As far as definitions go, Wonderful Machine’s description of Still Life/Product photography is one of the simpler ones we have:
Any inanimate object not covered by our other specialties, often products.
But this is a classic case of something being harder than it sounds. After all, working with living, breathing humans — and animals — means getting to interact with that subject, receiving immediate feedback, in one form or another, on your approach to the assignment. You can’t exactly spark a passionate conversation about posing or camera angles with a shoe or a glass of wine — let alone coerce it into cooperating by giving it a treat.
Still Life photography not only differs from portraiture (duh), it also varies slightly from product photography for Liquids, which are sometimes still but often spilling, splashing, pouring, mixing, or foaming (though, as you’ll see, when the liquid stays in the bottle, it can be considered a Still Life image). Liquids are usually shot in a controlled environment and the photos often go through an extensive retouching process before all is said and done. Moving liquids are more high-maintenance than solid inanimate objects, which — as is also possible with people or pets — aren’t going to put up much of a fuss. But Still Life shoots do require their fair share of legwork, background knowledge, and improvisation.
Once you’re on set, it’s up to you and your crew to position everything exactly as intended. That’s where the questions come in, the ones that spring to mind as soon as you land the commission: how will I get that metal to shine, that bottle shape to be perfectly accented, those pieces of wire to have the perfect contrast against the chosen background? These are (only some) of the thoughts that go into planning a still life shoot. As Austin, Texas-based still life photographer Jeff Wilson opines, that’s part of the fun — and only part of it.
As much as I love portraiture, there are a lot of variables that are not only outside of your control, but unknowable until the moment you start shooting. Still life is usually a more methodical, repeatable, iterative process, which is rewarding in a completely different way. I do some studio still life where I am creating an image from scratch, but most of the time I am on location and using the materials and surroundings I have on hand.
A basic understanding of the subject and how it looks, functions, and reflects light helps get you to a solid starting point, but knowing how it fits into a subculture takes it to another level.
You’ll notice that many photographers who do Still Life work also list Portraiture as one of their specialties, and with a wide range of disciplines comes the need for an equally wide-ranging skillset. Like Jeff, Marzia Gamba’s portfolio features imagery from both genres, and says the preparative process is dissimilar.
I shoot still life differently because there is a lot of planning behind it. From sketching ideas, to finding the right background, to searching and preparing all the props, I feel like taking the photos is just the end of an entire thinking process. When I shoot a portrait, for example, I know what kind of mood I am going for, but there are a lot of changes happening during the shoot. Not to mention the input and the reaction of your subject can change the outcome.
Again, that input is non-existent (from the subject, anyway) when it comes to photographing something like, say, a bottle of champagne. The onus is primarily on the photographer to, as Marzia words it, “transform ordinary objects into art pieces.” Inextricably linked to transforming an object into a piece of art is knowing its background, its story. What makes this thing special? Why do people care about it so much? In order to know these things, you have to do your homework.
My most interesting project to date was with Ruinart. I was invited to their vineyard in France for two days to discover the brand and their story; it was such an amazing experience getting to know the brand and meeting so many passionate people behind it.
I went back to my studio in New York to create a three-month campaign for them that was challenging and rewarding — definitely one of my best experiences.
Jeff says that part of that challenge lies in combining knowledge with artistry. It’s one thing to know the history of a bottle of champagne or a piece of sporting equipment, but it’s another thing entirely to know how to frame it up properly. Very rarely do you get an object that’s photogenic enough to be attractive in any setting or at any angle. Thus, to get the best of both worlds, to get something truly authentic to an object and the people who use it, you have to make some sacrifices — artistic or otherwise.
In assignment work, the biggest challenge with still life is that the image has to be both informational and aspirational at the same time. Sometimes you are gifted a subject that seems to look amazing from any angle and in any context, but most of the time that is not the case and compromises have to be made somewhere in order to meet both criteria.
I’ve shot a lot of sporting goods and I can tell you that from one angle a bow and arrow look stunning and dynamic, and from another it’s almost unrecognizable. There are also often a lot of technical details that have to be correct in order for it to be acceptable to a very enthusiastic and specific readership or fanbase, and those details can sometimes be antithetical to a beautiful image. There’s always a hefty dose of problem solving that has to be there before you can focus on making a great photograph.
So, when a photo editor or a person in a similar role is looking to hire a photographer for a Still Life assignment, what are they looking for? Celine Grouard at Fast Company, a monthly American business magazine, wants someone who has a defined look — and clear technical abilities — that matches what the publication already has in mind.
The first thing I look for in a still life photographer’s portfolio is their aesthetic. I need to know that they have a voice, a style, call it what you will. I also look for a consistency of lighting, though it doesn’t necessarily mean one type of lighting — some photographers have great natural (looking) light as well as a more poppy light, for example. I think an understanding of composition is equal to lighting. We are open to ideas of how to compose the shot, but I’m approaching a specific photographer because I know that they fit with what we want to do for the shoot.
Still, collaboration is part and parcel with any job that involves people from different parties coming together to with a singular purpose in mind. Samantha Cooper, a senior photo editor at WIRED, encourages the photographers she hires to provide their own input before and during the shoot.
I usually have an idea in mind going into the shoot but collaborating with the photographer and listening to their creative brain is probably the most magical part of this process. I want photographers to explore rather than simply execute.
As for what Samantha is in search of when she goes to commission a photographer for an assignment, she mentions the usual checklist items — “excellent lighting, a good palette, and proper styling” — and says she looks at the details and “want[s] to see clean images.” But for a person who spends much of her day going through portfolios, Samantha wants to see something new, something intriguing, something that will stick in her brain long after she’s finished work that day.
The stories I produce are often filled with complex ideas and narratives, so I naturally look for photographers who create conceptual work. I also look for photographers who have a unique perspective — perhaps they are exploring new techniques, utilize interesting props, or have an unconventional approach that resonates with me.
And that’s really what this is about at the end of the day: resonation. Creating an image that imprints itself into the mind of viewers, readers, consumers the world over. Doing so within the realm of Still Life is different than if you’re photographing a famous person, a cute animal, or a delicious meal — in those instances, the subject goes a long way in helping to generate a lasting impression with the audience.
That isn’t to call those specialties easier, just different. But it does speak to the challenges with Still Life photography, the fact that photographers need to do a lot of homework to properly execute the assignment. That preparation not only betters you as a creative, as Jeff notes, it’s also fun, which Marzia happily reminds us.
J: Preparation is such a great confidence builder and having a plan, even if you have to improvise a little in the field, doesn’t just make you look like a professional, it actually makes you a professional.
M: I like the process behind Still Life — for me, it’s a meditative and playful process where I can bring my ideas into life using photography.