Flat lays are taking over product photography and with good reason. They’re an incredible way to show off your favorite items, define brand aesthetic, and they’re a lot of fun to put together! In this post, we take the guesswork out of creating your own perfect shot with 7 flat lay tips for new (and experienced) photographers.
What Is Flat Lay Photography?
For those who are unfamiliar, flat lay photography—also known as knolling—is the art of arranging like products in an aesthetically pleasing way. Over the past few years, it has become an increasingly popular practice for both personal and public brands.
Flat Lay Photography Buying Guide | Flat Lay Tips
- Sony a6000 (or another beginner camera)
- Fujifilm XF 50mm f/2-f/11
- Koah Aphelion Professional 6 ft Tripod (must have a transverse center column)
- Softboxes (provide additional light)
- V-flat (reflects light to reduce shadow and evenly illuminate your shot)
Seven Easy Flat Lay Photography Tips
1. Establish A Focal Point And Theme
What is the theme of your flat lay? Are you photographing camera equipment, beauty supplies, books? Whatever you choose, make sure every item in the shot consists of complementary colors and makes sense in a group. For example:
- What you want: red roses, lipstick, red velvet cookie, pink purse
- What you don’t want: narwhal tusk, quiche, hot pink/fuzzy pens, roll of film
Adding multiple textures is also great for drawing a viewer into your shot. It keeps your visuals interesting and adds an additional dimension to your flat lay.
2. Choose An Appropriate Background
The good news is that most flat lays look great on a simple white or wooden table. However, if you branch out, be sure to choose a background that contrasts with the items included in your flat lay—the goal is to make their colors pop.
On the other end of the spectrum, don’t choose a surface with a distracting pattern. There’s no point in arranging the perfect assortment of items if you can’t see what they are.
Another important factor is whether or not your items will leave a residue. For example, let’s say you’re planning on using a yellow paper surface for a breakfast-food themed scene. If you put a fresh muffin on that paper, the butter on the bottom will leave a permanent mark.
This isn’t a big deal if you’re planning on editing out imperfections in Lightroom. However, if you’re interested in quickly taking and posting a photo it will cause some issues.
3. How To Arrange Your Items
Once you have somewhere to put your things, it’s time to arrange them. Some objects are more flat-lay friendly than others. For example, flower petals, drinks, and doughnuts will all remain perfectly flat and stationary during the arranging/shooting process.
For everything else, use double-sided tape, glue dots, museum wax, and rubber bands to keep things from rolling, flopping, and falling. Keep in mind you can also use cardboard to prop things up if you aren’t getting the angle you want.
This is perhaps the most important tip we will give you today: your first flat lay will not look perfect. Think of the flat-lay process like a puzzle. The photos you see on Instagram are a result of extensive arranging and rearranging. So, try not to get frustrated or upset if your scene doesn’t immediately look perfect (or looks off through your camera lens).
Types Of Flat Lays
This is perhaps the most traditional form of flat lay. The goal is to create perfect symmetry with a collection of like, non-symmetrical items. Most often, the items are arranged in a rectangle. However, they can exist in whatever shape you’d like (as long as it’s balanced).
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These meticulously arranged flat lays give the illusion of haphazard beauty—they’re the shots you take when you’re (seemingly) consumed with some other task. Chaos radiates from one specific focal point outward.
To use the above example, the plate acts as the focal point while the other odds and ends draw the eye out towards the edge of the image. Presumably, that aesthetically pleasing miscellany continues out indefinitely. In reality, it probably ends a few inches away.
We love a bag dump flat lay for its premise alone. The concept is that you simply threw your purse or bag on a table and a collection of perfectly coordinated items fell out. Not only are they tonally and thematically connected but also evenly spaced.
“Oh no, my meticulously curated possessions have fallen out onto this contrasting surface! Heavens, how embarrassing.”
This particular (gorgeous) layout is a favorite among beauty and lifestyle bloggers who regularly accumulate vibrant makeup samples.
Courtesy of Sharon Holland Photography
4. How Do I Set Up My Shot?
This is how your gear should be arranged starting with the gear closest to you and moving outward. There are certainly other solutions but this is a tried and true standby.
Directly in front of you is your flat lay with your carefully arranged items. On the left and right, there are two reflectors on an angle. In the back there is a large light source that is enhanced by the two reflectors flanking your flat lay.
Similarly, you can also replace those reflectors with additional light sources (if your budget allows). However, regardless of where your light is coming from, make sure that your setup is arranged so you’re not standing between your shot and your light source! Otherwise, your shadow will always end up in your photos.
5. Handheld vs Tripod Shooting
This is the best way to quickly get a lot of varied photos and experiment with different angles. To get that bird’s eye view, set up your flat lay on a low surface or be prepared to stand on a chair or ladder to get above your subject matter.
It’s also important to note that you want a fast shutter speed at around ISO 100-200—your shots will look blurry if your shutter speed is too long. We recommend you read our blog post about the exposure triangle for more information!
A tripod gives you significantly more control over your shots. Including them in a flat lay shoot makes it easier to make incremental changes in the moment (and even create gifs). They take up a little more room in a cramped shooting setup, but they’re certainly worth it.
6. Lighting Your Flat Lay
The goal of flat lay lighting isn’t to create a spotlight—it’s to create a consistent glow. However, the light you choose to illuminate your flat lay really depends on what style you’re trying to achieve.
Many photographers avoid shadows at all costs. Others incorporate them as an element in every photo. The decision is entirely up to you!
No Shadows Please
If the shadows in your flat lay are too dark (or your shadow keeps ending up in the shot) there are a few easy workarounds.
- Don’t block your light source (a simple tip that is often overlooked).
- If you’re exclusively using overhead lighting when shooting a flat lay, your shadow will always end up in the shot. Instead, use natural light when possible and make sure you’re not standing between the window and the surface you’re shooting.
- Use multiple light sources.
- Unless you live inside of a lightbulb, you will need several light sources to eliminate shadow. You’re going to want at least one additional source of continuous light like a softbox.
- Incorporate reflectors.
- A few light sources can go a long way with the help of reflectors and v-flats. Essentially, these tools help you extend your existing light onto parts of a shot that would otherwise be cast in darkness. To use them, arrange the reflective surface at an angled position opposite of your light to fill in the shadows.
What’s Wrong With Shadows? Shadows Are Fine.
Your job is a little easier if you don’t mind a few shadows in your shot. Just make sure that you’re using strong natural light and nothing in your setup is so dark that you can’t determine what it is. In fact, we would recommend investing in a few reflectors or v-flats just in case.
It’s also worth noting that if you only have overhead lighting and can’t rely on natural light, you will still need a softbox. Otherwise, your shadow will be in every photo.
How Do I Eliminate Glare?
Glare is a common and unfortunate problem when shooting a flat lay. If you run into this issue, try moving your light source back away from your shooting area or adjusting where the lights are placed around your items.
7. What Lens Should I Use?
Last on our list of flat lay tips is how to choose the correct lens. This is arguably more important than having “the best” camera. Luckily, there are very few requirements for the ideal flat lay lens and most kit lenses (the one that comes with your camera) should get the job done.
There are two main elements to keep in mind: f-stop and focal length.
Your f-stop should be anywhere from f/4-f/11. That should be a wide enough depth of field that all of your objects, regardless of their height, will be in focus.
In terms of focal length, we recommend choosing something around a 50mm lens because it’s close to what we perceive through the human eye. Anything significantly lower (14mm-35mm) will show too much of your shooting surface. On the other end of the spectrum, a longer focal length (65mm+) will give you a zoomed-in effect that makes it difficult to take in the whole flat lay.
A Note About “Lens Creeping”
“Lens creep” is a phenomenon that occurs when you shoot straight down towards the ground with a zoom lens—gravity pulls lens down and changes the angle of view. As you might imagine, this is a common issue when shooting flat lays.
To prevent this from happening, use a thick rubber band or lens band to hold the elements in place.