Still life photography has a life of its own

The tradition of “nature morte”, which has been established in painting and photography for a long time, goes far beyond the representation of the still life in its meaning. There is a possibility for the designers to give his work a strong narrative, complex and also enigmatic character. Thus, at best, a story should be created through the symbolic use of objects. For example, the portrayal of transience, called “Vanitas” in classic still life painting, and the portrayal of death were often used in order to create an elementary question.

Still life photography is only as meaningful as its motifs can work together as an overall concept. The things that surround us in everyday life define us. They also reflect our self-esteem. Objects we associate with properties and memories, and accordingly we evaluate fellow human beings and surroundings based on the objects that are there. As an example, we associate something different with a filigree porcelain bowl than with a Tupperware box. It also depends on whether you have already had experience with such objects and whether you like them visually.

In still life photography, either the attempt is made to support and strengthen the original association of the object, or it is placed in a completely new context. Here, an attempt is often made to give the staged thing a personality with a change of perspective. This new subject or this new personality can be influenced primarily with props and the composition, as well as colors and backgrounds. The aesthetics of the material play a major role and how “alien” the scenery is designed. An apple bedded on a piece of meadow with greenery as decoration has a completely different effect than an apple wrapped in packaging material on a concrete floor.

A big aspect of modern still life is provocation. From an artistic point of view, the urge for contrasts and opposites often predominates. While a product photography takes care to visually unite the object with the background and the props, the modern still life tends to attract attention in an unfamiliar and charming environment. Color contrasts and eye-catching combinations are extremely important here. It goes in a surrealistic direction, in which one wants to change the usual reality.

Food photography


A strong composition is crucial for a good staging of a still life and thus for good food photography. In addition to lighting and styling, composition is a key factor for appealing photography work. The so-called rules of composition are more of a guiding principle to which one can orient oneself. What works for one photographic design does not necessarily have to be right for another. The composition is essential for any type of still life, as the image is usually not a spontaneous shot and is laid out piece by piece in advance.

For the composition you can use all kinds of aids that facilitate the arrangement of the elements. For example, the golden triangle is another expression of the golden ratio. You can put your building blocks together using triangular alignments and immediately get a more dynamic picture. Implied triangles move the eye from one point to another in an endless loop, keeping the viewer’s attention within the frame. The triangle is one of the most common symmetries used in food photography. This orientation gives the food photographs an impression of flow and movement. The gold triangle consists of an imaginary diagonal line across the frame with two lines from the corners that meet at right angles along the long line, as shown below. If you learn about composition from photography, you will come across the principle of the rule of thirds. This is basically an imaginary grid that divides the frame into nine equal sections. The important elements are located along the grid line or at the points where they intersect.

Visual weight

Our eyes move through the picture when looking at a photograph. As with reading (in the western world) the eye moves from left to right through the picture. The gaze is directed towards the most important or most noticeable point and then moves around the interesting scene. The elements with the highest visual weight are most attractive to the eye. The visual weight is responsible for the visual feel and the portions of the elements among each other. In still life and food photography, there is often a competition between the props and the motif. One can use this tension between the differences in proportions to the advantage of the composition.

Using negative space

space is that in which the main motifs and props are located. The negative space is the area that remains empty and should give photography, so to speak, “room to breathe”. This gives the eye a moment of rest and offers a balance, which also emphasizes the topic to be considered. The free space manages to put the objects in context, which would be difficult if the whole picture were piled up with elements. In many food photographs, even more negative space is used than in the original still life painting. This makes the motif look even sweeter, more exquisite and more interesting.

Uneven numbers

Especially if you use the same objects or props you should also remember that the number of pieces arouses different impressions. Odd numbers tend to create a sense of harmony and balance for us. An even number often brings some competition with it. It is also advisable to group similar objects in order to make it easier for the brain to recognize that they belong together.


Choosing the right colors is one of the most important design elements for food photography. Usually two different theories are used when choosing the colors or when choosing the background color. One principle relies heavily on contrasts and therefore the complementary colors are used. Thus, the motif clearly stands out from the background or the props. The second principle is based on similar color moods. For example, if you have a light motif, you also choose a light subject in the same color family.


Contemporary photography – Still life

Modern still life photographs benefit above all from the teaching of still life painting, which flourished in the 17th century. Still life has been used as a motif for centuries and is now being reinterpreted. Above all, the design direction is interesting, which adopts the compositional bases and the optical structure of the classic still lifes and refreshes them with modern elements. This modern direction mostly has a humorous, sarcastic or even socially critical character.

Examples for modern still life photography

Blow up – Ori Gersht

The photograph shows the moment when a bouquet of flowers explodes. The composition is based on a classic example by Henri Fantin-Latour. The technical development of photography enables the artist to capture a 6000th fraction of a second. The intensity of the explosion is deliberately emphasized in this work as a contrast to the calm, classic still life painting. According to Gersht, the message of impermanence should remain.

Natura Morte 2 – Cindy Wright

The work of the artist Cindy Wright has a consumer-critical aftertaste. In the past, dead animals were often used as a motif in still life in classic paintings. However, in our modern times, the artist would like to draw attention to the fact that meat and fish are considered food, but pay a high price for it, as the death of a living being is claimed. This moral responsibility is illustrated by the portrait with the gutted fish in an ornate fishbowl.

Broken Things – Livia Marin

This work is also about removing everyday objects from the ordinary image. In this way one raises the value of the object to something special, as it is intended in the whole ideology of a still life. With this depiction of the broken and then healed cup, the artist demands more attention for the works that are connected and created with life.

One third  – Klaus Pichler

The series of photographs by Klaus Pichler criticizes the wear and tear of food, which, according to a UN study, amounts to around a third of the food produced. The arranged motifs, which show moldy food, should also draw attention to the transport, production and resources used for the food.


Still life photography

Still life is a unique genre of photography. The depiction of dead and motionless objects is described as still life. Painting classified it in its own artistic genre since the early 17th century, although it had been known since ancient times. After that, different types of representation developed over the next few centuries. From initially realistic and iconographic paintings to later reduced, abstract and expressive portraits, one finally arrived at photography.

A still life is a work of art that focuses on inanimate subjects. Still life photography is quite interesting because often ordinary objects are highlighted from everyday life and thus they are given increasing attention. With these “lifeless” objects in particular, it is all the more important to arrange the design of the photograph in an interesting way. With arrangements, compositions, lighting conditions and the choice of picture elements one tries to breathe life into the lifeless objects. At best you can tell a story or work symbolically with this type of representation. The designer therefore has the freedom to arrange the objects according to his own wishes. Thus, great importance is attached to the arrangement of the objects, the lighting and the framing.

Types of still life photography

Tabletop photography: It is the most common type of still life. This category is all about capturing objects that are small enough to fit on a table. The objects can be anything that is lifeless. Food, clothing or plants etc.

Product photography: Product photography can be treated as a type of still life. However, what differs in product photography is that the main objective is to present a product. Much more than a conceptual arrangement. Here you try not to include too many props or distractions in order to generate attention entirely with the product itself. In contrast, still life shots are more artistically motivated and offer more opportunities to be creative.

Food photography: It is a very important sub-category of still life that is closely related to product photography. The main goal here is to present food in an attractive way. However, in comparison to product photography, in food photography the staging pays even more attention to the backgrounds and accessories. Playing with attributes and symbols is even more present in food photography than in commercial product photography. In still life photography itself this is used even more.

Found object photography: Photos of found objects also count as still life photography. It involves placing found object art in an unusual, modified context. Here, old, classic subjects from painting are often used and associated with contemporary food.