Camera Settings for Still Life and Product Photography
Manual Mode – I get quite a reaction when I utter those words! Most of us are so afraid to try to use manual mode our camera is set permanently on auto mode. Many photographers say one should ONLY shoot in manual mode and scoff at those who don’t. You can get some pretty great shots with our high tech cameras these days, so why bother?
Manual Mode is Where the Art Is
Modern day still life photography encompasses a wide range of genres including product photography, fine art, and lifestyle photography. The overall idea is to stage a scene and create a mood. For product promotion, it is the perfect way to show your products used in everyday life or depict the mood you would like associated with your brand. Many use still life photography purely as an art form. Manual mode allows YOU to be the boss! With it, you can realize your vision and create artful and meaningful work.
Every camera is different – so before we get started, find a tutorial on Youtube by typing your camera model in the search bar. Learn how to change the settings for your particular camera and practice changing them. We will specifically choose camera settings for still life and product photography.
Are you ready? Let’s get started!
ISO 200 F 1.8 1/200 sec
Simplicity is Key
I will present this in the simplest way possible. Once you get the hang of it, you can go back and learn the technical or mechanical aspects of each setting. But for now, let’s focus on simplicity. Take note of the camera settings at the bottom of each photograph.
Your ISO setting is determined by your available light. Are you indoors or out? Is it cloudy or sunny? Is it indirect or direct? The list below is a starting point. After you do a light study photo shoot in your own home you will get to know your particular light situation. Still life and product shots are best taken indoors where you can control the environment. Good indirect natural light can be a real plus.
100 – outdoors, bright sunlight
200 – indoors bright sunlight
400 – indoors indirect sunlight, cloudy
800 – indoors, very cloudy
My personal preference is to shoot at 200 – 400 ISO with indirect sunlight for most shots. Start at 200 if the sun is out, at 400 if it is cloudy. Go back and change the setting if you find your shot is too bright or too dark.
ISO 200 F 1.8 1/200 sec
F-Stop is Where It’s At!
The ability to change your F-Stop sets DSLR photography apart. It controls how much of your image is in focus. This is known as depth of field (DOF). How low your F-Stop goes is determined by your lens. The kit lens that comes with your camera generally goes no lower than F 3.2. If you purchase a fixed lens, that is, one that does not zoom in and out, you can get one that has a lower F-stop, as low as F 1.8 or even F 1.2. I have two fixed lenses, a 50mm and a 35mm. Both have low F-Stop capability of F 1.8. In my small kitchen when I shoot still life, I generally shoot with my 35mm lens. If you have a large space to shoot in a, 50mm is nice.
Depth of field is also determined by what you focus on and how far away you are from your focus point. In the two images above I shot at F 1.8. In the top image, my focus point was the teapot. I was quite close to the teapot and, as you can see, everything else quickly ‘falls away’ or is out of focus. In the second shot, I focused on the dried branch in the middle of the image. I stepped back a bit from the scene. You can see that everything in both the foreground and the background is slightly out of focus.
Adjusting your F-Stop creates a mood. Soft and dreamy is what I was going for here. I will often ‘bracket’ my F-Stop by increasing the number one or two steps at a time and taking a shot. When I edit my images I will decide which I like best. Increase the number and more of the scene is in focus. I generally do not shoot higher than F 5.6 for still life or product photography.
ISO 200 F 1.8 1/400 sec
ISO 200 F 2.8 1/500 sec
Here is where it gets a little tricky. Shutter speed determines how many seconds or fractions of a second your camera’s shutter is open letting in light. It’s an important setting for capturing things in motion. But our subject is still. The appropriate shutter speed for still life will be determined by two things. First, it needs to be set relative to the first two settings, our ISO and our F-Stop. Second, the type of mood we want to set will determine how much light we want to let in.
As you can see by my image captions, the shutter speed is set somewhere between 1/100 sec and 1/500 sec. Start shooting at around 1/200 sec and see how the image looks. Is it too dark? Allow more light to come in by choosing 1/100 sec. Want it darker? Choose a quicker speed, say 1/500 sec. Take a few shots in each direction and look at them closer later.
By purposefully choosing your shutter speed you are the one that determines the look of your image. Love dark and moody or light and airy? Either way, it’s now YOUR choice!
ISO 200 F 2.2 1/250 sec
ISO 200 F 3.5 1/100 sec
ISO 400 F 2.8 1/80 sec
Just a note: Shooting at slower than 1/100 sec increases the risk of blur. If you must shoot at that speed or slower consider using a tripod.
OK, cool, I think you’ve got it! Make sure to check out my post ‘Creative Photography – Recipe for Creative Flow,’ to get your mojo going. Contact me for a private session if you need a little more help.
Check out my Creative Photography for Small Business course for an in-depth online photography workshop.
No matter what – Just start shooting!