Mise-en-scène is literally translated as ‘placing on the stage’, and it refers to everything that goes in front of the camera, including the main subject, props, composition, backdrop, and lighting. The term is often used in cinematography when storyboarding and setting up a camera angle, but it is just as relevant to photography.
If you do not have access to professional photography equipment, natural light can be fine when photographing a still life scene. It will add depth and contrast to the image, which can become flattened in harsh artificial light.
However, there’s no hard and fast rules; if the outside light is too dull or too bright, you may need to augment your work with flash or an external lighting set-up, or use filters or shades on the windows to soften the light. Take plenty of shots, and remember you can always perfect them with photo editing software later on.
The main subject
This should of course be the in-focus close-up of your shot, capturing the fine details and textures. If you are a food photographer, you may be working with a dish that may taste or smell delicious, but lacks variety of form or colour. Try adding colourful garnishes to stews and soups, such as bright green leaves and a dash of spice.
Angles are always important in photography, and even more so if you are capturing a static scene. Experiment with a few different angles, such as directly overhead, which usually works well for food shots. If you are photographing a very decorative main subject such as an iced cake, a top-down view may not show it off fully, so step back and try a side shot.
Keep the background clean, simple and neutral so it doesn’t take the attention from the main subject. You need to make sure that the colour and detail of the subject really pops out from the backdrop. This doesn’t mean that you should keep the scene completely empty. Many people start with product photography backdrops and take it from there.
Setting some context for the main subject can help to tell a story, and add more of an emotional pull for the viewer. Make sure that the props are deliberately chosen, and not just whatever was lying around. A fresh cup of frothy coffee and a pretty napkin can suggest a warm welcoming mood, for example.
The props should be related to the main subject in some way and also balance the scene; a jug of cream behind a cake; small round dishes of earthy hued sauces next to a more colourful main subject; carved peppermills next to a bowl of soup to add height and shape. Utensils in shiny silver or natural wood can add a dash of line, tone and texture to the scene.
You may want to include a hand shot of someone interacting with the subject to add some human interest; for example, stirring a bowl of food, about to sip a drink, or pouring from a jug. Always remember however to place the props to draw the viewer’s eye towards the main subject, and not detract from it.