Flat Lay Photography: The Ultimate Guide (+ Tips)

by John Stapel

flat-lay-photography

What is flat lay photography, and how can you capture stunning flat lay photos of your very own?

In recent years, flat lay photography has exploded in popularity. And when done well, flat lay shots get tons of attention on social media.

But beginners often struggle to capture beautiful flat lays. There’s so much to consider, from subject choice and compositional arrangements to lighting and colors, that many photographers give up without really giving the genre a chance.

That’s where this article should help you out. I discuss all of the basics, and I also include plenty of flat lay examples so you can see exactly what my advice can do for your photos.

Let’s dive right in.

What is flat lay photography?

Flay lay photography refers to photos where subjects are arranged on a flat surface and photographed from above. The flat surface and the camera sensor are perfectly parallel; therefore, all objects are captured using a top-down, or bird’s-eye, view.

Here’s a flat lay example:

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But while flat lay does involve arranging subjects on a flat surface, this does not mean your image should look flat. Some flat lay photos look flat, of course, but others have lots of depth, and I later discuss how to achieve interesting flat lay shots while still maintaining plenty of three-dimensionality.

Note that flat lay images must be captured from above the flat surface, but this can be at any distance. Yes, most flat lay photography is shot from a few feet above a table arrangement, but this isn’t a requirement. If you have a drone camera, for instance, you can shoot landscapes and mansions in a flat lay fashion!

Flat lay photography subjects: What can you shoot?

Because flat lay photography is a broad genre, you can shoot just about anything – assuming you can arrange it (or find it arranged) on a flat surface.

Here are a few potential subjects to consider:

People

Flat lay portrait photography features people lying in the grass or in the bed, generally taken with wide-angle lenses from above.

(Pro tip: When doing flat lay portraits, be sure to watch your shadow carefully and ensure it doesn’t end up in the final photo.)

Newborns are easier to photograph from the necessary angle because they’re small. You can capture their entire bodies plus a background from a short distance; in fact, you can easily do newborn flat lay photography with a 50mm lens:

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But you can capture kids and adults in flat lay poses, too, assuming they’re willing to lie down on the ground.

Objects

You can photograph just about any object in the flat lay style; these images are generally referred to as flat lay still lifes .

This is probably the simplest way to get started with flat lay photography: just find some objects that interest you, arrange them on a bit of colored paper or fabric, then shoot from above.

The photo below required very little work, and I photographed in a bright and evenly lit space for a nice result:

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Food

Flat lay food photography is popular, it’s easy to do, and it looks amazing. You’ve probably seen plenty of flat lay food examples (they’re everywhere on Instagram!).

A plate of food is small enough to snap a quick photo, and because we naturally arrange our food on flat surfaces – the table – food flat lays require minimal work.

In fact, if you photograph food while dining out in a restaurant, you can just point your camera and shoot, as the food will generally be well presented on the plate. That’s how I captured the three photos displayed below. They were shot in a restaurant with zero styling on my part:

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Flowers

Flowers are packed with texture and color, and they offer limitless styling possibilities. They look great no matter what you do to them, so as long as you find a nice flat lay background and you spend a bit of time thinking about your arrangement, you’re bound to come away with good results.

You can cut flowers from your garden, or you can buy some at your local grocery store. Then put them on the floor, do some beautiful arranging, grab a wide-angle lens, and take some shots!

I shot this next photo on the floor of a hotel room using a 24-70mm lens (at around 35mm):

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Jewelry

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My final favorite flat lay subject is jewelry, and while it’s a bit more unconventional, jewelry flat lays are a great way to have fun on a rainy day.

I love juxtaposing jewels and metallic textures with soft fabrics, as the layering of textures creates tons of interest.

If you go the jewelry route, pay careful attention to your lighting. You don’t want to get blown-out highlights from a too-harsh light above a shiny ring, necklace, or clasp. If you’re using artificial light, add a softbox to your flash to soften the effect. And if you’re using natural light, be sure to shoot when the sky is cloudy or when the light isn’t hitting the jewelry directly.

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Flat lay photography tips

In this section, I share a handful of practical tips to get you improving your flat lay photography, starting with:

1. Don’t be afraid to use your smartphone

Yes, professional flat lay photographers tend to work with full-frame DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but did you know that you can capture images of comparable quality using just a smartphone?

It’s true. Assuming your lighting is good, then you can get stunning flat lays simply by holding your phone above your subject and shooting.

Smartphone flat lay photography is insanely convenient, too. If you’re out at a restaurant and you love the look of the food, just pull out your phone, and – snap! – you’ve got the shot.

Note that you will struggle to take beautiful smartphone flat lays in low light, however. Always pay careful attention to the light, and do what you can to ensure your subjects are illuminated by beautiful artificial or natural lighting.

Speaking of which:

2. Choose your lighting carefully

Once you’ve chosen your flat lay camera, you must think about the light:

  • How much light is present
  • How soft or hard it is
  • The direction it hits the subject

First and foremost, make sure you have enough light to shoot. I don’t recommend shooting flat lays at night; instead, work in the day when you have plenty of ambient lighting to brighten up your subjects.

(The exception, of course, is if you’re a studio photographer. You can capture beautiful flat lays whenever you want with the right artificial lighting.)

Next, ask yourself:

What quality of light am I after?

Hard light will produce intense shadows, which are great for a dramatic, edgier look. Soft light will produce soft, even lighting with limited shadows.

Neither type of light is better than the other, and there’s a place for both hard and soft light, but if you’re not sure which direction to consider, go with soft lighting. It’s flattering, it looks amazing, and it’s commonly used by professionals.

To get soft light, by the way, you’ll want to either shoot on cloudy days or add a diffuser over your artifical lights.

Finally, you should think about the direction of the light. Sidelight is a great way to add three-dimensionality and texture, while backlight produces extra drama.

For the baby photo below, the room was bright and airy. The main light came from a huge window on the left, which offered beautiful diffused lighting. Thanks to the diffusion, the shadows are subtle.

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These images, on the other hand, were taken with a slightly harder light source, hence the darker shadows:

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3. For the best flat lay compositions, layer your items

Beginners often struggle when attempting to arrange flat lay elements, but in my experience, arrangement is easier than you think – you just need to get started, move around your subjects, and see how things look.

Over time, however, I do recommend you begin to layer your subjects. Make sure that some overlap over others, like this:

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Notice the multiple layers? I’ve added the dark blue background as the bottom layer, the fairy lights and decorations as the second layer, the food as the third layer, and finally, hands as the fourth and top layer.

And the result is a flat lay photo with lots of movement – the overlaps guide the eye around the frame – and lots of depth, as the overlap creates an illusion of three-dimensionality.

By the way, if you only have a few items to work with but you really want to create layers, you can always shoot at a wide aperture to create a very shallow depth of field effect:

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For the photo above, I didn’t have much in the way of layers. But by using a wide aperture, I was able to blur out part of the rose, which became an additional layer that I incorporated into my composition.

4. Use the composition basics

Flat lay composition starts with layers – but what if you want to create more sophisticated results? What then?

Well, composition in flat lay photography is pretty much identical to composition in standard photography, which means that you can rely on helpful compositional guidelines, like symmetry, the rule of thirds, and the rule of odds to get pleasing images.

For instance, you can identify the focal point of your arrangement, then position it along a rule of thirds gridline for a well-balanced effect.

Or you can take your focal point and place it smack-dab in the middle of your shot for an in-your-face, symmetrical look.

Here is a rule-of-thirds style image, followed by a symmetrical photo:

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At the end of the day, well-executed compositions will hugely elevate your photos, so it pays to spend time painstakingly arranging your elements before taking a single shot. Make sense?

One final note: It’s easier to play around with composition when you have a variety of objects to use. Sometimes, adding in additional items can be helpful!

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5. Don’t forget about contrast

Flat lay beginners often get hung up on lighting and composition…

…but the difference between a mediocre flat lay and a great flat lay is often due to careful use of contrast.

Specifically, for the best results, you need to create plenty of pop between main subjects, as well as between main subjects and the background.

And you can do that by selecting subjects and backgrounds with distinctive colors, tones, and textures.

For instance, light subjects work well against dark backgrounds:

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And smooth, soft subjects work well against rough backgrounds:

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Notice how, in the images above, I made sure to avoid monotone color schemes; instead, I combined contrasting colors, such as blue and pink or red and green.

Because the more contrast you can add, the better!

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Flat lay photography: final words

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Flat lay photography is lots of fun, plus it’s a wildly creative genre of photography.

So don’t dawdle. Grab your camera, find some subjects, creative a flat lay photography setup, and start taking some shots.

Now over to you:

What do you plan to shoot in your flat lay photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Flat Lay Photography: The Ultimate Guide (+ Tips)