The Creepy Side Of Contemporary Still-Life Photography


With Creative Lighting And Some Technique, You Can Even Make Food Look Eerie!

When you put your mind to it, it's how creative still life photography ideas just pop into your head, I mean, with anything (still).

When photographers first started their imagery studies, they found Still Life to be great subjects due to the obvious nature of just staying still and being perfectly arranged without the motion that living subjects inevitably have, especially in slow exposure situations.

creative still life photography ideas
Image by PDPhotos

Still Life's Background

Still Life is something that's been around for some time now, and there have been records of paintings from the late sixteenth century that show that still life was in paintings and were exquisite subjects.

The most widely accepted definition of a Still Life is the following:

“it is a piece of work made by arranging manmade objects in a determined space with the desired light in order to enhance the object's shape, textures and colors.”

The effect of doing this usually results in a serene and harmonized composition.

Several objects have been part of still life throughout history. Plants, fruits, sea shells, jewelry, coins, pipes, antiques, kitchenware, etc. In the history of arts, there is not a more vastly symbolic and emotionally-charged genre than Still Life.

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Image by Milos Duskic

Still Life has been referred to and often described as a minor genre of the arts and scoped to a domestic field even though its character has never been neglected or defined as trivial.

Since the arrival of impressionism and cubism, its bourgeois character has been democratized when it comes to the represented subjects, changing the cornucopia style of representing abundance and wealth to humble elements that could be easily related to the warmth of a more real home.

Another change that Still Life suffered is the type of elements arranged together (or not) that began to appear in the works. Such subjects started to center on “feeding of the soul and the intellect” instead of mere food.

But Does Photography Have Something New To Give To Still Life?

Photography as the art of the twentieth century has not forgotten about Still Life, and it has given the genre some approaches that without photography, their strength just couldn’t be the same. This includes the works of Wolfgang Tillmans or Joel-Peter Wilkin.

Some other photographers have been working on ironic remakes and such effort has a degree of recognition without a doubt.

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Image by Renato Canepa

Many photographers have been centering their work not in the beauty and the vanitas but something closer to reality. They have changed the romantic subjects and light for junk food, used napkins, disposables and debris of any kind, sizzled with the sauces of harsh and direct light.

Still Life has been filled with detritus and all the things that we are leaving behind instead of the foods and things we desire the most.

Blaise Pascal always had an intriguing admiration for the fact that people seemed to be deeply fascinated by Still Life art, but not so much for the real subjects.

Our modern Still Life genre has become eerie and sincere and has revalued the main subjects of interest. The vanitas no longer has a concrete value. Instead, the secrecy of the marginal and the dispossessed is what matter the most in today's Still Life art.

There are two main characters that can be easily identified and discussed when it comes to reading still-lifes in a contemplative form.

  1. The first one is the “metaphors, which of course depend not only on the viewer but also in the artist. Metaphor in this genre of photography is the result of arranging inanimate objects in a composition that suggests another thing.It is a very complex term to explain, but I always refer to this subject with the images of Spanish photographer Chema Madoz (1958- ).

    He has said that his workflow is more like sculpture than photography itself, and he uses photography as a way of showing his work easily.Madoz is best known for his black and white surrealist photographs.

  2. And the other common element is the “found object, which is often known as readymade or an isolation of mass produced objects. The man responsible for this term is Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).Basically, this art involves taking an everyday object produced in series and isolating it outside its utilitarian context. A lot has been said about his work, but if we justify his work under still life, however, I'm certain we can appreciate his work more.

Creating A Still Life Image

Creating still life images can happen with just a few elements in terms of gear and lighting. Besides gear, there are other (non-technical) things that must be worked out for creating them.

  • The first thing that needs to be resolved is the concept; in other words, what you want to transmit with the arrangement of objects that you are willing to use.
  • The next thing that you need to do is to look out for references. All has been done through history, and we are just expressing the melting pot of influences that have touched our mind and ideas.
  • Last but not least, look out for the still life arrangement that will help you in the transmission of that message.

The equipment is a separate part in the still life photography; and as Chema Madoz states about himself of being more a sculpture maker than a photographer, the camera isn't the most important part of still life photography.

All the arrangements are ephemeral sculptures that are immortalized by a camera with specific settings of light and exposure.

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Image by Clem Onojeghuo

For creating any type of Still Life Photograph, you’ll need basically three things (besides the camera).

  1. First thing, a normal lens (50mm (or something like a 35mm on a Crop Sensor)).
    This will work perfectly because you’ll have a very comfortable angle of view and an extremely sharp optic. It would be very likely that you’ll work inside a location (sometimes outdoors as well), but you’ll have full control of both the natural and the artificial light.
  2. You’ll need your favorite light setting, which is a big part of the self-expression and must be resolved in the conceptualization stage to enhance the mood of the overall image.
  3. Last but not least, you’ll need a firm, flexible and sturdy tripod. All that should be enough in terms of gear.

With this genre you’ll have all the time in the world to experiment with crops, points of view and angles of light, so shoot whenever you feel absolutely ready.

Federico Algría
Image by Federico Algría


This is a great niche for experimenting with film too. Since you’ll be dealing with few shots and putting more effort in the construction of the still.

Placing the complete array of objects in the table is in essence, showing oneself. The brief equation results in a symbolic self-portrait when doing Still Lifes.

If Van Gogh painted nearly 200 works of Still Life art, maybe the nature and importance of still life art is not so vernacular. Thus, it definitely should not be taken for granted.

Further Resources

Further Learning

Pro photographer and author Kent DuFault illustrates how to combat boredom and repetition in your photography and instead feel motivated and inspired! Learn more about his book, “The Creativity Catalog” brought to you by Photzy.

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

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