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What Are The Best Cameras For Still Life Photography? Gear & Apps

What Are The Best Cameras For Still Life Photography? Options For All Budgets

By Max Bridge on July 18th 2017

Still life photography is one of the most complex forms of photography. It can often require a huge amount of knowledge and skill, and, unfortunately, it can also require a lot of gear. Mercifully, while we may all want the latest, greatest, most expensive camera money can buy, it’s not necessary.

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When taking still life photos our cameras are generally placed on a tripod and don’t move for the duration of the shoot. In addition, our subjects are usually stationary, big surprise there. As such, rarely is it necessary for a still life camera to have all the bells and whistles which the latest models provide. We don’t need an advanced focusing system, the ability to shoot at high frame rates, excellent dynamic range, good high ISO noise capabilities. In fact, there are very few things a still life photographer needs from their camera.

What Makes A Good Camera For Still Life?

So what do you need? What actually makes a good camera for still life photography? Well, the fact is, you can use pretty much any camera and still take excellent photos. The majority of the work in still life photography comes in away from the camera and lens. You need a good selection of modifiers, scrims, decent strobes, light stands, tables, gold, white and black card, props and most importantly creativity.

a Sony camera sensor on a white background. Talking about what makes a good still life photography camera

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When it comes to the actual camera there are very few essential requirements. Firstly, you need a camera with a decent number of megapixels, I’d say at least 24 but the more the better. Still life photography is all about quality and therefore we need a good number of megapixels to allow us to capture a high-quality base image. That image is then worked on in Photoshop to one degree or another. If you have too few megapixels, you’ll struggle when zooming in close to your product to do things like cleaning. On the other hand, having lots of megapixels brings its own challenges in terms of the computing power necessary to manage all the images.

Away from megapixels, everything else falls into the category of “it would be nice to have but it’s not necessary”. It would be nice to have a camera with a decent dynamic range in case you have to pull details from shadows. It would be nice to have a full frame camera, a camera that produces true 16-bit files, has a large viewfinder coverage and so on. None of these things, however, are necessary. You can create outstanding still life images with a budget cropped sensor camera. I cannot stress enough how important everything around the camera is when compared to the camera itself. That said, would I say no if someone offered me a Phase One XF 100  or Hasselblad H6D? No, of course not.

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Canon Rebel SL2 on white background as recommendation for best budget still life photography camera

Budget Camera Recommendations For Still Life Photography

These cameras are about as cheap as you can get. Coming in at $399 for the Nikon and £549 for the Canon. If you wanted to go even cheaper, pick up a used or refurbished body. Can these cameras really take good still life photos? Yes, God yes! Remember the most important part of still life photography is everything that goes around the camera; your lights, modifiers and so on.

RECCOMENDATIONS – Canon EOS Rebel SL2Nikon D3200

nikon d610 on white background as recommendation for best mid level still life photography camera

Mid-Level Cameras For Still Life Photography

As we go up the price range we start to get a few more of the “it would be nice to have but it’s not necessary” features. The three cameras recommended below are all full frame, offer much better high ISO noise handling, have better focusing systems etc. If you get these cameras will your photos automatically be better though? No, definitely not.

RECCOMENDATIONS – Nikon D610Canon EOS 6DSony Alpha a7

Sony A7RII on white background as recommendation for best professional still life photography camera

Professional Level Cameras For Still Life Photography

Now we’re starting to get serious but what does an increase of $1-3k really get us? If we are strictly talking about still life photography and ignoring the camera features which you don’t need, then all this gets us, compared to mid-level camera bodies, is a significant increase in megapixels. You may be thinking “I need those megapixels so I can shoot billboard size images”. Nope. It may amaze you to hear but you could print a 24 megapixel image to billboard size and it would still look good! Check out this article for an explanation.

RECCOMENDATIONS – Nikon D810Canon EOS 5DS RSony Alpha a7R II

Medium Format Cameras For Still Life Photography

This is a realm that very few of us will ever reach. When quality is of the utmost importance, medium format is where most photographers will go. Although, I have seen a comparison of a Sony a7RII and Phase One (sadly I can’t recall the model) in which the Sony was easily comparable in terms of quality. Strangely enough, one of the biggest things that shooting with this level of camera offers is prestige. It’s the ability to say to your camera ignorant clients “I’m shooting with Phase One”. Can you create the same image with almost any of the camera’s I’ve mentioned here, yup. Does that stop me wanting one of these cameras? Nope.

RECCOMENDATIONS – Hasselblad H6D-100cPhase One XF 100

Final Thoughts On Cameras For Still Life Photography

If you’ve read this far then hopefully I’ve drilled into you the idea that the camera means very little in still life photography. Almost all the images in my portfolio  were made using a Nikon D750 or Canon 5d Mk II, coupled with a range of lenses. If you’re an amateur getting into this for the first time, don’t feel that your camera will be holding you back, it will do 99% of what the higher budget cameras will. As you begin to progress you’ll find that the small differences between these cameras; megapixels, viewfinder coverage, live view quality, dynamic range and so on, begin to become important. At that point, you may find yourself coveting something a little more expensive.

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If nothing else, please remember that creativity is the single most important thing in still life photography. Don’t obsess about your gear, obsess about your ideas.

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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7 Comments

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  1. Dan Sifuentes

    The Canon EOS Rebel SL2 is definitely a good camera. I couldn’t find a full review of it on SLRLounge. So if you’re looking for a review, you can find one on my website.

    https://www.digitalcamcentral.com/canon-eos-rebel-sl2-review/

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  2. Chet Meyerson

    Wow, you all have it wrong! Here is the best camera for still life studio work. $144 plus a lens.

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    • Stan Rogers

      …plus a digital back or adapted SLR/mirrorless and associated gear. Yes, we old farts used to do some amazing things with view cameras and film, and Scheimpflug is still relevant — but what digital, tethering and compositing have done to set-up and verification (compared to Paranoids and finger-crossing) will pay for the difference in a heck of a hurry, especially given the difference between current commercial rates and what they were in the good old days.

      By the way, that Cambo isn’t yaw-free or even nearly so; futzing around with focus while using movements will drive you batty in no time, and still life is where it hurts the most because of the high magnification factors and relatively wide desired apertures (remember, f/16 is wide-ish on LF) imposed by lighting. And the locks move your settings around as well. It wasn’t a horrible beginner set-up, but it was something you’d grow out of quickly f you were trying to make a living with it. There are far better old rails available for not much more.

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  3. Lakin Jones

    No love for Pentax…

    Both the K3-II (crop) and K-1 (full-frame) have Pixel Shift technology that is perfect for still life, producing incredible images that can compete against cameras 2-3x their respective cost. You’ll also get more features and versatility in the camera when not shooting still life. 

    Not a paid shill, just like Pentax.

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    • Stan Rogers

      Unfortunately, not with flash. If Pentax provided a means to do pixel-shift (multishot) with flash (like the Hasselblad MS backs), it would be a hands-down, no-brainer winner in the category. It’s not just about resolution, either: you’d get much better pixel-level colour fidelity even at the same (luminance) resolution, and colour moiré would not set in at a lower frequency than luminance moiré. But since the Pentax MS is restricted to continuous lighting, you can only use it if you shift a lot of money and effort into the lighting equation – lighting tends to be more expensive once you get beyond the very basic, it’s usually harder to modify and control, and you can’t simply eliminate working ambient light (the stuff that keeps you from tripping over things, etc.) with shutter speed.

      Pentax makes great gear, but they do it with some pretty strong opinions. One of those opinions seems to be that no camera should be held captive in a studio; they’re meant to explore the streets and marvel at the vistas.

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    • Lakin Jones

      Fair points about flash and multishot. Still, if they’re going to recommend a $400 Nikon/Canon option, or the a7R ii, I don’t see why Pentax, a camera with similar performance and more features for the dollar was left out. 

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  4. Molon Labe

    Canon 5ds, 50 mp, very reasonable price for the resolution.

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