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Photo Contest Insider Blog

The Art of Flat Lay Photography

October 19, 2018

If you’re aiming to take impressive pictures, flat lay photography is an important skill to master. You’ll often see flat lay photos in product advertising and on social media, but there are even spcific flat lay photography competitions. By following these photography tips, you can learn how to create eye-catching flat lay photos.

The Art of Flat Lay Photography: 7 Tips to Get Started

  1. Determine the Story You Want to Tell
  2. Pick a Color Palette
  3. Select Your Photo Props and Background
  4. Use the Right Lighting
  5. Experiment with Layouts
  6. Edit Your Photographs
  7. Add Text or Graphics to Enhance Your Story


Are you working to build your professional presence and get your portfolio found online? Do you want to use photography to promote a business? Or are you interested in taking better photos for Instagram?

Whatever your goal, learning how to do flat lay photography can take your skills to the next level. The good news about flat photography is that you can get started even if you don’t have an expensive camera. You can use quality camera phones to learn these seven basic techniques.

Of course, you can always use a high-quality camera or invest in one as your build experience. Just don’t let the lack of expensive flat lay photography equipment hold you back from taking that first step.



1. Determine the Story You Want to Tell


The best flat lay photographs do more than show off a collection of items. Instead, they portray a grouping of items that tell a story or convey a theme.

What message do you want your story to convey? Are you recapping a recent vacation? Documenting your wardrobe for the upcoming season? Conveying a philosophical idea? Using food photography to market a restaurant or catering business? Will the photos be used in print or online?

Each of those stories is different. The feeling and tone of flat lay photographs for each should be different as well. Always start with a vision of what you want your photograph to convey. This will drive the selection of your colors, props, backgrounds, and layouts.


2. Pick a Color Palette


Have you found yourself comparing flat lay photographs on Instagram? Do you find that some photos work, but others don’t? Chances are, the flat lay images you perceive as the best Instagram photos have a unifying color theme.

If you want to convey a specific mood, try focusing on different tones of a single color. For example, a mix of blue tones can convey a feeling of calm. By contrast, a warm color like orange or red portrays excitement and energy. Sometimes, you may need to use a mix of complementary colors for your flat lay photography. Sticking to two or three colors yields the best results.



3. Select the Right Props and Background


You are now ready to gather the props for your flat lay photograph. When taking a flat lay photo, it’s always better to have more props on hand than you think you’ll need. You are likely to try out several layouts and having a wide selection of props makes this easier.

Be sure to collect props that are different sizes and textures. Consider contrasting styles and depth of field as well. Think about mixing old and new items, or natural and mechanical items. These approaches can boost the visual appeal of your flat lay photography.

Often, you may have a “hero” item which is the intended focus of your image. This may be the largest item. Or it may be the most colorful or feature an attention-grabbing texture. While it may not be in the center of your image, you will be designing your photo around your hero item.

After you’ve gathered your props, focus on the background for your photography. A white background is always a failsafe option for flat lay images. You can buy a white large roll of paper for flat lay photography and use it again and again. If you prefer something other than white, neutrals are a good bet. A wood desk, woven mat, or concrete can add a touch of texture without distracting from your props. You can also use flat rocks or earth as backgrounds for a photo with a natural theme.

Want an elegant look? Try marble. Instead of investing in a marble slab, buy marble-look adhesive paper. Affix it to a flat board for a perfect flat lay photography background.

Before you start taking photos, organize your props and/or backgrounds for easy access. You may want to lay them all out in one place so that you can see them. This will help you visualize potential layouts and have every item you need within reach.



4. Use the Right Lighting


Good lighting is key to taking good photos, and flat lay photos are no exception. You want lighting for flat lay photography that is bright enough to illuminate your props and remove shadows, but not so bright that it washes out lighter colors.  If you’re new to taking flat lays, using natural light is the best choice.

When indoors, set up your photography space near a big window. You may want to place a table right under the window to get the most window light. Always face the window–or position yourself beside it. This will ensure that you don’t cast unwanted shadows over your props.

Going outside to photograph in natural light is another option. Scheduling your shoot for the morning, before the brightest part of the day, can ensure you have the soft light you need. You may also find that a cloudy or overcast day works well for your flat lay photography.

Never shoot flat lay photographs in the dark. Avoid the temptation to use a standard home lamp as a light source. This artificial lighting can create harsh, orange tones. Remember that you can control some lighting effects during photo editing, if necessary.

If you cannot avoid taking your flat lay photos in dark spaces, invest in some quality lighting. Professional photographers often have high-end lighting rigs, but these can be quite costly. LED continuous lights or flashes can be valuable, but getting the right lighting effects only comes with practice.


5. Experiment with Layouts


As you can see, there are several key factors in flat lay photography setup. The prep work will help you create pretty photos with good flat composition that tell a compelling story.

Since you’ll likely be shooting from above, you may want to use a step ladder as you hold the camera. This will help ensure that you get everything in your shot and that your photo truly looks flat. Depending on your available work tools, using a boom arm with a tripod head may also work.

Always plan for several layouts and shots. You never know what layout will create good composition and the most visual appeal until you’ve seen it. Mix in some different props. Try some images where you fit in every prop–and others where you cut edges off some items. It’s always a good idea to take more photos than you think you’ll need.

When styling your layout, remember to focus on your hero item, if you have one. You may want to place your hero item in your composition first. Then you can position other props around it. Most often, you want to leave some space between objects. Too many objects too close together can confuse the eye and distract viewers. Sometimes you may want to layer or overlap items but take care not to create too much complexity.

While having a single hero item as the focus to unite disparate elements is common, you can also try the opposite. Use a blank space as the primary element to anchor your image. This technique is very helpful if you plan to add text or graphics during post-production. For example, if you are creating a social media ad, consider space for your logo and/or ad copy first. Then position other props around this space.

You’ll also want to decide whether you want to use straight lines or curves in your composition. The vibe of each approach is very different and changes the way your visual content is perceived. With straight lines, you can create a more structured and business-like feeling. Curves are more fluid. A good way to create a balanced-feel to a curved composition is to place items along an “S” curve. You can even mark an “S” shape on your background and place items along it to guide your layout.



6. Edit Your Photograph


After taking your flat lays, you will likely want to enhance them. You can choose from an array of editing tools–from phone apps to high-quality software. One of the simplest ways to enhance the look of your photos is to apply a pre-set filter. You’re likely familiar with filters if you’ve viewed any Instagram photography.  Each filter creates different effects–and some are best with videos instead of photographs. For example, some desaturate images to create a vintage feel, while others make colors pop. The right filter can make the mood and story of your image shine through.

Another simple technique is using basic image correction built-into your app or software. These features can adjust key photo elements like clarity, color, and exposure with just one click. Every photo editing tool also lets you make your own adjustments. You can crop, alter the color saturation, adjust contrast or sharpness, or make other changes.

If you’re new to using photo editing software, taking a tutorial can help you gain the basic skills you need. Many are available for free online.



7. Add Text or Graphics to Enhance Your Story


Adding text or graphics isn’t necessary—but it can be the best way to get the message of your photo across. This is especially helpful if your image is going to be a promotion or advertisement on social media. You can use your favorite photo editing app or software for this step as well.

When adding text, you should use a font that matches with the feeling and message of your image. You can find fonts with clean, minimal lines or ones that are more vibrant and energetic. Some convey elegance, while others have a vintage vibe. Many options are available. Keep any text brief and direct. Four or five words can be enough to get your point across.

If using visuals, keep them simple. Make sure they complement your props instead of competing with them. You may want to limit graphics to a subtle icon or two– or just use a logo. When adding textual or graphical elements, stick to your color palette. Keep these elements in line with the overall look of your photo for good composition and a winning combination.



You Can Create Amazing Flat Lay Photography


Whether you’re an experienced or novice photographer, you can take beautiful flat lay photographs. All you need to do is follow seven key steps to master this popular photography style.

Although flat lay photographs can look casual or candid, they require planning and preparation. Start with your message, and then select a color scheme that helps convey it. Gather a wide selection of props including your potential hero item. Choose a simple background that helps present your story.

Using the right flat lay photography lighting is critically important. Natural light works well—especially for those who are new to flat lay photography. More advanced photographers and professionals can invest in high-quality lighting equipment or rigs.

With these preparatory steps behind you, you are ready to take your flat lay photographs. Explore different layout options and let your imagination take the lead. The results may surprise you. After shooting your photos, you can move into post-production. Use filters and adjustments to enhance your images. Then you can add any text or graphics to provide more context to your image.  When you’re ready to showcase your work refer to our online photo printing guide for all the ins and outs of printing with the top 19 photo print services.

With some practice, you can perfect your flat lay photography technique. After learning photography basics, you can find free online photography courses and continue to hone your skills. You can create stunning images that attract followers and likes on your favorite social channels. In no time, your reputation as a talented and artistic photographer will grow– both locally and online.


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