Discover techniques to producing unique and highly creative images of everyday still life

SHOOT STILL LIFE LIKE A PRO – Still life photography may not be as ubiquitous as landscapes or portrait photography, but it has a lot going for it as a subject matter to work with.

For a start, it’s virtually limitless, as there are no real rules about the kind of subject matter you can capture, and it’s an ideal home studio pursuit. However, not knowing exactly where to start with the nuances of composition and lighting can put some people off, which is why we’ve asked Kasia Burke to take a look at the ins and outs of this genre and explain some of her influences, working practices and shooting techniques. She also explores some of the considerations required when working for a client and gives some editing advice.


Learn essential tips to utilising natural soft light in your still life photography


SHOOT IN NATURAL LIGHTING Learn essential tips to utilising natural soft light in your still life photography

Shooting still life has an advantage in that because you’ll mostly be shooting inanimate objects, you have the luxury of being able to use long shutter speeds if needed. So, shooting with natural, soft lighting becomes really easy. You have the option of shooting with a closed aperture if you want sharpness throughout the image, and can maintain a low ISO (100 or less) for greater sharpness and bright colours. You’ll need a tripod or at least a sturdy place to balance your camera, and shoot with the timer on or a shutter release to ensure you don’t nudge the camera when releasing the shutter. The disadvantage of using the ambient light is that depending on the weather, the colour temperature will change from project to project or even within the same shoot. If you want all your imagery to look the same, you’ll need to take care of both the colour balance in-camera and how you process your imagery afterwards.

Direct sunlight can create dramatic effects that look great especially when converted to high-contrast monochrome. Shady lighting can 1Set up Even with a small space to work in simple, clean natural lighting can be possible. This test shot uses the light from the bay window on the other side of the studio, which bounces off the white wall and ceiling to give me plenty of light.

4Initial tweaks I open my selected images in Camera Raw and make some adjustments. I bring down the highlights and up the detail in the shadows. A bit of clarity helps the image pop. Then I use Photoshop for any final adjustments. give a softer, more natural image combined with a wide-open aperture for a shallow depth of field, which can create some really dreamy effects focusing in on very particular areas of the shot whilst blurring out backgrounds.

When planning a still life shoot in daylight you’ll need to make note of the direction of the sun at your location, including the time of day and year, which will dictate when your shoot happens. If shooting outdoors keep an eye on the weather, and be prepared for anything.

Diffusers, reflectors and flags are really useful, and if you are happy to mix your lighting then carry a speedlight with you to fill in shadows or bounce light off walls and ceilings. Use a coloured gel to balance out the flash light with the ambient light.

Composition and setup doesn’t always need to be contrived. Some of my favourite still life images are of nature in situ. With a clever bit of post-processing and retouching you can isolate your subject either by darkening the background or cutting out the subject from its environment.


Take control of your lighting with a creative studio setup

The main advantage of using studio lighting for still life photography is the control. Using just a basic two-head kit and a small array of diffusers it is possible to create a wide variety of looks and styles. Softboxes are great to give a soft but directional and controlled amount of light to your subject.

A backlight is essential for most shoots to really make an image pop, but this can also be done by reflecting back the key light. I like to have my key light coming from behind and then reflect back onto my subject from the front to create a soft fill with subtle tones and detail. Umbrellas are great for lighting up the whole scene with huge bursts of soft lighting, or for more control you could use a snoot to pinpoint specific areas of the composition to be lit, which is great for backlighting too.

I like to use a grid attached to a beauty dish as my key light, which gives me the Old Masters’ low-key lighting I desire. If you are new to studio lighting then take time to experiment. Choose a few simple objects and just play with the lights and composition. Try all angles and directions and see what you like and whether it creates the mood you are after. Remember there is no right or wrong when you are being creative. Research styles by With a studio lighting setup I can control the lighting exactly how I want, and this way I will know that the colour balance and power will be the same throughout a shoot if I want it to be looking at still life paintings and photography and learn techniques from the best.

Shooting commercially can be very different. More often than not I will be asked to shoot sharp, clean images onto white for simple product photography for catalogues and online shops. There are many ways this can be done, but I like to use a white box tent placed on top of a light box table. I can light the tent from underneath, behind, from the sides or from above with the studio heads. Set up the camera on a tripod to make sure that every similar product in the shoot is shot at the same angle and height.


I have set my ISO to 125. This gives me true colour replication and clarity. This test shot was lit using one head with a honeycomb grid from behind and a silver reflector in the opposite corner

Shooting still life doesn’t always mean inanimate objects. It took a while to wake up these garden snails, but the results were spectacular. Star performers, who’d have known?


Ensure 100 per cent client satisfaction in a professional project

When shooting for a client the first thing to do is to get a feel for their business and the message that they want to purvey. Working with smaller companies or individuals often means dealing with the owner directly. A client will normally approach me because they have seen my work and would like something in my style, but not always, so it is important to make sure that their requirements are fully understood beforehand.

If they have images in mind that are not your own, then it’s a good idea to put together a mood board or a selection of images to reference to. Once a style is established

a client may then leave the rest to the photographer. This entails a huge element of trust on both parts, so even when a client gives you free reign it is advisable to put a plan or sketch of the final images together for them to approve. On the other spectrum a client can be extremely controlling and may want to be involved with every process. They may have their own stylists or designers, in which case you will need to be prepared to work with a team of people that are not your usual go-to specialists.

The photoshoot here was for an artist named Humna Mustafa; she came to me because she had seen my work and wanted to have images of her kitchenware in a lifestyle setting with an arty edge. We talked extensively about her passion for her own designs and in turn this really inspired my own work. As a client she was very relaxed and trusted me to create something beautiful and unique for her collection.

After any shoot I like to do my own pre-edit using the star function in Photoshop Bridge. Open the folder in Bridge and do a quick one star for all images, leaving out test shots, multiples or other shots that just don’t meet the customer brief. Then with the star filter selected I would either let the client look through the images and allow them to select their preferred images by my side, or I would do that on my own on their behalf. Again this comes with an element of trust between photographer and client. Depending on the shoot this could go to 3, 4 or 5 stars.

Once the final images have been selected

I then open these in Adobe Camera Raw for some post-processing and then some final adjustments or retouching over in Photoshop.


Understand some of the key influences and concepts behind these unique still life shots

My still life work is influenced by the style of Old Master paintings from the 17th Century whose illuminations I replicate through a very controlled low-key lighting. I keep it simple, although this doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Where a painter can set up a composition

and tailor the lighting as they desire, with photography the lighting needs to be cast in exactly the right place to achieve the desired effect. Adjustments can be made in post- processing but I believe in getting it right in- camera initially so that hardly any work in post is needed at all.

I mostly use flash studio lighting which means I have control over the light, rather than relying on available light which could differ throughout the day in colour temperature and strength. I use flash lighting which allows fruit, flowers or other perishable items to stay fresher rather than under the hot lamps of continuous lighting.

I’d usually have plenty of props to accessorise a composition, to tie in colour or to create the story, but in this project the vegetables speak for themselves, and as always sometimes less is more.

As a majority of the subjects in my own projects or commissioned work tend to be around food I have many shelves stacked with props: jugs, cups, bottles, bowls and an array of utensils, tools and other curious objects. Occasionally the props become the subject.

I have a penchant for bric-a-brac and love browsing the charity shops or flea markets to find little treasures that could inspire a whole shoot or be the perfect accessory to a shoot

I already have in mind. It is always better to have enough props and multiples of your subject as possible. You just never know what might be needed and once in the middle of shooting it is not the time to realise you are missing something. The more preparation time spent in advance the better, but it also pays to be flexible with your ideas, as some things just don’t work out exactly as planned. If you are working for a client then a test shoot is advisable before any promises are made if you are not entirely sure a concept will work


Refine your photography with subtle yet effective digital imaging techniques

To maintain high-end imagery it’s advisable to shoot in RAW, so that any adjustments made in post will retain their quality. Saying this, it is better to get everything as close as possible to the final result desired in-camera so that post- processing is minimal. Unless of course you are looking for a special effect, in which case the way you shoot will be pre-emptive to the effect you are looking for in post. It is a good idea to have a vision of your final image, as this way you are going in with the knowledge that certain aspects will be edited for effect, rather than needing to edit mistakes.

Best practice is to back up all your RAW files straight away. I do this on an external hard drive, but you can back up to a cloud if you prefer. Once I’ve selected the images I want to work with I’d make a copy of the RAW image, before I open my file in Camera Raw where I’d make my first adjustments. I tend to bring down the highlights and push up detail in the shadows. I’d then recoup my blacks and maybe increase the clarity marginally. The changes are slight but make a difference.

I’d then open up the image in Photoshop for some fine-tuning. Ultimately I want to show my images in print and I use a specialist art printer that I have worked with for a few years now. The choice of paper will also have an important impact on the final image, and I still get excited every time I see my images in print.

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