Tonje Lilleås

Flat lay photography for beginners – 7 tips to get you started

You’ve probably seen loads of flat lay images in social media. And maybe you’ve wondered about trying it out yourself? Well it’s been freezing cold this weekend, so I’ve enjoyed shooting flat lays of things I’ve inherited from my grandparents. Hence I give you; flat lay photography for beginners!

Would you rather stay outside to shoot? Check out my beginners guide to winter photography!

In this post you will get to know more about the following tips for getting started with flat lay photography as a beginner:
  1. You need a hero
  2. Think about a theme/mood
  3. Composition is everything
  4. Manage the light
  5. The devil is in the details
  6. Add a human touch
  7. Post processing that enhances your flat lay

What is flat lay photography?

A flat lay image isn’t anything complicated. It’s just an image of object arranged on a flat surface, captured from directly above. A birds view of a scene if you will.There’s no other rules as to what counts as a flat lay image.

Why use flat lay photography?

Flat lay photography offers a lot of room for creativity. It also is a great way to showcase products. In social media flat lays have been very popular for years. And you might think that the era of the flat lay is soon to be over. However because your creativity is the only limit as to what you can create with a flat lay, I don’t think it’s true.

Here’s a list of a few photo projects where a flat lay might be the direction to choose:

  • You want to show people what gear you use to perform your hobby
  • You’re showing how much room there is in your new tote bag or backpack
  • You want to share a recipe and need a fun way to show off the ingredients
  • You want to highlight a certain product or memorabilia in a way that communicates a mood that suits it
  • You’re sharing a packing list for a family outdoor adventure and need a banger image to illustrate it

Now let’s move on to the 7 tips to get you started with flat lay photography as a beginner.

Flat lay photography for beginners – 7 tips to get you going

1. You need a hero

First of all it’s really helpful to start planning a flat lay around your hero object. This might be the product you’re showcasing, the main ingredient in your recipe or the bag that you pack all your stuff into.

It’s important not to mistake having a hero object for having only one object to focus on. If you’re making a flat lay of 50 tomatoes, then the tomato is your hero object. Even if there is 50 of them.

2. Think about a theme/mood

You’r hero object will probably help you think about a theme for the shoot. Now stick to it! Everything from the surface, to the objects you include and the way you light your scene should be in line with the theme/mood you’ve chosen.

This might seem a bit boring, won’t everything look the same if everyone follows this rule? First of all; I don’t think so. And secondly this is 7 tips for beginners, right? Start with the basics to get you going, and then you can experiment.

Also think about this situation; you’re shooting a flatly to showcase a pizza recipe. You put in all the good stuff; tomatoes, herbs, mozzarella, flour and a pizza cutter. All placed thoughtfully on a butchers block or pizza stone. And then you throw in a camera because it’s new and looks so dang cool. Well, if you pull off that image, you shouldn’t be reading this post. You should be writing a post on how to make advanced flat lays work.

3. Composition is everything

Let the hero object be the hook

Composition in flat lays comes down to arranging the objects you are photographing. What you want to think about is to make sure your viewer move through the scene you have created and is hooked by your hero object. By this I mean that the hero object naturally draws more attention than the other objects. That your viewer keeps coming back to the hero object as they move through the scene you’ve created.

I often find that placing my hero object around the points of interest according to the rule of thirds is a nice way to start a composition.

Leave something to the viewers imagination

You can arrange your image in a strict manner, but it’s almost always better to avoid a lot of negative space around the border of your frame. I prefer making arrangements so that the objects kind of flow out of or peak in from the edges of the frame. Let me illustrate with two different flat lays of a nutcracker.

By letting some of the scene be hid outside the frame that you choose to show to the viewer, you create interest and intrigue.

Making a frame

Sometimes you want a nice frame for a title or a headline image. In this case you can try to arrange your objects as a frame for what will become your hero object; the title or logo. Making a frame doesn’t mean that you can only place objects around the edges of the frame. However if you do choose to place something in the middle, make sure it’s something that works well as a background for text or a logo to be placed on.

Making leading lines

To lead the eyes of the viewer where you want them, try using leading lines the same way you do in any kind of photography. Straight lines, grids, S-curves or a spiral; what you choose all depends on your objects and the theme/mood that you’r trying to create.

4. Manage the light

Equally important as how you compose your scene is how you light it. Now for most flat lay photography creating an even light that kind of flows through the scene works really well. However if you manage the light, you can really highlight your hero object and create more debt and interest in the scene.

As a beginner you may not have any studio light available. That’s perfectly ok! You can still manage the natural light available to you. I’m going to suggest two flat lay setups for you down below, one of them using only natural light and the other using one studio light. But for now let’s talk about how you can manage the light no matter the light source.

Dark surfaces subtract light

You can draw light from parts of your scene by placing a dark surface close to it. I usually use some black foam core boards that I’ve got, but any darker surface will more or less help draw light out of a scene. This can be useful to create more drama or avoid highlighting objects that aren’t your hero object.

Light surfaces reflect light

Just like you can draw light from parts of a scene, you can add light by letting a light surface reflect light upon it. I usually use a piece of white foam core, but I also have used white tiles or aluminum foil for instance. Use whatever is available to you. Make sure you reflect light upon the places that you want to emphasize in your frame. The human eye is naturally drawn to the lighter parts of an image. And make sure you don’t create highlights that you blow out when reflecting more light into a scene; adjust your exposure to the added light.

5. The devil is in the details

In the images of the nutcracker, I could have chosen not to have any trace of cracked nuts in it. It would have been a way less interesting scene. The traces of nuts having been cracked adds to the scene.

However less is more. Add details like sprinkling flour on the surface when shooting a baking scene. Make sure to have a bit of mess around the pencil sharpener when shooting a flat lay of a drawers desktop. Or to use the obvious; spilled coffee beans belong in any flat lay coffee scene. But don’t overdo it. If you overdo it, it will just look messy and busy.

Also make sure that everything is planned, but looks random. The devil really is in the details with flat lay photography.

6. Add a human touch

I think we’ve become so accustomed to flat lays being just objects in a well composed scene. However some of the most interesting flat lays I’ve seen as of late are the ones where the photographer have added a bit of human touch. Adding a hand interacting with an object in the scene for instance creates action. And action is often more interesting than just a pretty scene.

7. Post processing that enhances your flat lay

Lastly you have to be conscious of how you edit your flat lays. Try to think about how your edit enhances the choices you’ve made while composing and shooting your flat lay. I’ll show you the same flat lay with two completely different edits to illustrate my point.

If I wanted to show off the lighter in this image, one of the edits does so better than the other, right? It doesn’t mean that they both can’t look nice. And maybe one suits my feed on instagram better than the other. However the edit has to suit the theme/mood you’ve chosen for this image, and help emphasize your hero object. So don’t go slapping on a random preset and be done with it, ok?

Two suggested flat lay set ups for beginners

All natural light

In this first setup you should place your surface as close as possible to a window that lets in a lot of natural light. The surface may be a table or a cardboard or whatever suits your theme. You may even just use the floor if it’s well lit. You place a tripod that allows you to shoot birds eye view away from the window so you don’t block any light coming into your scene. Once you’ve arranged your objects you can use foam core (or whatever you have available) to you to reflect and withdraw light in your scene. Once you’re satisfied with your scene, press that shutter.

Oh, and if you don’t have a tripod that allows you to shoot birds eye view, fear not. All the images in this post are shot handheld. Due to the fact that I was lazy. But a nice tip if you choose to shoot handheld is to get up high. By this I mean stand on something, a chair or whatever you have available to get higher. This will help you shoot more directly above your scene. Also if your camera has a flip out screen, use it.

One studio light

The one light setup that I prefer to use is the one where I place the light with a huge soft box directly above the scene that I’m shooting. I then use foam core boards to reflect and withdraw light from the scene, making sure that I get rid of any harsh shadows occurring from objects having different hights.

If I need some additional light to spill into the scene I may place my setup close to a window and diffuse the light from the window by a light curtain, some thin or see through paper or something.

Prompts to shoot

Now it’s time to try this flat lay photography you’ve been reading all about, right? Here are 10 prompts to get you started:

  • Our favorite recipe
  • My office hours
  • My everyday carry
  • What’s in your pockets/purse/tote/backpack?
  • My most treasured objects
  • Grandmas house/Grandpas garage
  • One day in the forest
  • My knitted top hat
  • My morning routine
  • Getting ready for skiing/hiking/biking/camping

Have fun shooting

Before I send you off to shoot, I just want to repeat one thing; flat lay photography offers a lot of room for creativity. Meaning there’s no rule without exception. I’m confident that flat lay photography is most fun when you actually just go along with your creative ideas. Sometimes what you shoot will work, sometimes it won’t. The point is to dare to test out your ideas, to play and have fun creating.

I’m going to shoot a lot more product photography as part of illustrating the outdoor lifestyle that is the core of everything I create. I promise you that flat lays will be a part of that. And if you’re a beginner wanting to know more about product photography in general, please stay tuned for a beginners guide to product photography that is due next month! The best way to make sure you don’t miss it is to follow or subscribe to this blog.

Also consider heading over to my Instagram for images from our many outdoor adventures. If you like what you see, give me a follow! I’ll see you there!

And remember; there’s always more to explore locally. Even in your own living room. Through flat lay photography.



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