This post is written by Dina Belenko, a 500px Ambassador who specializes in still life photography.

Still life is likely the most underappreciated genre in photography. Audiences like to see a human presence in a shot, like the faces of other people, which is thought to be inconceivable in the genre of still life. That is definitely not true. In this post, I am going to show you how you can shoot still life with the same character and significance that would be in a portrait shot.

I call this approach “persona”, as that is how I was taught to call the main character in a poem during my school years. The persona is not the author (or, in our case, a real-life model, like in a portrait), but a narrating character in the story. The idea of this trick is to choose a persona and arrange the shot around them.

Step 1: Choose a character

This should be someone unusual, interesting, and extraordinary: a pirate, a geologist, a magician, an explorer, a circus performer, a writer, an astronaut, a botanist, an audiophile, a sommelier, a cowboy, or maybe even a puppet master.

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Try to imagine this character in as much detail as possible. Do not resort to broad thinking. For example, if your character is a traveler, take some pen and paper, sit down and make a list of all the travelers you can come up with. Not specific names though—rather, list the types of travelers.

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Who leaves their house to venture out into the world?
-A hipster going to the mountains with no Wifi in the vicinity.
-A sailor crossing the equator.
-A grandmother on her way to see her grandchildren.
-A gloomy strider in ragged clothes, with a staff in his hand.
-A group of adventurers: a mage, a thief, and a warrior.
-An entomologist on a field trip.

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Make a list of at least 15 different types of people that would fit into the character that you chose, and then decide which type you will use for your shot.

Step 2: Imagine your character

Imagine your persona doing some mundane things, something that each and every person does on a daily basis. What does their desk look like? How do they water the flowers? What would their birthday cake look like?

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How, for example, do they drink their tea? A painter drinks tea and then accidentally puts their brushes in the cup. An astronomer drinks their tea and sees the stars reflecting in it. A steelworker uses a gas burner to boil the water for their tea. Imagine your person in an ordinary setting and see what happens.

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Now let’s get back to our traveler. A tourist might snack on some chips, a lost cowboy on the last piece of horse jerky, a seafarer would gnaw on lemons to prevent scurvy, while a Soviet geologist might struggle to open a can of fish with a knife.

Brainstorm some simple settings and pick the one you can bring to life right now.

Step 3: Visualize the details

Now is the time to ask yourself the most important question: how can we visualize our character? Which items are directly connected to them?

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For example, let’s say that I decide to create a still life image that tells the story of a geologist on a field trip. What is typical for geologists? What does a generic geologist look like? When I picture a geologist, I see a bearded bloke in a sweater, holding some mineral samples (and probably, a guitar). He might have a hard hat, a theodolite, and a pickaxe, but these are not the things you can find in every closet. However, a tape measure, pencils, and a notebook with the words “Field research notes”, scrawled across them are much easier to come by. Some stones and small crystals would also come in handy.

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Make a list of all the things that have a connection with your chosen character. What does that person use? What do they wear? What items are related indirectly? (For example, binoculars and a rucksack are not unique to geologists, but they could be carrying such items.)

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Then, go through the same process with the mundane action of your choice.

My geologist opens his ration. He might be happy to see a chocolate bar inside, or he might have trouble opening a can of meat.

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How can we visualize that? What tools do we need? If we’re opening a can, it’s good to have a can opener. Most likely, our geologist lacks proper tools, but he probably has some type of a Swiss army knife with a fork and a spoon attached. Does he have napkins? Does he check his notes while eating?

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Step 4: Gather the props

Now it’s time to decide which details to include in your shot, which of them can be obtained easily and which of them are too expensive.

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Try to find a couple of props that will work as a direct reference to our character. Keep in mind that it’s better to use one item that is closely related to the topic, rather than multiple indirect ones.

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Step 5:Design your shot

If the composition of your future shot is not yet clear, it’s a good idea to start by placing all the key items in a manner that lets you see all of them together.

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For example, when creating a shot about a geologist, I would first put down a map, then place the unopenable can, and a broken can opener in the middle of it. After that, I would add some notebooks, pencils, and stones to show the occupation of my character. And there you go!

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All that remains is adjusting the lights and pressing the shutter button. As a result, you will get a shot that lets you feel a human presence, and that tells a tangible story.

This method is also a great way to bring more life to pictures of food or still life shots, find a different approach to a familiar genre, and experiment with more conceptual work.

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