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How to Turn Ideas into Images with Still Life Photography


Photography is a creative endeavour but due to limitations in available and suitable subjects, it can often be challenging to get fully creative across genres. Nature shows what it wants to show, people have their limits in terms of posing, and many scenes have variables you can’t control. But one genre exists where you can really let your creativity run wild: still life photography. 

As a still life photographer, you have complete control over angles, their position and how they are portrayed in an image. SNAPSHOT talks to Nelly Nguyen from Nelly Nguyen Photography, whose witty photographs of everyday objects make us tilt our heads and smile.


Where do you usually look for inspiration when creating or conceptualising the shots? 

EOS 5DS R, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, f/7.1, ISO 400, 1/125s, 100mm 

I’m easily moved by the beauty of everyday life. Be it an uplifting movie scene, a weathered magazine cover, or the window’s shadow casting a silhouette on my desk. Everything and everyone can be my inspiration, giving meaning and nuances to my work. I think that’s also the core of still life photography. 


From the idea stage to creating a mood board and eventually planning the shoot, what is your journey? 

The process varies, depending on whether it’s a commercial or personal project. 

Mood board sample 

When it comes to commercial work, I believe that any steps moving forward are wasted without a profound understanding of the brand essence. I’d consolidate my understanding into a list of keywords and start brainstorming. Once the ideas start taking shape, I’d draw up a mood board using conceptual visuals, which help to communicate my vision for the shoot. 


Final sketch 

For a personal project, the journey is much more liberating. If I’m in it for the long haul, I’d play around with the big idea for quite some time, seek inspiration, then slowly develop it into a mood board. The process pretty much resembles that of a commercial shoot. 


Final image 


On the other hand, some shoots can be spontaneous as I get inspired by random objects around me: some leftover flowers from another shoot or simply a rubber glove that my mum left in the kitchen. 

EOS 5DS R, EF40mm f/2.8 STM, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/25s, 40mm 


What are the major challenges when having still life as a subject, especially when focusing on more mundane objects? 

EOS 5DS R, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, f/7.1, ISO 400, 1/125s, 100mm 

Patience - Unlike fashion/portrait photography, we cannot ask our “models” to pose as directed. We need to constantly arrange and play around with the objects manually, which can be quite time-consuming. Dusting and polishing, which takes lots of patience, is also needed to make sure the object is presentable at the very least. For this, I have my diligent team to thank, as they never fail to go the extra mile to meet my requests and fulfil my ambitions. 

Keen eyes - In still life photography, even a slight change in light direction can bring new meaning to your work, so a keen eye is much needed to notice any difference, however small. Plus, a photographer must be able to detect any imperfections on-set to make it easier for post-production. 


EOS 5DS R, EF40mm f/2.8 STM, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/125s, 40mm 

Not to be cliché – The many objects around us, however mundane, all have an interesting story to tell, yet it’s so easy for us to take them for granted. “An ordinary object could be elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” – said Marcel Duchamp. As still life photographers, our job is to “peel” the different layers of the dullest objects, look at them from different perspectives to capture, and celebrate their true beauty. 


What’s your favourite set-up when shooting still life? 

One of my favourites is a clean, simple set-up with a good combination of shapes, colours and textures. And my Canon EOS 5DS R with Canon EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens is my most used gear for my shoots because of its sharpness and depth of field. 


What do you do to get out of a “creative block”? 

EOS 5DS R, EF40mm f/2.8 STM, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/125s, 40mm 

Keeping myself constantly updated and daring myself to experience new techniques are some ways I get out of a “creative block”. I love pushing myself out of my comfort zone to bring new elements to each project while always reflecting on how to do it better next time. But once the workload starts taking a toll on me, I’d reward myself with some days off and refresh my mind. 


Can you share with us a story behind one of your favourite photos/shoots? 

“Food Lab” was a project I did for an exhibition in The Factory Contemporary Arts Center. I got approached by their curator with the key prompt “Machine Meets Nature” as the exhibition’s theme. The idea of using still life medium to present this theme immediately came to my mind. It took me and my team months to come up with the clear visual for each story that I wanted to convey through my images, and “Food Lab” was born. 

“The Cow” 

EOS 5DS R, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, f/8, ISO 100, 1/125s, 100mm 


“The Farm” 

EOS 5DS R, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, f/8, ISO 100, 1/125s, 100mm 


“The Meat” 

EOS 5DS R, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, f/8, ISO 100, 1/125s, 100mm 


We are what we eat, and we now interfere too much with what we eat. In this series, I create the feeling of a fictional scientific lab, where an industrial execution of our food chain is ongoing. Today’s “natural” nutrition is artificial. 

We did the sketch, made the cow model and prepared all the props for a week before the shooting started. We shot for three continuous days and will never forget the smell of all the meat that hung for a whole day for the shoot to get done. 

The team who worked on this project were:

Producer: Hensi Le  

Stylist: Thao Anh & Như La  

Props: Nelly's Team  

Assistant: Yên Chi 


After hearing what Nelly has to say, there’s a lot of fun to be had when shooting still life images. If you’ve been itching to try it out, keep this talented photographer’s process in mind, start sketching out ideas and set up your shots to create beautiful images. 


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