Flat Lay Tips + Tricks
I’m going to be honest: the term “flat lay” makes me roll my eyes a tad because I immediately think of fashion bloggers and Pinterest perfection and influencers standing on chairs at restaurants taking pictures of their food before they eat it.
HOWEVER. I am a photographer and I am also on Instagram. And, well, sometimes I want to share a photo of a product or a book or a print … and a flat lay is often a great option for that type of image.
I am not a fashion blogger or a Pinterest guru or an influencer, but I do love photography and have learned a thing or two over the years about how to compose a solid flat lay. Whether you’re looking to snap photos for an online shop, create stock images for your blog, or just share the occasional photo of a book or beauty product you love, here are a few of my tried and true tricks:
1. Before you start, get inspired. Photography is subjective, and flat lays are no exception. Before you even begin, consider hopping on Unsplash or Pinterest and searching “flat lay” to see what types of images resonate with you. Do you love clean images on white backgrounds? Slightly messy images on wood backdrops? Do you find yourself drawn to perfect symmetry or more playful arrangements? Get an idea of the look you are trying to achieve before you begin and just notice the elements that speak to you: light, props, background, composition.
2. Go where the light is. While this is true of all photography, it is especially true of flat lays, which look best in natural light. If your house is super dark (limited windows or poor weather), you can opt to do a flat lay outside in the shade. When you’re first playing around with flat lays, I recommend using flat, even light. If you can shoot near a window or sliding glass door, do that. Once you’ve mastered composition and feel comfortable with your surfaces and objects, try taking the same photo in mixed lighting for a different effect.
Both of these photos were taken on the same white desk at different times in my bedroom. The left is an example of flat, even light. The right is an example of more mixed lighting.
My front living room gets light in the morning; my dining room and bedroom get light in the late afternoon. I typically only take pictures during those times, in those rooms.
3. Find a solid surface to use as a background. Contrary to what you see on Instagram and Pinterest, this does not have to be an all white table. Walk around your house and notice the different types of surfaces available to you: tables, desks, counters, sheets, floors. Simple backgrounds work best for a flat lay, so look for something that won’t distract from the thing(s) you are photographing. Again, pay attention to where your favorite surfaces are and where the light is. Plan accordingly.
If you’re not feeling inspired by the surfaces in your home, consider picking up a large white poster board (you can get this at any craft store, or even Target/Walmart, etc) to have on hand as an option.
Craft paper and marble vinyl paper also make good backdrops—you could even line one side of the poster board with something else to give you two options.
(Poster board in front of a window makes a great backdrop in a pinch, especially if you just want objects on a white surface.)
4. Gather your object + props. Walk around your house and take notice of things that might look nice in a flat lay—candles, jewelry, flowers, succulents, even things like textures (tea towels, blankets, baskets, etc). Look for items that will compliment your subject in tones and color. When in doubt—greenery looks good with just about anything. I’m a big fan of trimming sprigs from your own backyard, or treating yourself to the $3 flowers at Trader Joes. If you want a more permanent option, faux greenery has come a long way, and you can usually find simple and affordable options at your local craft store or even on Amazon.
(That plant is 100% fake.)
5. Play with your composition. Leaving space between each object, move things around until they feel balanced. AKA: don’t settle for your first arrangement. When I’m taking a flat lay image, I usually arrange objects, take a picture, adjust again, and keep photographing + adjusting until it looks right to me. I’d say usually the third or fourth try is the one I use. Be creative! Experiment, move objects around, layer things on top of each other. Keep playing until it looks right to you.
(I take a lot of flat lay images on my desk; it’s right next to the window so I get flat, even light during the day and more mixed, golden light at sunset.)
6. Shoot from a birds eye view. The whole point of a flat lay is to shoot above the layout. If you’ve positioned things on the floor, it’s easy to stand above the shot, but if you’re using a table or desk, it might be better to (carefully!) stand on a chair or stool. Basically: get above the top of your flatlay for the best shot.
7. Shoot in the format you intend to use. If you plan to share the photo as a square, take the photo as a square. If you plan to share the photo vertically or horizontally, take the photo that way. This will help your overall composition stay balanced and keep the integrity (and quality) of the image.
I knew this was going to be posted as a square so I lined up the objects to be balanced in a square. Had I shot this vertically and then cropped, it would’ve looked completely different.
8. Play with angles. Just because you’re shooting a flat lay doesn’t mean you have to photograph it perfectly straight. From a birds eye view, consider tilting your phone or camera slightly to the left or right.