There are hundreds of ways to take a photo, no matter what your subject matter. But when it comes to still life photography, particularly for online shops and lifestyle brands, flat lay pictures are one of the internet’s biggest trends.

In this tutorial, we’ll teach you what flat lay photography is, how you can use it for products and clothing shoots, the best lighting to use, and how to get the perfect flat lay photography setup.

What Is Flat Lay Photography?

You’ve no doubt seen a flat lay image somewhere before, especially if you’re an avid social media user. These types of pictures are all over Instagram and Pinterest, used by your favorite influencers and brands to highlight different objects in their day-to-day.

Flat lay photography is all about the bird’s eye view, a top-down look at whatever you’re trying to capture.

But what actually is flat lay photography? It’s a top-down look at whatever you want to capture, usually featuring objects laid out on a flat surface with the photo taken directly from above. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. 

Take influencers. They’ll typically work with flat lay product photography for a brand that’s sponsoring them. They’ll usually center the shot around the item they’re promoting so that the viewer’s attention is pulled to the right section of the photo. They’ll then use similar objects to surround the main one to frame it and add extra aesthetic interest.

No two flat lays will be the same, and there’s plenty of room to let your creativity shine. For some, organizing objects in a symmetrical or parallel manner helps to create a sense of order. For others, the art of the flat lay is in the chaos that the viewer is seeing from above. 

Flat lay photography allows you to be as minimalist or experimental as you’d like, with some photographers making use of white space so that graphic designers can add text or illustrations to the image later on.

What Are Flat Lays Used For?

While this style of photography can be used anywhere, it’s particularly popular with e-commerce sites and lifestyle brands, among social media influencers, and in digital advertising. Flat lay clothing photography has become popular with fashion magazines, using this style to create eye-catching imagery without the need for a human model. Brands like Puma, Nike, Gucci, Dior, and H&M have used flat lays in their product styling across marketing and advertising campaigns. 

objects laid out
Objects like clothing or beauty products are often used in flat lay photography to create images that viewers are more likely to engage with when posted on social media.

Clothing and accessories like handbags, shoes, and jewelry are perfect for using in flat lays, as they can be styled in numerous different ways. Beauty products are also commonly used, both in their original packaging and with props like make-up bags or gift boxes. Food and stationery are also often shot by lifestyle brands and influencers, with various arrangements depicting a certain mood or feeling in the picture. 

Combining objects that wouldn’t ordinarily go together can have some incredible results! You can even create new shapes or recognizable graphics like logos or maps through strategic arranging of the items. Just about anything can be used to create beautiful flat lay photographs, so it really comes down to what your goals are and what story you’re trying to tell.

Create Standout Instagram Pictures!

Design For Instagram: Creating the Perfect Flat Lay Photograph

How to Take Good Flat Lay Pictures Yourself

Step 1: Use Plenty of Light

flat lay
When trying to work out the best flat lay photography lighting, move objects around in front of your window or light source until you’re happy with the balance of shadows and brightness.

When you’re deciding on your flat lay photography lighting, your default should always be natural—think big open windows or even head outside if you can. Keep an eye on your angles as you’re taking the pictures as you don’t want the objects (or your own body!) to be casting shadows.

If you’re having trouble keeping shadows away, try hanging a sheer curtain in front of a window to block some of the light, or use white walls and surfaces to reflect the natural rays while keeping the objects out of direct sunlight.

Step 2: Choose the Right Background

You can use anything for your photo background. Make your own backdrops with craft supplies, buy pre-made boards online, or use everyday objects in your home like tables and countertops.

Just like the objects in the photo, the background that you lay everything on can make or break your final picture. Think about the ideal composition that creates the mood you’re looking for as part of your initial flat lay photography setup and find a flat space that works best.

Wooden surfaces like desks, dining room tables, or kitchen countertops can give your flat lay photos a rustic and earthy finish, adding texture that can perfectly contrast the products you’re focusing on. Wrinkled bed sheets or dish towels also make great backgrounds, creating a neutral frame that works with your products.

Step 3: Play With Height

setting up
You can use anything for your photo background. Make your own backdrops with craft supplies, buy pre-made boards online, or use everyday objects in your home like tables and countertops.

A flat lay may be defined as a picture taken from above, but how far above is completely up to you! We’re not advocating for a mile-high drone shot, but taking your pictures from a range of heights can produce different and interesting results.

To get a slightly wider perspective, try using a ladder or a wide-angle camera lens to capture a broader frame in your shot. Alternatively, using a tripod for closer images lets you easily adjust your height without needing to continually move around or worry that you won’t get the perfect flat angle.

Step 4: Remember Your Math Lessons

coffee flowers and donut
Skillshare instructor Valeriia Cherpak demonstrates how to use the rule of thirds to create a well-balanced flat lay photo.

Don’t worry, we won’t make you do any calculations. But when you’re working with this type of photography, particularly flat lay product photography, think about how you can create balance and geometry in your image. 

Right angles, circles and curves, or any kind of definable shape will help your viewer see the image in a clean and less-cluttered way. This is often a good place to start when styling for flat lay clothing photography to add more interest.

If you have experience with other forms of photography or art, you might be familiar with the rule of thirds, centering, and lead lines. All of these concepts are excellent to use in your flat lays to figure out what works well for your images and what lacks balance.

Step 5: Add a Model

taking the photo
Skillshare instructor Valeriia Cherpak demonstrates how to use the rule of thirds to create a well-balanced flat lay photo.

One of the most popular additions to any Instagram flat lay is the hands of the photographer or a model. This is especially popular when using items like coffee cups or mugs and in food flat lay photography.

Not sure how to pose? Remember that natural behavior is the most enticing to the viewer as it feels comfortable and familiar. Have your hands pull a napkin across the background and capture the shot halfway through to create the feel of movement. Use your hands to crack an egg into a bowl for a recipe flat lay, or hold a small shovel while potting a plant. Use your hands as an extra object in your flat lays to bring warmth alongside the products you’re focusing on.

It can be tricky to achieve this look when you’re shooting by yourself, so try working with a remote shutter release—if you have an iPhone and an Apple Watch, you can even use the watch to trigger your phone camera. If you have both hands in the shot, this is where a tripod and timer can come in…handy.

Step 6: Create Contrast With Color

pink lay
Even minimalist flat lays can feature contrasting colors to add vibrancy and interest to a photo, as Skillshare instructor Jennifer Corbett shows with her carefully styled designs.

Where texture can add depth and layers to your images, color can really make the different elements pop. But that doesn’t mean you always have to go for something bold and bright. Even neutral tones and muted palettes can bring something special to your final photo.

You can use pretty much anything to create contrasting colors. A dark background with light and airy objects can produce beautiful monochrome designs. Ripe citrus fruits thrown among an array of crisp white crockery immediately brings to mind summer days full of joy and laughter. Playing with color is one of the most enjoyable aspects of making art, so get creative with how and where you use it in your flat lay photography.

Now that you know some of the basic steps, it’s time to start working on your own flat lays!

Let the Light in to Brighten Up Your Flat Lay Photos!

Textured Toast: Dramatic Side-Lit Photography

Written by:

Holly Landis