Choosing The Best Lenses for Still-life Photography

If you’re interested in still-life photography, you’ll need to choose the right lenses for the job. There are a few factors to consider, such as the size of your subject, the level of detail you want to capture, and the amount of space you have to work with.

The most popular lenses for still-life photography are macro lenses and telephoto lenses, but once you master these, you may also want to explore the use of tilt-shift lenses in still-life photography. Macro lenses are great for close-up shots of small subjects, while telephoto lenses allow you to capture more detailed shots from a distance.

What Is “Still life” Photography?

A still-life photograph is where the subject is composed solely of inanimate (still) objects that are arranged in a particular way for the purpose of the photograph. This could mean an artistic composition, a product photograph, or a study of light, shape, or form. The genre is different from other photographic genres such as landscapes and portraiture, in that still-life photography is composed of many seemingly different sub-genres. Here’s a quick list of the different types of still-life photography before we move on:

  • Product Photography
  • Food Photography
  • Artistic Compositions of found objects
  • There’s so much more… add your own to this list.

Still-life photography usually involves photographing objects in a controlled setting, such as in a studio, often using specialized lighting equipment. The resulting images typically have a clean, simple aesthetic and are often highly stylized.

A still-life composition with pomegranate on a copper plate
A still-life composition with pomegranate on a copper plate

Still-life subjects can be anything that doesn’t move, including both inanimate objects and living things that have been posed for the camera.

You’ll find that common still-life subjects include flowers, food, drink, and other household items, especially when used for commercial purposes.

Despite its name, still-life photography doesn’t have to be completely static. Some photographers use creative techniques to add a sense of motion to their still-life images, such as shooting with a long exposure or using intentional camera movement.

As a commercial style of photography, still-lifes are found everywhere, from e-commerce websites to high-end advertising photographs for luxury cars, perfumes & liquor, from social media, to recipe books … you’ll see this form of photography everywhere, and very often.

As an artistic style of photography, they give the photographer immense control over the composition, styling, light, and much more. There is no end to how precise and elaborate still-life photography can be.

Lens Selection For Still-Life Photography Depends Upon the Subject and The Desired Outcome

If you’re shooting a small subject, like jewelry, ornaments, mineral crystals, or small flowers, you’ll want to use a macro lens. You can get close to your subject with these lenses and record every detail.

If you’re shooting a larger subject, like a piece of furniture, you’ll want to use a telephoto lens. These lenses allow you to capture more of the scene, including the background.

Using Macro Lenses For Still-Life Photos

A macro lens is a must-have for anyone who wants to get into still-life photography. Not only will it allow you to capture intricate details that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye, but it will also give your photos a unique level of depth and realism. We have a detailed article about lens selection for Macro Photography, but we’ll summarise it here.

There are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for a dedicated macro lens.

Still life composition with vase, textured background and wooden table
Still life composition with a vase, textured background, and wooden table

First, the zoom lenses that also offer macro aren’t true macro lenses. They’re usually close-focusing lenses which allow a .5x magnification. True macro lenses typically allow a magnification of at least 1:1.

Next, you’ll need to decide what focal length you want. Macro lenses come in a range of focal lengths, from as short as 35mm to as long as 200mm. The shorter the focal length, the closer you can get to your subject; the longer the focal length, the more distance you’ll have between you and your subject. The focal length also affects the apparent perspective distortion. Product photographers typically prefer a macro lens that is around the 90-100mm range.

Finally, you’ll have to choose the lens manufacturer. While your camera’s manufacturer will most likely have their own ‘native’ macro lenses, 3rd party manufacturers also offer an impressive range of lenses that you can make use of, based on your photographic style.

Some Popular Macro Lenses for You To Choose From:

Here is our selection of popular Macro lenses that are often used for Still-Life Photography.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but just something to get you started. Read more about Macro lenses here.

Using Telephoto Lenses for Still Life

Still-life study of a ceramic vase photographed on a black background
Still-life study of a ceramic vase photographed on a black background

A telephoto lens (often a macro with a long focal length) can come in handy when you want to capture details, without getting too close to the subject. This is useful when photographing subjects where there needs to be a reasonable amount of space in front of the camera. This might be for fine-tuning the arrangement, placing lights & diffusers, or avoiding reflections.

When using a telephoto lens you may choose to use a prime or zoom lens, depending on the situation, and the need for sharp resolving power.

A few points to remember are that telephoto lenses will often need support, and using a tripod may be a necessity with them. The depth of field of a telephoto lens is also narrower than a wide angle, so you’ll be using small apertures (high f-stop numbers) to maximize it. In turn, this leads to longer exposures, or the need for more powerful lighting. Often, if shooting products that need to be fully in focus, the photographer will choose to use post-processing techniques such as Focus Stacking, or will change the plane of focus using a tilt-shift lens, or a bellows attachment with similar movements.

Some Popular (non-macro) Telephoto Lenses To Choose From:

Our selection of a few telephoto lens that can also be used for still-life photography.

Using Tilt-Shift Lenses For Still Life Photography

A tilt-shift lens is a type of lens that is used to control the plane of focus in an image, which can be very useful for still-life photography. By tilting the lens, the photographer can choose to have the entire scene in focus, or just a small portion of it. This can be very helpful for creating images with a shallow depth of field, where only the subject is in focus and the background is blurred, or to ensure that all parts of a subject are in focus, when the subject is aligned along a different plane than the camera’s sensor. Shifting a lens can also be useful to create visually interesting perspectives for product photography.

Admittedly this is a slightly difficult concept to grok for beginners, but we’ve discussed the two aspects of a tilt-shift lens (tilting and shifting) in our Lenses for Architecture article.

Tilt-shift lenses are available in various focal lengths, from wide-angle to telephoto. When choosing a lens, it is important to consider the size of the sensor in your camera, as this will affect the amount of tilt that can be used without vignetting (darkening of the corners of the image).

If you are interested in trying out a tilt-shift lens for your still-life photography, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, because these lenses can be expensive, it may be worth renting one before purchasing.

Second, remember that tilting the lens will change the perspective of your image, so it is important to experiment a bit to find the best angle for your subject matter.

Finally, when using a tripod, be sure to adjust the tripod head so that it is level with the horizon; otherwise, your images may appear skewed.

Tilt-Shift Lenses for You To Consider for Still Life:

Some Tilt-shift lenses that are particularly well suited for use in still-life photography.

Features to Look For in a Still-life Lens

There are two sets of features that you’d look for when selecting your ideal Still-Life lens. The features that you need, and the ones that you don’t need. The ones that you don’t need only add to the cost of purchase, and don’t help you with your work, so try to optimise where possible.

Must-Have Still-life Lens Features

These are features that, in my opinion, are absolutely necessary for still-life photography

  • Sharp lens, with high edge to edge resolution and contrast
  • Sharp at small aperture sizes (high f-numbers)
  • Pleasing bokeh shapes
  • Sufficient throw for manual focus to be accurate. If using a lens with a small range of motion for the focus ring, it’s easy to get slightly inaccurate focus.

Nice-To-Have Features

  • Zoom. It’s nice to be able to zoom in and out to adjust the composition of your still-life photo. However, you should be aware that it changes the perspective of your photograph, and that’s not always desirable. Useful if you have a small studio, or not much space to work in.
  • Tilt-Shift ability. This is nice to have if you are a professional still-life photographer who is looking to create amazing photos, or if you want to create a particular effect. However, this isn’t a must-have and can add to the cost of your lens quite significantly.

Unnecessary Features

  • Some form of optical image stabilization. Most shots are likely to be composed and photographed with your camera on a tripod, so image stabilization is not a requirement for still-life photography.
  • Extra-large aperture lens. If you’re photographing a still-life scene, it’s likely that you’ll be in a studio, and that you will want

It’s All Subjective

In the end, we always choose the best lens that we have access to, which is appropriate for the job. There is never a need to go out-of-pocket or in debt to buy a lens. Instead, rent, borrow, or make do with what you have.

We have more guides on lens choices in the Lens Buyer’s Guide.

If you have any suggestions for lenses to include, don’t be shy to let us know in the comments.

Susheel Chandradhas

Susheel Chandradhas

Susheel Chandradhas is a Product Photographer and Filmmaker based in India. He has been taking photographs (almost) all his life. He has a diploma and a bachelors degree in Visual Communication, where his classmates all believed that he would write a book on photography... Instead, he writes on this website (because - isn't a community more fun?).

His passions include photography, parkour, wide-angle lenses, blue skies, fire extinguishers, and fast computers.

In addition to writing for Beyond Photo Tips, Susheel is a staff writer for Fstoppers.com, and owns and runs ColoursAlive, a photography, and video production studio.

You can connect with Susheel on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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