Flat lay photography: a how-to guide

6 min read
Flat lay image of a bowl of macaroons on a black background

You've probably seen flat-lay photography all over your social media feeds. The concept of flat lay photography was first popularized by brands like Apple and Gap to display items in a neat, overhead manner.

It may sound simple, but the devil is in the details when it comes to flat-lay photography. The flat-lay photography technique is commonly used for food and product advertising, so maximizing your flat-lay photography skills will help you gain more followers on social media. Here are a few tips to help you maximize your next shoot.

Flat lay image of a diary along with some rocks, conch shell and other items on a pink background

Step 1: Get inspired

A flat lay tells a visual story, so choose a theme, and place a few "star" items surrounded by "supporting cast" items. Keep things simple - less is often more, opt for complementary, harmonious colors.

You can use the rule of thirds to guide you whether you choose a square, landscape, or portrait format - imagine noughts and crosses grid overlaying the image and position the most important elements roughly where the gridlines cross.

Look up #flatlay on Instagram or Pinterest if you want some inspiration.

Step 2: The shot list

Like many commercial shoots, a good flat lay session begins with a detailed shot list. Your photography shoot will be guided by this list, which includes lighting schemes, compositions, and props. Create a mood board with flat-lay photos you've pulled from magazines, social media, or your favorite brands to brainstorm ideas for your shot list.

You may also want to create a series of sketches to provide a visual reference point besides writing down the specific shots you want (close-ups, wide shots, hand-in-frame, etc).

Flat lay image of jute slippers, hat and scarf on white background Flat lay image of pumpkin soup in a silver bowl, fresh tomatoes and parsley on a white marble table

Step 3: Prop selection

Props should be used in such a way that they help to tell the "user story" - for example, if you are shooting a tea concept, you may want to include reading glasses and a book along with the ingredients.

If you're looking for props, take a look around your house. Old, household items can make fantastic props and give your image a richer look. You can also scour flea markets, thrift stores, and local food markets for high-quality produce.

It is equally important that your props support your "star item" and don't distract the viewer. Less is often more in this regard.

Flat lay image of Nike running shoes, shades and a ladies purse with some green leaves

Step 4: Backgrounds

For a clean background, a white paper roll is always a good choice. You can also use vinyl, canvas, glass, fabric, etc. (just watch out for glare, reflections, creases, or wrinkles). Alternatively, you can choose a multi-color background (works well for cosmetics, for example). In certain cases, you may opt for more rustic backgrounds like painted canvas or wood.

A good rule of thumb is to take the same photo on multiple different backgrounds to see how they turn up. White background with ample negative space is often a good balance for your main product.

Flat lay image of Chanel cosmetics along with a Macbook on white background Flat lay image of a Tiffany and Co. box along with shades and a phone cover

Step 5: Include a person (or hands or feet, more specifically)

A lot of our favorite flat-lay photos include people (or their hands or feet) to make them look more "candid". Consider enlisting a friend/model to create a look that has a sense of movement and action. It will add dynamism to your photo that can't be achieved simply by adding products.

Flat lay image of fresh chocolate and strawberry jelly donuts on a white plate

Step 6: Lighting

Lighting is what sets the mood for your shoot. When it comes to flat lays, you will usually want that bright, clean look. The best way to start is with continuous light, such as daylight or LEDs, since you can control your settings in real-time.

Pro-tip: Avoid shooting in direct sunlight to prevent harsh shadows.

Make sure you use some diffusers (sheer white curtains, softbox, photo umbrella, etc.) regardless of your light source (natural or artificial). Getting broad, shadow-free lighting is essential for flat lays. If unwanted shadows still appear, try bouncing light back into the frame with a reflector.

In some cases, shadows can be used to create depth and contrast - it comes down to the mood you are trying to establish.

Step 7: Shoot from above

Utilize a ladder or a step stool to create vertical distance between the camera and the subject. As well as helping you to fit everything in the shot, it will also provide a "true" flat perspective for your photo.

Set up your props and take a few test shots to make sure everything is positioned correctly.

Step 8: Camera set-up

A tripod or, even better, a C-stand will ensure that you are shooting directly overhead when shooting flat lays. When you stabilize your camera using a tripod or C-stand, you can use a slower shutter speed and still keep everything crisp.

Use a narrower aperture like f/16 to ensure your entire composition is in focus. Use a longer shutter speed like 1 second to compensate for the narrow aperture. In the meantime, feel free to experiment with it as long as your subject is clearly in focus. By opening the aperture a bit, you might be able to create some natural bokeh - it all depends on your design aesthetic.

You should keep your ISO as low as possible to reduce noise. For flat lays, a classic 50mm lens provides the perfect balance between being able to capture a relatively wide scene (so you can crop) without introducing too much distortion. If you need a wider frame, go for a 35mm.

Flat lay image of fresh dumplings with chopsticks on a brown wooden bowl

Step 9: Composition

“Composition” might be listed as our final step, but it’s part of all the preceding steps – from creating the shot list to the final set-up. When compositing, remember that negative space is as essential as anything else. Leaving some breathing space between your props allows the viewer’s eye to squarely focus on your product.

To compose your frame, start with your subject and just a couple of props, making adjustments along the way. If your props don’t match up, don’t worry – you can always replace them with something else.

Pro-tip: Use the gridline setting on your camera to straighten your lines and position your props and subject and key intersection points in the frame (for example, following the rule of thirds or golden ratio).

Use your initial sketches as a reference, but feel free to think creatively at the moment as well. Move your props around until they capture light the way you want.

You can use your initial sketches as a reference, but feel free to think creatively at the moment. Change and move your props around until you get the setup you need.

Pro-tip: Be diverse. Try multiple design compositions and lighting setups throughout your shoot. You never know what will click well
Flat lay image of a mechanical pen and pencil set on white background Another flat lay image of a mechanical pen and pencil set on white background

Additional tips for flat-lay photography

Be meticulous

This is the most critical advice we can give you. Be detail-oriented, investigate each object and how it lies on the table. Most crucially – check the camera angle to ensure that it is directly above your subject and pointed directly downwards.

Take unwanted elements out

Make sure that everything in the frame has a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, take it out!

There’s nothing worse than giving the viewer another element to think about, taking attention away from your primary subject. Everything in the frame should be relevant to telling the right story.

Flat lay image of a small cake on a yellow plate served on bed

Use negative space

Filling the frame with props is something easy to be enticed with – and, it does look great at times. However, we suggest not making the image too busy. The more props you have, the harder it is to make your subject pop out and balance the image.

Flat lay image of berries, rhubarb and grapefruits on one side, emphasizing negative space

Leave blank areas for graphics

A great feature of flat lays is their potential for different uses. A great way to take advantage of this is to leave some space blank for graphics and/ or text. This could be used for a company logo surrounded by its product or some creative text placement that ties in with the image.

Flat lay image of a macbook connected to a wall charger, lying on a wooden desk

Flat lay photography is a fun way to capture product images – it provides a unique top-down perspective. However, what we’ve realized is that they are harder to compose than they look. The time you take in planning and constructing the shoot with the tips provided above will pay off in the results you get.

Do you want to be a product photographer? Join our growing photographer community on Pyx Photography and get started.

More photography-related articles? Check out the Pyx Photography blog.