Simple Composition Tips for Still Life Photography
A travel photography trip can include still life photography as well, as I experienced during my 9-month trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. While the surroundings are often noisy, bustling and full of photography subjects that require split second decisions – it is possible to find more peaceful photographic moments.
I am using the category “still life photography” loosely in this post, to be able to show a wider variety of examples. Where I found it applicable, I overlaid the black and white versions of the images either with the Fibonacci ratio spiral or the rule of thirds grid.
Not all compositions are perfect but I want to show examples when ignoring these rules of photography is OK, but also when ignoring them was a mistake, resulting in less balanced photographs.
Of course compositions can dramatically be improved upon with cropping but I decided to show uncropped images as I created them in camera.
Still life photography of Italian Marelli fan repair shop in Hanoi, Vietnam
This used fan repair shop was in the busy, noisy, bustling Old Quarter of Hanoi. All the windows of this business had a different assortments and arrangements of fans displayed in a very visually pleasing manner. Like moth to flame, I was mesmerized and probably spent over 30 minutes exploring photographic opportunities just outside this small corner store.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, the intersections are not exactly above the most obvious points of interest as they should be according to The Golden Ratio. Nevertheless the composition works, proving that the rule of Rule Of Thirds can be bent if not broken.
I was lucky not only to stumble upon a symmetric window display but from my standpoint, where I had to stand to capture symmetry, even that square tool box in the background lined up perfectly.
Still life photography of Flower Hmong Hill Tribe hat and corn storage on porch
The open shade of the porch was flooded with diffused, soft light, therefore all the colors were saturated and there weren’t any distracting shadows or a danger of blown out highlights.
The beauty of travel photography, especially when it is merged with still life photography, is that the scene is always as is, in its purity. It is up to the photographer how successfully he or she can tell a story while every small decision will effect the final photo.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see how I placed the main subject – the hat – where the grid lines meet. Rule Of Thirds … Rule Of Thirds … Rule Of Thirds is not my mantra at all, but it is clearly a choice worth considering when deciding on a composition.
Especially when a decision has to be made in a split second, arranging the composition according to The Golden Ratio will usually not let the photographer down. Here with still life photography I had plenty of time, so I was able to make sure that the bottom of the window shutter created a parallel line with the top edge of the picture.
Still life photography of red flower petals floating on a pond in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
A circular pond in the middle of a Zen garden like Buddhist religious site was the location for hours of peaceful photography – only interrupted once for a few minutes by a culturally ignorant / insensitive Western family with kids.
Using a circular polarizer filter, I could have cut the glare and be able to see underwater, but I like the realism of this photo – it shows the scenery as it really was.
Overlaying the Fibonacci spiral, we can see that the flower petal on the right is in the “proper position”. The round edges of the petals and how they arranged themselves gracefully created this textbook Golden Ratio composition.
Still life photography of beautiful white fungus on rocks
The soft, diffused light in the shade of trees was essential lighting for a Zen-like scene this delicate. There is a great tonal contrast between the dark rock and creamy white fungus flakes. The image is almost black and white, even though it is shot in color. A further black and white conversion would make this photo even more wise.
Overlaying the Fibonacci spiral, we can see how important it was and how lucky I was, that the fungus slightly curved (following the curved rock underneath). If the fungus grew in a straight line, I would have had to artificially introduce curvature or diagonal arrangement by tilting the camera to end up with a composition that is according to The Golden Ratio. But most likely that forced manipulation of angles would not have looked as natural.
Still life photography of two vases on the grounds of a Buddhist pagoda
Blue and yellow are on the opposite sides of the color wheel so I knew I had a good color contrast. I also liked how the diagonal cutouts of the Buddhist pagoda wall were leading the viewer’s eyes towards the main subject – the vases.
This still life image was photographed as I found it, I usually consider scenarios I stumble upon during travel photography, perfect anyways – and it is up to me how I decide to capture and translate what I see. Therefore yes, the leaf at the base of the large vase was already there – I could not have placed it better myself.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that I did not follow the aesthetics of The Golden Ratio – and it shows. The image is not as powerful or memorable as it could have been. I could have placed the large vase more towards the right.
Still life photography of colorful figurine on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam
There is so much to see and to photograph in Hanoi! It is a breath of fresh air to be able to isolate small gems like this figurine, out of the 360 degrees of sensory overload, a foreigner is subjected to. The soft, diffused lighting was perfect, the tiled ground and the background was also picture perfect, ready to be photographed.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can study the composition and discover several great lines, straight and curved. But there isn’t much to see where the grid lines intersect, making this composition not in accordance to The Golden Ratio. I am sure I tried to place the figurine as off center as possible but most likely I encountered changes in the background which made me to revert to this final composition.
Still life photography of metal water pourer in a Buddhist pagoda garden
Another typical travel photography moment, when a still life scene is begging to be photographed. The sun through tree leaves created a whimsical pattern of light and shadow, coupled with the mossy stone, resulting in an artistic and organic background.
Overlaying the Fibonacci spiral, we can see that the main part of the subject is placed in the composition according to The Golden Ratio. The shadow if the handle is following the curve of the Fibonacci spiral, like a sun dial would.
Still life photography of two plates and a bowl on the ground in a Buddhist pagoda
The prominent red, white and blue U.S.A. patriotic colors presented a fun juxtaposition on the grounds of a Buddhist pagoda. Besides the oval shapes of the plates and the bowl, all other lines are hard and straight, which was the reason I walked up to this scene.
Rule Of Thirds grid over two plates and a bowl on the ground in a Buddhist pagoda photo
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, I would say that the composition would be stronger if the photo were cropped more tightly. Then the large bowl would be at the bottom-left grid intersection and the composition would be more in accordance with the The Golden Ratio.
Still life portrait photography of child fashion mannequin in Hanoi, Vietnam
Not all Vietnamese people are happily willing to be photographed especially in a tourist trap like Hanoi, so I was glad to find this willing and stoic portrait model. I do like the colors in this picture, even though the lipstick may not be age appropriate. I also like repeating shapes: the silk tie of the conical hat and the pearl necklace have the same curvature. The colorful scarves also create repeating parallel lines.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the top grid intersections are not exactly over the eyes of the mannequin but the composition works regardless, proving that bending the Rule Of Thirds will still result in a photo that is in harmony with The Golden Ratio.
Not all compositions need to be mathematically perfect, here I wanted to make sure that I didn’t cut the mannequin’s torso much lower than mid chest and also wanted to include enough colored scarves above the mannequin’s hat.
Still life street photography of three hanging ducks in Hanoi, Vietnam
Different cultures have different sensitivities as these three hanging ducks may not be the most appetizing or uplifting to many Western tourists. The two straight lines somewhat violently cut through the ducks.
The number three is almost always great for street photography and the three repeating shapes of the metal rings also add to the visual harmony – which may get lost due to how the subject matter is displayed.
Overlaying the Rule Of Thirds grid, we can see that the right and left ducks are not exactly under the right and left grid intersections but the composition still works therefore not completely violating The Golden Ratio.
Still life interior photography of Flower Hhmong house with sewing station
The exception happened this day as the trend of the otherwise painfully camera shy Hmong peoples were stopped for a few minutes. I didn’t want to intrude so I took only a few photos and spent only a couple of minutes. In one corner this sewing station and the wall with the bamboo forest print seemed interesting to photograph.
Overlaying the Fibonacci spiral, we can see that the circular shape was placed in the right area of the composition. The two parts of the sewing station draw a curved line, pointing towards the circular shape, which at least for me is a point of interest as my eyes scan the photo.