Still life composition is surprisingly easy to master if you follow a few simple guidelines and put in some practice. In this video, I discuss my favorite still life composition techniques that you can put to use right away.
Rule of Thirds for Still Life Composition
The Rule of Thirds is probably the single most useful guideline for creating pleasing visual still life compositions. It identifies recommended areas for placing important elements in an image. Typically, a scene can be divided into three equal vertical zones, and three equal horizontal zones, using 4 grid lines as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Rule of Thirds grid.
The four intersection points created by the grid lines are excellent candidates for the placement of focal points. Still life scenes with natural or implied horizons can benefit by aligning the horizon with one of the horizontal lines on the grid (rather than in the center of the frame). Similarly, placing a major vertical element or dividing line near one of the vertical grid lines can produce more visually interesting results than if placed in the center of the frame.
The Rule of Thirds simply reminds the photographer to avoid centering major elemements of a still life in the frame. Nudging the visual weight over to one side, creating some negative space on the other, generally produces more appealing still life compositions.
Still Life Composition and the L-Shape Structure
One almost fool-proof way to build up a good still life composition is by using the L-Shape Structure (see Figure 2). With this as a guide, a still life scene is constructed by placing a taller object along one side of the scene. Supporting objects are added to one side along the base.
Overlay the Rule of Thirds grid lines onto a scene built on the L-Shape Structure, and you might find that the tallest element in the image lines up near one of the vertical grid lines. The items making up the base of the L should be at or near the lower horizontal line.
Figure 2. L-Shape composition structure.
Rule of Odds
The rule of odds suggests that an odd number of items is generally more interesting than an even number. However, still life compositions are sometimes made up of groups of items, not just individual pieces. You might have two groups made up of odd numbered items, but it’s still two groups, not three (see examples in Figure 3). I think it’s more helpful to remember why this guideline exists; it’s there to help avoid compositions featuring dull symmetry. Keep things asymmetrical, and you’ll be good to go.
Figure 3. Rule of Odds. (A) Two objects in the scene. (B) Three objects in two groupings. (C) An even number of objects displayed as one group of three, and one group of one. (D) An even number of objects.
Keep in mind that the way you group objects in a scene can help the viewer understand the objects’ relationships to each other. You’re trying to communicate a style, a motif, a mood, and sometimes even a story with your still life composition. The way you group things can either create tension OR harmony in the scene.
Other Still Life Composition Considerations
There are several other art design and composition principles you might want to keep in mind as you construct your still life scenes. With enough practice, composition becomes less of a concious effort as you develop an eye for the placement of objects in a scene.
Think about patterns and the rhythm created by the placement, size and repetition of objects in the scene. Also consider the effect of an object’s tone, color and texture in relation to the whole of the still life composition.
A still life composition can be simple and elegant, featuring a single object, like a flower, or more involved as it tells a story (see Figure 4). If you’re new to still life work, try some of these tips as starting points for your next still life scene.
Figure 4. Still life compositions can be simple and elegant, or more involved, telling a story.