If you’ve been on Instagram for any length of time in the last few years, you’ve probably seen those beautifully put together compositions that provide an overhead view of everything from clothes to table settings. These photos, referred to as “flat lays,” are excellent for producing distinctive and powerful photos that can be posted on social media. Continue reading if you’re new to flat lay photography. We’ve collected all of our favorite ideas and advice for using your iPhone to create stunning flat lays.
What is a flat lay?
In a flat lay, items are arranged on a flat surface and captured from above in a still-life shot. The primary benefit of flat lay photography is that it provides a clean, distraction-free shot of your subjects. Flat lays also reduce shadows and give you a regulated atmosphere in which to concentrate on creative compositions—as long as your scene is well-lit.
Popular uses for flat lay photography
There are many creative ways you can use flat lay photography, especially on social media, where flat lays are extremely popular. Don’t know where to start? Here are some of the most popular types of flat lay photos:
- Food photography: Whether you want to show off ingredients for a recipe or an elaborate table setting, food photos work really well as flat lays.
- Product photography: Selling on Etsy? Promoting your brand? Use flat lay photography to show off your products, no matter what they are.
- Fashion photography: We’re not necessarily talking about fashion photography in the traditional sense because you can’t create a flat lay of a model in a dress. Fashion flat lays include shots of outfits, shoes, and accessories without the hassles of a model.
- Books and hobbies: Books are popular for flat lay photos, as are hobbies like painting, gaming, crafts, and journaling.
- Creative/artistic flat lays: There are lots of ideas for this one — found objects, natural materials, colorful buttons, and knickknacks. There’s no limit to what you can use for this.
How to take good flat lay photos and edit them
Now, let’s dig a little deeper into the technical aspects of flat lay photography. While taking great flat lay photos isn’t difficult, it does require some planning, settings, and light requirements. Here are some flat lay photography tips to ensure that you get bright, crisp photos using your iPhone.
How to shoot a flat lay without a shadow
Provided that you have decent lighting from all sides, shadows will already be minimized with flat lay photography. That’s because you are reducing your photo to two dimensions and shooting from above. It’s not entirely foolproof, though, so here are a few tips for keeping shadows to a minimum in your flat lay photos:
- Use a tripod with an extendable arm. Combined with a remote shutter, a tripod with an extendable arm will allow you to remove yourself and the shadows you might create entirely. A tripod also reduces camera shake, so your photos are sharp.
- Use fill cards. Fill cards are essentially just pieces of white foam board that can be set up around your scene to reflect more light into your photo. You can find these at most stores that sell school supplies. Do yourself a favor and grab two 16-by-20-inch boards. Because you are shooting straight down, you won’t see them in your photo.
- Set up your shot near a bright window. Combined with fill cards, natural light works well for flat lays. Look for an area with even lighting and without shadows. Photographing outside works, too, as long as you are out of direct sunlight.
- Choose a background with a bit of color and texture: White backgrounds are hard to work with because they never look 100% white unless you do a lot of editing. A grey background will help minimize shadows while still retaining the details of your subject.
- Use a double softbox lighting kit. As your skills progress, you may want to invest in a reliable lighting source that isn’t as unpredictable as the sun. Use a double softbox set-up with one light on each side of your flat lay and your camera shooting down from the center. Adjust the softbox lights until all shadows disappear.
How to improve your flat lay photos on iPhone
Here are some additional shooting and editing tips for beautiful flat lay photos:
- Keep your camera parallel to the flat surface. Try not to angle your phone at all when you are shooting. This is where that extendable arm on your tripod comes into play.
- Use the AE/AF tool. Before you tap the shutter, be sure you have locked in your focus and set your exposure. Hold your finger on the screen to focus on the primary part of your composition. You will see a sun next to a yellow square. Drag the sun up or down to increase or decrease the exposure.
- Increase highlights and decrease shadows. This will add to the two-dimensional effect you are trying to achieve. You can use any editing app, including the native Photos app, but don’t go overboard — a little goes a long way.
- Be consistent with your editing. Have you tried using presets or filters on your photos? Presets are a great way to add a congruent theme to your images. VSCO is a great app that is known for its huge array of presets, or you can purchase presets to use with Lightroom.
Flat lay photography ideas
Now for some creative inspiration. Here are a few ideas for composing your flat lay photo to tell a compelling story to your viewers.
Idea 1: Compose your objects in a circle or spiral to keep people looking
You can use a variety of different layouts for your flat lay, but composing your images in a circle or spiral is a great way to keep your viewer’s eye within the frame. Many photographers use the golden ratio to compose shots based on the Fibonacci spiral. This composition rule totally works for flat lays, too. A circle will naturally appeal to the viewer’s natural sense of momentum, creating the illusion of visual movement within the scene. A spiral tends to create a more harmonious flow throughout the image, with one element naturally leading to another. Both spirals and circles work well with elements that have natural curves.
Idea 2: Position your objects so they aren’t all inside the frame
When arranging flat lays for an image, many photographers struggle with not having enough space to tell their story. You can get around this by positioning objects so they aren’t entirely within the frame. For example, when shooting a table setting, it’s fine to show a hint of the centerpiece and portions of other elements — plates, napkins, silverware, etc. Your viewer will still get the gist of what you are trying to show them, and you will create a sense of intrigue, enticing the viewer to mentally expand on the story outside of the image.
Idea 3: Create a sense of movement
When we talk about “movement” within a composition, we’re not talking about a literal moving scene that you capture without your camera (although you can easily transform your flat lay into an animated stop motion video). Instead, we are focusing on creating the illusion or sense of movement to make your image more interesting. There are many ways to create a sense of movement within a flat lay image. Positioning items in a circle or spiral, as mentioned above, is just one of them. Clothing and shoes can be positioned in a way that they appear to have been tossed instead of folded. Hands can be strategically used to show a task being completed. Or you can show a task unfinished or food partially eaten to capture a moment frozen in time.
Idea 4: Create a color scheme for your flat lay photo
Using basic color theory in your images can help you create a cohesive theme that will help tell your story or promote your brand. Think about your favorite color schemes and stick with a background and items that work well together. If you are having trouble, take a look at a color wheel for inspiration. Colors that are next to each other or directly across from each other can be used to create a cohesive theme, or you can use different shades of a single color.
Idea 5: Tell a story with your image
The best flat lays are artfully composed to tell a visual story. To do this, choose one or two items that will be the focus of your image, then surround them with a supporting cast of smaller items and props. Think about the item you are showcasing and decide on the story you want to tell.
Here are a few examples. Let’s say you want to create a flat lay for the book you are currently reading. Start by thinking about where and when you read. With your book in the center, surround it with a coffee cup, snacks, reading glasses, and your favorite bookmark.
Taking a photo of your favorite outfit? Add some props to show where it will be worn — movie tickets, headphones, or a backpack. You get the idea.
Idea 6: Recruit a hand model for your flat lay shoot
Using hands or other body parts in an image is a fabulous way to create a sense of movement, spontaneity, and depth within your image. If you just want to photograph a single hand within your shot, you can probably get by with a tripod and remote shutter. If you want to capture two hands, you’ll have better luck enlisting the help of another person. Use hands to show off jewelry, clothing, food, or flowers. No matter what type of flat lay you want to create, adding a person makes it more dynamic and relatable.
Idea 7: Use different textures to create interest
Using different textures within your flat lay photos is a great way to add a bit of depth and interest to your images. Look for a combination of curved and angular, soft and rough, shiny and dull. When photographing clothing, you can compliment soft fabric with jewelry and shoes. A smooth bowl of soup can be photographed next to a slice of crusty bread. Your background will also help create textural contrast. Photograph items that are smooth and shiny against a background of wood or concrete. Capture a fuzzy wool sweater on a shiny marble countertop.
Flat lays are great for experimenting with all the different elements of photographic composition. By creatively mixing different shapes, colors, textures, and sizes, you will find that there are limitless opportunities to tell your story. With the right lighting and lots of practice, you may discover that flat lay photography is one of the most artistic genres to play around with.