If you're a creator of any kind, chances are you've come across flat lay photography. It's everywhere on social media, from front-facing fashion shots to flat lays of perfectly arranged makeup products. But what exactly is flat lay photography? It's a style of photography that involves taking a picture of an object or scene from directly above. This bird's eye perspective can be achieved by using a drone, standing on a stool or ladder, or simply holding the camera above your head. While flat lays may seem effortless, there is actually quite a bit of planning and styling that goes into creating the perfect shot.
In this article, I'll take you through the process of shooting a flat lay photo from start to finish, and share some tips and tricks for taking stunning flat lay shots. So whether you're a photographer, maker, artist, blogger, home cook, baker, or crafter — read on for everything you need to know about flat lay photography.
How to Photograph a Flat Lay Step 1: Planning
When it comes to flat lay photography, the best pictures are the ones that tell a story. So before you start snapping away, take a moment to think about what story you want your photo to tell. That story will be the foundation for all of the decisions you make, from the style of lighting to the background, and props.
For example, if you want to create a flat lay for a new bath and body product that feels light and airy, you might choose a clean, crisp marble backdrop and use bright natural light. You might choose props that are related to the scent of the product, like lavender or fresh flowers.
Or, say you're creating a flat lay of your family's homemade pasta recipe you're blogging about. You might want to create a rustic look, so you could use a wood background and include the fresh ingredients in the dish, like tomatoes, garlic, or a rolling pin and flour. The possibilities are endless!
Just remember, the key to creating a great flat lay is to plan ahead so that your final product tells the story you want it to. If you're not sure where to start, you can find tons of inspiration by browsing Instagram or Pinterest and searching the hashtag #flatlay.
For the flat lay shoot I’m demonstrating in this article, I was hired to photograph a brand of premium dog treats. I wanted to show that they are made with human-grade, all-natural ingredients that we would recognize and find in our own kitchens. With that in mind, I decided to shoot the treats in a kitchen setting, surrounded by the fresh ingredients that were used to bake them.
How to Photograph a Flat Lay Step 2: Choose Your Background
Your background can make all the difference between a good flat lay and a great one. Anything can work as a background, but the best backgrounds for flat lay photography are board backdrops. Drop/A Wall Board Backdrops are stain-resistant and water-resistant so you can get messy with your flat lays and then wipe them clean when you're done. Plus, they're rigid and anti-glare — perfect for photography. Drop/A Wall has board backdrops in just about any style of surface you could want, from a beautiful Calacatta marble to dark Rustic Wood, to old rusty metal, and everything in between.
When choosing your flay lay background, it's important to choose something that doesn't distract from the hero, the main subject of your photo, and your props. It should match your story, mood, and theme.
Since I had decided on a modern kitchen setting with fresh ingredients, this classic marble board backdrop was the perfect background for my dog treat flat lay photoshoot.
Flat Lay Photography Step 3: Lighting
Just like any other type of photography, lighting can make or break your flat lay shot. The key is to have even, diffused, bright light so that your items don't cast strong shadows. This can be achieved in a studio or with natural lighting, the choice is yours. If you're shooting in a studio, you'll want to set up your lights so that they're evenly distributed and not too harsh. If you're using natural light, try to find a spot near a window where the light is diffused. A sheer white curtain works perfectly if the sun is too bright.
Since I do most of my photography at night when there is no natural light, I use my studio and two strobes to light my photos. The main light has a large softbox diffuser and the fill light has a shoot-through umbrella. But, don't worry if you don't have a studio, strobes, or even a DSLR!
You can do flat lay photos with your phone, too. Check out my guide on How to Shoot Product Photography with Your iPhone for tips.
Flat Lay Photography Step 4: Camera and Lens
You can use any camera for flat lay photography. Particularly if your photo is going to be used strictly on social media, your mobile phone will be perfectly fine. However, if you're photographing flat lays for print or websites, corporate or professional work, you should consider investing in a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a removable lens and the ability to change your exposure settings. This will give you more control over the quality of your images.
Lens: For flat lay photography, you will usually choose a lens that's as close to your eye's own natural focal length. That means reaching for the 50mm lens if you have a full-frame camera or a 30-35mm lens if you're shooting with a crop-sensor camera. If you use a zoom lens, you may need a piece of tape to keep the lens from changing focal lengths while it's hanging upside-down.
Tripod: Whenever possible, you should put your camera on a tripod. Some tripods come with a center column that can be flipped to hold the camera upside-down between the legs. This option will work if your flat lay is small enough. Or you can use an arm attachment for your tripod or a c-stand to shoot larger flay lay scenes.
Camera Settings: Settings will vary greatly depending on your lighting situation and if you are shooting in a studio with artificial light or by a window with natural lighting. But, here are some general rules to keep in mind:
- Set your ISO as low as possible to reduce noise.
- Set your shutter speed at 1/125th or faster to eliminate motion blur.
- Because everything in a flat lay is pretty much on the same plane, setting your aperture to f/4 or or f/5.6 is a safe bet that everything will be in focus.
As you can see here, I have my camera on a tripod with the center column reversed. I've taped one of the legs down to keep it secure. I used a 24-105mm lens at 50mm and used some painter's tape to secure it at 50mm. Gravity kept opening the lens up to 105mm while it was hanging on the tripod. I also had my camera connected to an iPad via Bluetooth so that I could focus and release the shutter using the iPad rather than having to climb up a step ladder to take each shot.
Flat Lay Photography Step 5: Composition
Now that you've got your idea, theme, background, and props all figured out, it's time to set the scene. Keep a few things in mind as you're arranging objects:
- Place your hero object first and then add the other objects around it.
- Remember to balance the elements so that the photo doesn't feel heavier on one side than it does on the other. This applies to both the color and the size of objects in your composition.
- Don't be afraid to have objects bleed off the edges. This can create a sense of movement and energy in the photo.
- And speaking of energy, try to create a dynamic composition by incorporating a variety of shapes and sizes.
- You can also use light and shadow, hard and soft, to add depth and dimensionality.
- Create layers and depth by overlapping objects.
So have fun with it and see what looks best. It's digital, so you can just delete the images that don't work!
TIP: To help with my composition, I made an outline on the board backdrop in blue painter's tape to show where the edges of the frame would be. This let me know where to place the props so they'd show up in the final photo.
And here’s the final image from the shot that you saw being setup above:
Other Styles of Flat Lay Photography
If you’ve done any browsing on Instagram or Pinterest looking for flat lay inspo, then you’re aware there are many different styles of flat lays. Just like every photographer, artist, cook, and writer has their own personal style, you’ll find that you lean toward a certain aesthetic when it comes to flat lay photos, too. Here are a few different styles you can try:
Not all flat lays need to be full of items. Try shooting just a few objects, play around with negative space, and shoot your product half out of the frame. This is a great way to add interest and depth to your flat lay without overcrowding it. Another way to switch things up is to use different textures and patterns in your background. This type of shot is great for marketing because it leaves plenty of room for adding text or logos.
Whereas some flat lays we see look like organized chaos, others are styled in a way that's perfectly precise. You might see the same distance between every element, items all lined up in a row, straight edges, uniform shapes, and meticulous attention to detail. Here, I used the treats and blueberries to create a floral or mandala shape. Which style of photo do you prefer? Think about this when you're in your planning stage.
This is one you might need a hand with (literally). Flat lays are a great way to show off products, whether you're a blogger or just want to share a nice photo on Instagram. But flat lays can sometimes feel a little flat (pun intended) if they're just a bunch of inanimate objects. That's why adding yourself into the shot can make it more interesting. Not to worry, introverts, you don't have to be in the photo — you can just feature a single hand holding a coffee cup or pen. Get creative with it! Just make sure the overall composition still looks good. After all, a flat lay is only as good as the sum of its parts.
The great thing about these board backdrops, by the way, is that you’re able to get messy with them, as you can see from my example photo above! I just wiped it clean when I was done shooting the photo.
Final Thoughts About Flat Lay Photos
As you can see, flat lay photography is a great way to show off products in an interesting and creative way. But it's not just about throwing a bunch of stuff down on a table and taking a picture. You need to think about telling a story. Once you’ve got that figured out, it’s just a matter of ‘practice makes perfect’ to nail the composition, the lighting, the background, and the props. By following these simple tips, you'll be well on your way to creating flat lay masterpieces of your own. So go out there, get creative, and have fun!
Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in commercial product photography and cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel.