How to Make a Good-Looking Tabletop (Still Life) Photograph
Creating a still life photograph—a photo of stuff—is fun and challenging, and a great way to tell a story. In this tutorial we’ll give you some tips on how to make your still life photos compelling and visually interesting, from conception right through to editing your image.
1. Before You Start
Choose a Subject, and Your Objects
A theme or idea for your still life will help the photo work best visually, but the items in your still life don’t necessarily have to be related to one another. You could group objects because they look good together, or they share a colour palette, or maybe they tell a story. Whatever it is, there should be something that links them together.
I decided I wanted to make a still life themed around coffee. It’s winter in the UK, so it’s cold and dark, and a coffee-themed still life seemed like a cosy thing to do. The first thing I did was group items that I had, together. I knew I had:
a coffee pot
some coffee beans
and a cute cup or two
Next I gave some consideration to what colours might work well with the brown coffee beans. I have lots of houseplants and one of them was in a brown pot with a cup on it: perfect! Greens and browns for the colour palette it was then.
I was conscious that I’d need some varied height, so I found a set of classic books in green that would be plain enough not to distract from the theme but also fit the colour palette and added some quirky charm.
Previsualise: Make a Mental Image
Take a piece of paper and make a quick list of everything you have. On the same page, write a list of attributes, qualities, feelings, emotions, or thoughts that come to mind as you consider the objects. Don’t pre-filter, just let the associations come to you and write them down.
If you’re good with pencil, now is also a good time to make a sketch or two imagining what kind of image you might create. They can be rough sketches. Staple or clip these to your list.
Later, when you’re making the photograph, bring you lists and your sketches with you. These initial impressions will help you remember and better express your intentions in your final photograph.
Collect Your Lighting
Using some natural light is great. I had the patio doors behind me, which definitely helped, but you’ll still probably need some extra light. I used two battery powered LED lights to either side of the composition.
You’ll need to pay attention to any heavy shadows (unless that’s what you’re going for) and also any hot spots on shiny surfaces where the light may blow out your highlights.
If you’re still struggling for light, try using a speedlight, ring flash or tripod.
2. Dress the Scene
As well as composing your objects, you need to give some thought as to what they’re on and what’s in the background. I pushed my dining room table up against the wall, took a picture off the wall, and hung up some hessian in its place thinking it would complement the tones:
It didn’t. It looked terrible. Plus, I wasn’t happy with the composition. You need the background of your image to be something related to your theme, or else plain; you don’t want it pulling your audience’s focus.
Troubleshoot the Scene
The most time-consuming part of many tabletop shoots is made up of fussing with the details until everything looks just-so. Bring back your list and sketches: If you have a clear idea or image in mind that you know you want, this process of tweaking and fixing is fun. Less so if you don’t.
The walls of my dining room are a pale green, so I knew it would work okay as a background, but I needed some height to get above the radiator. I put a little table onto the table… of course.
3. Composition and Shooting
Now that you have all the objects in place on your set and everything is looking more-or-less OK it’s time to create the final composition.
I adjusted the composition of the items from the first set up to the second. You might need to make a few arrangements of your objects before you find something that works. I found that taking quick pictures with my phone and comparing them helped me make faster decisions than setting up each time with the DSLR.
Don’t Forget to Move
You also need to think about where you’ll shoot from: will you be eye-level with your still life, below, or above? I shot at eye-level but then also used a small stepping stool to get some shots from above, just to give me options. Remember to take some images in both landscape and portrait to see which works best.
How you shoot will depend on your lens options, but I used a standard 50mm for the regular shots. I also took some closeups of some of the details with a 90mm macro lens. I’ll come to those a little later.
4. Editing Tabletop Images
Basic Adjustments and Clean-up
Adobe Camera RAW
Make changes in Adobe Camera Raw (if you shoot raw) first, adjusting exposure, shadows, highlights and so on. Assuming you’re not aiming for anything too dramatic, try to get a nice, balanced image. You can make changes to the colours here too, but I prefer to use the Nik Collection for that.
Open your image in Photoshop, or your regular editing suite and clean up anything in the background that shouldn’t be there. For me, that included another picture, lens spots and a mark on the wall where I’d removed the picture frame.
I used the Clone Tool and Spot Heal to tidy up the image, but the background was still a little ‘banded’ from where the light was (and wasn’t) hitting it. If you have similar issues, you can fix this by selecting the background with the Quick Selection Tool and used Blur to blend any messy bits that stood out. Then I used the Colour Picker to select the colour of the background and painted on to a new layer; tidying up any bits on a Layer Mask.
If you’re eagle-eyed, you might have spotted that my plant has tea on rather than coffee, and I’m picky so I cloned that out too.
I like to add a Modern Film filter from the Nik Collection’s Colour Efex Pro options. Once you’ve chosen a film effect, you can selectively choose how sensitive each colour is to light, and the saturation of that colour.
Your aim is to gently nudge the sliders to get an overall more pleasing colour and tone to your image. In my case, I wanted to stick with earth tones, so I made sure that any blues and magentas were de-saturated, and I pulled some of the yellow out of the plant leaves.
If you don’t have the Nik Collection, you can achieve a similar effect with the Selective Colour option (and sometimes I add a layer of this anyway, for further tweaks). Choose each colour and move the sliders until you get a more pleasing balance of colours.
You can see from the ‘after’ picture that the yellows are less prominent now.
Next I added two Curves layers. The first (at 66% opacity) looks like this and it’s to pull up the overall brightness of the image by targeting the mid-tones and some shadows – it’s designed to make it brighter and a little flat.
This should be complimented nicely by the second Curves layer which looks like this:
This Curves layer is how you get a matte effect across your shadows, by pulling them up and keeping the rest of the tones where they are. This layer is underneath the first Curves layer and at 58% Opacity.
5. Final Image
I decided my composition would look best as a square, but I’ve left a lot of room in the composition. This keeps the original flexible, with enough room to accommodate text or a different cropping.
Take it Further
One of the reasons I mentioned getting some closeups of parts of your composition is that they can make a nice accompaniment, particularly if you want to put them together to make a diptych or triptych. Here’s one I tried out:
It’s a nice way to add some further interest to your images, and they could even be complimentary artworks if you were thinking of displaying these in your own home, or even selling them to a business, like a café!