usually used in specific themes.

Always follow the direction of the shadow and from there you can read where the source of the light is coming from.

What is Still Life?

When talking about still life, it is usually used for work of art that focuses on inanimate subjects. It has originated from Dutch still life paintings called vanitas.

These painting were originated from the early 17th century made with reflection of natural light.

You can see this type of photography in ads and accessory campaigns, however, the light has changed into more manipulated and build-up lighting.

Below is an inexpensive list of materials and equipment to begin still life photography.

  • Any kind of camerayou can even use your iPhone
  • Light source; natural light is the most common to use in the beginning, after this you can purchase an inexpensive worksite light. Flashlights are great for pointing out details in still life photography.
  • An interesting set of objects.Try experimenting with things readily available for you like fruits and objects from your home.

Still Life Photography Lighting
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1. Reconstructed harsh sunlight

When I was doing my internship at a magazine, we would photograph the beauty products in an alluring way.

We would recreate a beach environment in the studio with harsh sunlight, positioned with a strong shadow.

This light works well if you want to have more visible and clear product pictures for your customers.

Combine it with a proper backdrop to bring the right atmosphere. You can use elements like sand and leaves to add more of a beach vibe, or other similar props that endorse your concept.

How to: For this setting you'll need 1 spotlight without any diffuser between the light and the subject. Position the light from above in an angle of 1 o'clock. This way the shadow will fall the right way. You can move the light closer and further from your objects to see how it changes. 
Still Life Photography Lighting
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2. Reflective light

In vanitas specifically, the light is very shallow, almost non-existent. This expresses a gloomy and dark feeling in the setting and is achieved by reflecting the light through a cardboard or a foamboard.

Notice that the color of the reflector will also indicate how bright the reflected light is going to be; the darker the reflector the less of the reflected light is falling onto the objects. To add to the gloominess, use dark materials around your still life setting.

How to: For this setting you will need 1 studio light or a source of natural light. Cover the sides of the light source so that it can only hit the desired area. If you are using a flashing studio light, make sure the light doesn't pour out and fill too much of the image. You can build up the set and shoot the light through a white wall - this will work as your reflector. 

Still Life Photography Lighting
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3. Natural light

This is probably the most used light because of it’s easiness. It doesn’t require any equipment and gives a fresh feel to your still life images. To make this work you should build up a setting where you thoughtfully place your objects in an effortless way. Lighting like this can be seen in alot of food photography and is best done on a windowsill.

Using objects that convey organic and natural feels are best combined with this lighting.

How to: Having a wooden table or a board will work as the basis of the setting. Objects like fruits, delicious looking drinks and cutlery work well in these types of still life images. By trying to add a leaf between the objects and the light source will give the pictures an outdoor atmosphere. 

PRO TIP If deciding on creating great still life images, you will have to invest in kitchenware and food. But when starting out, still life photography can be build from the objects on your shelf.

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2 thoughts on “What You Should Know About Still Life Photography Lighting

  1. Hello Sonya,

    Thank you for sharing this article. While I am not really a passionate photographer (I just used my Samsung S9+), I am struggling to photograph my planted aquarium in our terrace (it is not an inanimate object due to the fish swimming but the plants are still). The major problem is the glass reflection since the tank is in our terrace but always shaded and facing the outdoors. What can I do to minimize those reflections or can I prevent it entirely in daytime?

    To alleviate this, I just take a picture of my tank in the early evening to evening but my aquarium lighting is already dimmed to about 30 % and I don’t want to blast the tank with 100 % lighting again as it may stress the fish.

    Thank you and I learned a lot.

  2. Hi lemuelsacop. You don’t need fancy equipment to appreciate great images! Phones nowadays are of such a good quality that I use them too. I would try to dim the natural light on the area, have you though of putting a diffuser (ie. a white sheet to block the reflection), that would let light in, but block the full on reflections on the glass. This way you’d build up a so-called softbox where your fish tank would be. This way the light will be softer.

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