At its most basic, a flat lay is a collection of items shot on a flat surface at a bird ’s-eye view. Today we will discuss the ever-popular flat lay and how you can start styling your flat lays like a pro; so that you can become a flat lay enthusiast, too; maybe we’ll create a flat lay club one day?
What Is a Flat Lay?
A flat lay is an image taken straight down from above. A birds-eye view, if you will. While technically speaking, a flat lay can be a photo of a single thing laying flat, the actual bones of a flat lay come in the styling.
By styling, I mean the props and items you add to the photos to give it a more branded and editorial feel and provoke more interest.
At the bottom of this email, you will see a link for a free download that includes a styling planner for your flat lay and a list of over 90 props ideas, so be sure to grab that.
With those suggestions in mind, let’s move on to our top tips for styling an excellent flat lay.
Keep Your Branding at the Forefront of Your Mind.
Your brand vibe & values are of utmost importance when selecting props and creating your flat lays.
If your vibe is very earthy and natural, it is unlikely that you will style your image with, say, bottles of nail polish.
Consider some words that come to mind when you think about your brand – Modern? Comfort? Luxury? Feminine? Alternative? Edgy? Your brand should always guide your prop selection.
Know the Why Behind Your Flatlays
Strong flat lays always start with being clear on your why. What are you trying to accomplish with your flat lay? Are you sharing a new product? Are you showing how your service or product can fit into your customer’s life?
What’s the story you’re sharing with your flat lay? Your why is the foundation of your flat lay, and all the decisions you make when creating it should be based on your why.
Select Your Product
Whether it is apparel, a beauty product, sports equipment, a fashion accessory or a style of headphones styled flat-lay product; photography is versatile to suit any product, big or small.
Select Your Background.
This is the first significant difference between a standard flat lay and a styled flat lay.
A standard flat lay is usually published with a plain white background, whereas with styled flat lay photography, there are limitless options for you to choose from.
From patterned, textured, bright or faded colours, as long as it reflects your brand or product personality and makes it stand out.
Your background can add as much to the flat lay as the actual props you use.
However, it can also detract from the image if it’s not a great call. With current trends, followers, clients, and customers tend to be most drawn to white, wood, or marble backgrounds.
White backgrounds can be created with a white bristol board or foam board. Wood backgrounds can be a desktop, a wood floor, or a deck surface.
Be careful of the wood tone – some wood, like hardwood floors in older homes, can be very yellowish and does not translate well in a flat lay. The critical takeaway is that the background should be simple, clean, and allow your products and props to do the muscle work.
Choose a Clean Background
Clean, uncluttered backgrounds are the best and easiest way to give your flat lay more impact.
Avoid busy patterns or bold coloured backgrounds because they’re distracting and compete with the objects in your flat lay.
You probably already have tons of great background options lying around your home.
White bed sheets, wood tables, neutral coloured floors, and marble countertops are popular because they’re clean and readily available.
Light coloured craft paper from your local office supply shop is another easy background idea. The key is to choose a background that can act as a blank canvas.
Avoid Background “Noise”
You’re going to lay your items on an essential role as you want the background to contrast and complement your items, not compete or distract from them.
This is also how you’ll achieve a streamlined Instagram feed by choosing a few favourites and using them consistently throughout.
Some backgrounds you can use include:
- White Foam core (The Essential)
- White duvet
- Marble (Either contact paper or, if you’re lucky, a tabletop.)
- Distressed natural wood
- Crumpled sheets of tissue paper
Place Your Hero Product
Most flat lays have a hero product. It’s often the product you’re trying to sell. If your flat lay is about your service, then maybe the hero of your story is your laptop or a calendar.
Start styling your flat lay by placing your hero product first and then adding the other significant elements. So if your hero is a laptop, the other essential features might be a cup of tea and a notebook.
Next, play around with how your hero relates to the other significant elements in your composition. Together they’ll act as the framework for the smaller, more detailed props.
Notice when you scroll through your Instagram feed and come across a flat lay and instantly know what it’s about before reading the caption? This is what we call “Theme Success”, a way to unify the elements in your photos to create a narrative. The picture becomes the story.
Here are some popular themes you might want to try:
- The Sunday morning in bed (legs, coffee, cozy socks, an open magazine)
- The workspace essentials (laptop, pens, paperclips, cute notebook, motivational quote)
- What I’m wearing today (shoes, denim, beauty products as fillers)
- What’s in my bag (phone, bracelets, makeup, sunglasses, magazine)
- Look what’s cooking in the kitchen (food, ingredients, pretty trays and linens)
Prop to It
To make your products stand out and at the same time reflect your products function and your brand’s identity. A team of stylists and photographers would work together to perfect the lighting, spacing, and prop choice.
After the theme comes the props, or in other words, the items you plan on using to express your music and set the mood visually. I will let you in on three that significantly impact creating a dynamic flat lay once you have your main props in place.
- Hands: Now, this might just be me, but hands interacting with the objects in a picture make a photo so relatable. Maybe because the person looking at the photo can imagine themselves holding that cup of coffee or reading that book. It’s a little playful too.
- Plants, petals and organic elements: This trick is the one you can use all the time. I’ve used it for years when I used to decorate rooms, and as a room, it’s a lovely way to add warmth and life to your flat lay. It also serves the purpose of filling those empty looking spaces in a picture. Some favourites include Succulents, wood slices, eucalyptus, “spilled” flour or food around a food shot, petals, leaves, birch branches etc.
- Books: You’ll see that many flat lies include a well-placed book that fits the story being narrated and keeping with the colour scheme to have in play.
Use Props That Make Sense.
If your hero product is the star of your flat lay, then the secondary props are the supporting characters and extras in your story.
Choose props that support your account by adding context to your hero product without stealing the limelight. So if your hero is your laptop, your supporting props could be a pen, reading glasses, paper clips, and a watch.
Place your secondary props around the significant elements of your flat lay to fill in the gaps.
Play around with their position and angle to see how they best fit into the overall composition. The idea is to balance the spacing of your props in your flat lay so your details don’t overwhelm your hero product.
When styling your flat lay, keep in mind what makes sense. If you’re a blogger having a day at the beach and you want a pretty flat lay to go along with that, consider what makes sense for a beach day.
Sunglasses, yes. Towel, yes. Beach bag, yes. Stilettos? Nope. A purse? Naw. No one takes their wallet to the beach. That’s what the beach bag is for.
Carefully consider the “genre” or category that your flat lay would fall into and ensure you’re selecting props that would also belong in that category.
Carefully Arrange Your Props.
First, consider the dimensions of your image. Is this shot for Instagram, and will it be square? Perhaps it will be a Facebook cover photo and will be very short and very wide.
Or will it be a more standard 4:6 ratio? Planning will help you arrange your props appropriately to ensure you get the most out of your image.
Next, consider the feeling you want your image to give off. Clean, organised perfection? Effortlessly chic and casual?
You can either arrange your props in a linear fashion with right angles, or you can put them as if they just happened to land in that way and look perfectly fabulous. Both options are great – it just depends on how you want the feel of the photo to roll out.
Keep it Simple.
Perhaps my most valuable tip – keep it simple. Your flat-lay does not need to have ten different items. Some of the most beautiful flats contain just a focal point (i.e., a product) and one other styling element.
The more you add, the busier it gets, and the more places for the eye to go. When it gets too overwhelming to look at, your audience will shut off their interest and move on.
It’s much more valuable to pick one or two perfect styling pieces that compliment your focal point to keep your audience coming back for more.
Stick to a Simple Colour Palette
It helps to stick to a colour palette when choosing your secondary props. That way, your braces will blend into the background and not jump out to grab the attention.
If you’re new to working with colour palettes, stick to only 2-3 colours that go well together. As an added tip: black and white are neutral shades that go well with any colour palette, so you can’t go wrong with black or white props.
The key to creating a balanced flat lay is to make sure you have elements of varying sizes and a transparent colour scheme.
You also want to be mindful of your shapes, don’t put too many circles (coasters, coffee mugs, compact mirror) clustered together, use them instead to break apart any harsher lines in your flat lay.
The same goes with your colours and neutrals, don’t have all one colour on one side. For example, if your primary element is black, pepper it throughout the flat lay. Keep playing around with the objects until it looks and feels right.
Behind the Scenes
The behind the scenes flat lay can be funny to watch, yet these small tricks can help achieve that perfect shot.
Use a chair to stand on to get a better angle, mainly if you use your phone to take photos. Otherwise, a tripod arm can be super helpful for your DSLR.
Another trick is using a sticky tack to hold items in place (is it just me or make some move when your back is turned?), stick a bit behind your thing, and it will stay put.
And finally, have fun; once you get the general concepts, it’s all about creating your own story and style!
Light Your Flatlay
Natural light is the best way to light your flat lays when you’re starting. It’s free and available everywhere. The best natural light is next to a window on the shady side of your house or outside in the shade.
The key is to avoid direct rays of sunshine so you don’t get harsh shadows and extreme contrast in your image.
Proper Lighting Is Everything.
Proper lighting is instrumental in creating an attractive flat lay.
This can be achieved with natural or artificial light, but it must be bright and diffused, meaning the light must not be directly from the source.
Some examples of great light sources include next to a sunny window (without a direct sunbeam streaming through), a lightbox with lights shining through thin white material, or lights with softboxes.
If all this lighting talk feels overwhelming, don’t worry – future posts are coming the way that will help you master great lighting.
Shoot Your Flatlay
Flatlays are shot from a bird’s eye view, so hold your camera directly above the middle of your flat lay. Stand on a chair or ladder if you need to get higher.
The goal is to get your camera parallel to your flat lay, so the lens is aimed straight down. If you’re using a camera phone, use the square crop mode and turn on your grid to help line up your shot.
Take plenty of photos from a variety of angles and with different flat lay layouts; this way, your product will be sure to be captured at its best.
Once you’ve got your shot, try shooting a few variations for bonus content. If you’ve spent valuable time and effort to style the perfect flat lay, get more bang for your buck by getting more shots.
Shoot your flat lay from a different angle, use the other crop, or swap out some necessary props for new ones. I also like to snap some behind the scenes photos to share with my audience. The more content you can get, the better!
Edit Your Flatlay for Instagram
This is the technical part. Editing and retouching images are more than adding a filter or increasing the contrast. Experienced retouchers go through deep-etching, colour correcting, manipulating and more.
To make the product look realistic and showcasing and highlighting the features that make your product unique and distinguished.
All images benefit from some post-shoot editing.
There are some fantastic photo apps you can use to edit your pictures right on your phone. My current favourites are VSCO, Snapseed, and the editing tools native in Instagram itself.
Tweaking the crop, exposure, contrast, saturation, and clarity are the easiest ways to make your flat lays pop. Play around with the different tools and filters to get the right finish for your vision.
Just like any skill, the more you practice making flat lays, the better you’ll become. There’s no right or wrong way in photography, so use these steps only as a guide.
Once you get more comfortable with building your flat lays, experiment with new methods and ideas. Over time, you’ll develop a look and feel to your work based on how you like to prop, light, and edit your images, which will create your own distinct flat lay style.
Your styled flat lay is now ready to be launched on social media (flat lays Instagram, Facebook, etc.), online store, brochures, and lookbooks to make your product stand out and attract your product target market. Don’t forget to style your overall social media feed.