8 Key Steps to Perfect Flat Lay Photography

by | Feb 23, 2021

in its most basic form: flat lay photography is simply a type of product photo taken from above on a flat surface. the main advantage being that a bird’s eye view will show the product clearly and without distractions. 

but if that’s all your flat lay photographs do though you’re missing a BIG trick. 

flat lay images offer an amazing opportunity for storytelling. not just about the specific product in the shot. but about your brand as a whole to help establish an emotional connection with your customers.

ready to take full control of your visual branding? want to produce stunning and evocative flat lay photos? in this guide we explain all!

the history of flat lay photography

flat lay photographs have been around almost as long as photography itself. at least in some form. but the flat lay as we know it today has rather more recent origins from the studio of architect and designer Frank Gehry.

knolling

in the late ‘80s a janitor in Gehry’s furniture shop by the name of Andrew Kromelow began amusing himself by grouping tools together and placing them at right angles. at the time: Gehry was working on a collaboration with the furniture brand Knoll and the effect reminded Kromelow of Knoll’s designs. he soon began referring to this technique as Knolling.

from furniture to sculpture

sculptor Tom Sachs picked up on the idea of Knolling after working in Gehry’s studio for a couple of years. he then went on to incorporate the technique into his own practice as an artist. it was a look that was just right for the brave new world of blogs and photo sharing sites that emerged in the 00s. and Knolling quickly took off.

and from sculpture to photography

Knolling became a bit of a thing in the photography world. with numerous artists adding their own twist to the formula. and as more people began shooting in this style it started to mutate and evolve. 

some people began dismantling electronics purely for the sake of photographing their individual components. others saw Knolling as an opportunity to catalog all their possessions. others still dropped the rigidity of the original grid-like Knoll organization and went for a more casual effect. sometimes adding more decorative elements to the scenario.

in time Knolling transformed into the flat lay. a one-shot form of visual storytelling that is perfect for social media. and with the arrival of Instagram the neccessity of flat lays was sealed.

the importance of flat lays in product photography

today more business is conducted via e-commerce than ever before. but for brands moving their businesses online it will always be a challenge to communicate the advantages of their products to the consumer. 

you know you’ve got a great product. but how do you make sure the client knows this? they can’t try your products out. or touch them. or even see them from all angles. it’s not like a brick and mortar store.

the answer of course is great product imagery. in fact: we could say that in today’s world the image is the product. if the image is no good then it’s effectively the same as saying that the product is no good.

so… how do you create great images?

the facts

most consumers think very carefully about the items they buy. especially if it’s an expensive item. they often take the time to research and compare rival products. 

good clear photos illustrating a product’s main features will go a long way toward convincing potential customers your product is the right one for them. even better if the photos also illustrate how the product works. flat lay images are an excellent way of achieving this. but in a more fun and visually striking form than the regular silo shot.

and fiction

practical considerations are not the only factor influencing customer behavior. shopping is both a rational and an emotional exercise. and good flat lay photography is always much more than merely informative.

take two rival products. ones that are essentially identical in both functionality and quality. why should the customer choose yours?

story. that’s why. customers want to associate their purchases with values. and feelings. and fantasies. of course the product itself counts. but so does all the intangible baggage that comes with it. the buzzing cloud of impulses and emotions that surrounds every desirable consumer item. 

in large part this aura of aspiration is created through careful use of photography that tells a story — a story about individual products and about your brand as a wholeflat lay images are one of the most powerful methods of achieving this that you have available to you as a brand.

the dos and don’ts of flat lay photography

what makes a good flat lay photograph? and what are some common mistakes newbies make when shooting flat lays? let’s take a look at some classic examples:

DO: tell a story

flat lays are like no other style of photo. and if you go to the trouble of shooting flat lay images you really should make the most of their unique storytelling potential. 

for example: silo photos are simply about showing the product in a literal and objective way. dry. functional. and informative. silos do this very well.

but a good flat lay treats the product as the star of its own little movie. making creative use of visual narrative techniques to suggest ambiguous stories in the mind of the viewer. stories that elevate the product beyond mere functionality. with flat lays this kind of storytelling is achieved by carefully considering the background. the styling. the props. and lighting. 

take a look at some of the best examples of flat lay photography. notice how all four of these ingredients combine and play off each other? coming together to create a mood. when all the different elements start working in unison your flat lay will possess a power greater than the sum of its parts. 

DO: keep it casual

to tell a good story takes real skill. but the best flat lay photography makes it look easy. as if the photographer just came across the scene by chance. this means keeping your product as the focus of attention but without the effect being too obviously “look at me!” 

above all: keep the storytelling authentic.

a natural-looking flat lay often comes from an obsessive and detail-oriented approach: achieving a truly casual look can be hard work. the tricky part is knowing how to balance a fussy attention to detail with an outcome that looks totally casual.

DO: stay on-brand

the stories you create must be deliberate and controlled. they are not merely meant to entertain but to capture your brand and product perfectly.

consider whether the narrative you’ve created helps to reinforce brand positioning. does it underline what your brand stands for? everything from the color of your flat lay background to the angle of the light and the way you edit the final images must serve to strengthen your brand identity. 

let’s say you want to use cutting boards as props in the background. What kind of cutting boards should they be? will just any flat surface do? What does it say about your brand if you use marble instead of wood? the narratives in your flat lays should fit with both the product and your brand image more generally. every detail matters!

DON’T: lose focus

sometimes it can be hard to stay focused on the task at hand — there are so many creative decisions to make! would the product look better with a green background? are the props overdoing it? should you use natural lighting or strobes? if you’re feeling lost in this decision-making process – don’t worry! the easiest way to avoid losing focus i by creating a photoshoot plan of attack. it will be a BIG help to put everything into words right from the beginning. your ideas and vision for your new content may change drastically once you start oulining your plan. one major advantage of seeing your ideas clearly laid out on a page now can be edited.

a clear plan and a clear brand identity will do the heavy lifting during your shoot. from there: nearly everything else creative about your flay lay will fall into place.

DON’T: be non-committal

making a photoshoot plan of attack will allow you to commit 100% to your content vision. a well thought out plan includes knowing every single detail you want in your shots – like props. color palettes. lighting. shadows. and angles. when you (more or less) know what shots you’re going for – your ability to commit to and bring your vision to life will be a piece of cake.  

think of it like this: a flat lay is like a miniature movie. one where the product is the star. if you cast too many  supporting roles or add too many complicated twists to the plot – your viewers will quickly become lost.

background. props. styling. and lighting are all there to support the product in its starring role – not compete with it for attention.

DON’T: be afraid to bend the rules

technically a flat lay should be shot from directly overhead — a bird’s eye view of a totally flat surface. 

but that’s perhaps a little too strict. and rules are made to be bent and broken. and no one likes a flat flat lay! we love experimenting with unique angles to create interest and depth to a shot. 

if you want to go for a more literal flat lay image: make sure to shoot directly overhead with a totally squared up frame to capture the best straight-on shot.

best practices for flat lay photography

story. story. story.

we really cannot say it enough: start with a strong narrative and everything else will follow. a good story = a strong mood or theme to your content that shows off your product and brand. 

picture this: swimwear surrounded by sunglasses. a palm leaf. and a fruity cocktail artfully placed on a yellow background with long shadows and warm light. there’s no beach. no sea. no blue sky. but few people will be able to look at that image without thinking of all three.

That’s visual storytelling.

create a color palette

your goal is to create a well-coordinated and cohesive image – one that creates a visual punch. just like with your clothing style: too many colors can become confusing and distracting. keep your images focusedby limiting each flat lay to a limited color scheme (a color scheme you’ll create during your planning process)

we recommend:

  • embracing neutral colors like nude or beige
  • limiting color palette to three colors max
  • playing with a couple of different shades of one color
  • use your packaging or product for color inspiration
  • consider using a color wheel (hello elementary school art class!) to find a complimentary color for your product

focusing your colors  will create a beautiful cohesive look  while ensuring your product pops.

consider your background

in many cases you’ll want to choose a plain and neutral shooting surface. this way there will be no risk of the background distracting from the product. plain and neutral don’t necessarily mean boring though. and even very subtle choices can make a big difference to the effect your flat lay image has on the viewer. 

when choosing a flat lay background consider not only color but also texture. for example: using a rustic wooden table top instead of beige poster board for your shooting surface will make a radical difference to the final result. smaller changes to your background can also hold a lot of creative power. even just switching from a smooth paper stock to one that is heavily textured can make a very noticeable difference to the narrative potential of your shot.

remember: choosing the right background will always be easier when there’s a strong story idea already in place.

choose props wisely

your product is the hero and it will always shine brightest when surrounded by a talented supporting cast. that’s whyit’s essential to have access to a wide range of props when shooting flat lays. 

props need to achieve two things:

  • drive the narrative
  • add visual interest

but they also need to respect the following rules:

  • never compete with the product
  • always remain on-brand

when choosing a prop: consider both its visual and narrative potential. a prop that looks awesome in the shot but doesn’t communicate the right message for your narrative or brand is still the wrong prop. a prop that really helps tell your story but isn’t very exciting also needs to go. 

the right prop is one that looks the best and moves the narrative forward.

consider the end use

know your end goal for your new content. there would be no point to creating great looking flat lay images if they don’t actually meet your practical needs. before you even begin setting up a shot it’s essential you consider how you will use the image once it’s finished.

do you need images that are horizontal or vertical? will you add text or graphics? do you have platform requirements (think: Amazon requiring product-on-white hero images)? these are questions you should ask and answer as you flesh out your photoshoot plan.

ideas for flat lay photos

flat lay is a versatile genre. one that lends itself well to a wide range of creative approaches. but before you begin it can be helpful to have a particular type of flat lay image in mind – a goal to aim for. 

here we look at a number of popular types of flat lay images to help inspire you when deciding how to present your products:

bold minimalism

a side effect of shooting products from a bird’s eye view against a flat surface is that it removes all sense of depth by flattening everything in the shot to the same focal plane. this reduces all the elements to their most basic form and can make for a very graphic composition.

unsurprisingly it’s a technique that is particularly well-suited to producing bold and minimalist imagery. understated but eye-catching. the secret to producing stunning minimalist flat lay photos is to shift your attention to the negative space within the image – the gaps between objects. 

as you look at the composition: try imagining the scene in negative form. the background becomes an object. objects become holes. pay particular attention to the edges of the frame.

keep in mind that secondary items (like props) don’t need to be fully within the shot in order to do their job without losing any of its narrative powers. 

give extra thought to the color-scheme here too. keeping it more tightly controlled than ever. maybe even reduce the palette to monochrome. this will help to put greater emphasis on composition and form.

and finally: consider the power of creative lighting when shooting minimalist flat lays. careful use of either natural light or studio strobes can transform even the simplest image into a bold and graphic composition.

rich maximalism

shooting from overhead shouldn’t stop you from taking things in totally the opposite direction though. the technique of filling the frame to the max can be equally effective when done right and can produce images that are often every bit as fun as they are visually spectacular.

the name of the game is ordered chaos when it comes to a maximalist shot. you want to be strategic about how you lay things out. it’s all about finding balance too. by adding too many props you might turn your shot into a game of I-Spy. your customer shouldn’t guess what’s your product and what’s a prop. 

keep your hero product as the single item of its kind. then: fill in around it with props that help tell your product’s story. don’t forget to use your backdrop as a narrative tool! adding a fun textured backdrop can act as another prop to reach your maximalist dream shot.

patterns

another way to achieve a maximalist flat lay is by creating a repeat product image. these shots are a unique way to show off different versions of the same product (think: one candy bar in different flavors or drink mixes in different flavors).

there are a couple of different ways you can approach this. For example you might want to arrange all your props in a pattern around the product to help the product stand out. or you can create the pattern from multiple copies of the product itself (our fav). 

give extra consideration to your lighting when shooting repeat patterns too. shadows and highlights can really help to accentuate a pattern or texture and bring the shot to life.

the human touch

people love buying from other people. using models to show off your product is a great way to get your customer to envision how their lives will improve with your product. they want something to relate to.

in the case of flat lay photography that might be as simple as adding some hands to the shot. hands holding things to show context. hands demoing features. hands interacting with the product to give a sense of the feel of the product.

don’t have the access or budget to a hand model? don’t hesitate to call on a friend with nice hands to help you out!

essential equipment for flat lay product photoshoots

one of the great things about flat lays is that they can be shot with relatively little gear. if you’re in a pinch – all that’s needed is a camera. a flat surface. and a window. for a high-quality content library:  you’ll probably need to invest in a little more kit than this. or find an all-inclusive photography service (like soona) to help you out.

if you’re just starting out and looking to put together a basic setup for shooting beautiful flat lays you will find all the essential items listed below:

camera

you’ll need some way of capturing images. but what kind of camera?

many people shoot flat lays with their smartphones. certainly modern smartphone cameras are capable of producing pretty impressive images in terms of resolution. 

what they don’t really offer is much in the way of flexibility or technical control. and for truly creative and professional quality flat lays you’ll be needing both. in heaps.

we recommend using either a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses. this way you have full control over every creative decision – from angle of view and composition to focus and exposure. 

don’t worry if you’re on a budget though: even entry-level DSLR and Mirrorless cameras will allow you to produce awesome looking flat lays. and often for less than the cost of a smartphone.

tripod

in theory: it’s possible to shoot flat lays without a tripod especially if you set up your shot on the floor. in practice: we really wouldn’t recommend it. 

adding a tripod to your equipment will save you a lot of time and headache. having a tripod helps with framing up your shot and ensuring you capture perfectly focused images. even the slightest blur can render your image useless – a faux pas that can’t be fixed in post-production!

tripod arm

adding a tripod boom arm is a simple addition that mounts horizontally on top of your tripod. it allows you to angle the camera so it faces down at exactly 90 degrees to your flat lay background. this is a key piece of equipment that will make your life easier and your images look more professional.

poster board & foam core

poster boards and foam core make for excellent shooting surfaces. they provide a cleaner and more graphic backdrop look. having a selection of different colored backgrounds on hand can be a real creative boost – like combining two or more colors for visually stunning color-blocked flat lays.

don’t forget to include some simple white boards in your stash! even if you have no intention of ever shooting on a plain white background you’ll still want to have a couple of white poster boards around to use as light reflectors when needed.

creative shooting surfaces

as essential as poster boards are for flat lays you’ll likely also want to start hoarding other more unusual backdrops for future use. these could be anything from sheets of slate or marble to a weather-beaten old wooden door. anything with an unusual texture that will add interest to your shots and help to drive narrative is great to have available for your shoot.

props

as you create your plan of attack for your shoot: you should have a good idea of what kind of props you want to include in each shot. what kind of props you should stockpile will depend on the style of flat lays you plan on producing and the type of product you will be photographing. but the more props there are in your prop closet the greater creative freedom you’ll have when it comes to shooting.

lighting & accessories

natural light can be a joy to work with. and the results are usually stunning. you can create warm light and soft shadows by setting up your shoot by a big window. this is definitely the most cost-effective option for lighting your shoot – and the most unpredictable. relying on natural lighting leaves you at the mercy of the sun and cloud coverage.

if warm & soft lighting isn’t the look you’re going for: try a dependable high-powered strobe. 

by investing in a set of studio lights you can be sure to have access to the exact lighting you need whenever you need it. if you have a more limited budget: you can also rent studio lighting from equipment rental places like borrowlenses.com for a reasonable price.

8 key steps to perfect flat lay photos

ready to start shooting your first flat lays? what follows is a guide to all the practical steps you’ll need to take when setting up a flat lay product photoshoot:

choose your light source

you need to consider lighting before you even start to set up your first shot. 

the first thing to decide is simply what kind of lighting you’ll be working with: natural or artificial? if you opt for natural light then clearly this will dictate exactly where you should set up the shot. keep in mind that the light might have moved by the time you’re ready to start taking pictures so plan accordingly!

even if you’ll be using artificial light you should keep an eye on the ambient light entering your studio space. is there a risk that the sun might later shine directly into the room and interfere with your setup? if so: you may want to shoot in a different area or cover the windows with heavy black cloth.

select a background

next you need to choose a shooting surface. if you’ve got a clear idea of the story behind your flat lay then this should be easy peasy.

there are many options you can choose from: do you want a plain and solid background in a vibrant hue? a neutral but textured backdrop? something rustic? something quirky? maybe a two-tone color-blocking? or the luxurious look of specular highlights on plexiglass? whatever the story you want to illustrate with your flat lay there’s always room for creativity with the background.

for most flat lay shoots you’ll either want to set up on a flat surface like a sturdy table or directly on the floor. if you’ll be photographing clothing we recommend propping up your shooting surface so that it sits at an angle instead of totally horizontal. this will combine the advantages of both horizontal and vertical shooting: the clothes will lie flat just as if they were positioned on a horizontal surface while gravity will make sure that they hang naturally.

position your camera & tripod

even if your shoot isn’t for a while: it’s still a good idea to get your camera in place at this early stage. this way you can see on the camera viewfinder exactly how any changes you make affect the shot. this is a particularly important step if you are going to be using natural light. you’ll give yourself time to see how the natural light looks on your product during different times of day and make any adjustments + notes of how to achieve the perfect light setup.

prep the product

spend time leading up to your shoot gathering and prepping your products. this is such an important step! this gives you time to ensure your products are polished. cleaned. and steamed. or you have time to find and prep replacements. don’t rely on post-production editing to fix every ding and wrinkle (especially if you are not a Photoshop wiz). the camera will capture exactly what you present so make sure it’s in tip-top shape!

you also need to consider how the product looks in the context of the shot overall as a compositional element in relation to the background and framing. we recommend setting up your product to frame the shot.

add props

now it’s time to start introducing any props you plan on using to help communicate your story. this is where the truly creative part begins!

we recommend starting with one prop and adding more to the frame. you can really have fun with this part! move props around and play with how they interact with your product to create a strong composition.

If you start to feel like your product is getting lost in your props: rearrange the composition so the props are less distracting or start to remove props one at a time until you find a balance you’re happy with.

tweak the lights

it’s time to perfect the lighting setup you created in step #1.

the most common issue that arises at this stage is unwanted shadows caused by the introduction of props. these shadows may not be part of the look you’re going for. are distracting in the overall image. or are casting across the product itself. here are three possible solutions:

  1. move the item that causes the shadows
  2. move the lights
  3. add an extra light source to illuminate the shadow area

sometimes the opposite problem can occur where you have unwanted highlights and reflections. it’s an issue that’s especially common when shooting shiny and reflective objects. Here are three possible solutions for this problem:

1. move the lights  

  1. move the object 
  2. or put a cover or poster board between the light source and the object if it’s not your product (you want your product to stay well lit!).

compose your shot

it’s almost time to shoot

with the addition of props: the entire composition has changed since you first put the camera on the tripod! you’ll want to double check that your camera is in the best position for the shot. we recommend taking the camera off the tripod and playing around with different angles + shots. you’re probably not going to use any of these shots so don’t worry about them too much. just have fun with the composition and see if you come up with any new fun ideas with fresh eyes.

once you’ve tried out a few different ideas you should review what you’ve shot. check the camera to see which compositions work best. now you know where to set up your tripod.

shoot

our biggest piece of advice is to shoot in RAW format. not JPEG. shooting RAW will capture the maximum amount of information in your image files. this will give you a lot more flexibility when it comes to the editing stage.

6 best practices for editing flat lay photos

careful editing will be essential to get the most out of your flat lay photos. in this section we explain exactly how:

set exposure & white balance

first get the overall exposure & white balance of your image just right. it should be neutral and natural looking. you want to avoid your image looking yellow or orange from the lighting. we’ll get to more creative edits in a minute. for now: we just need a good balanced starting point.

combine images

if you’ve captured any elements as separate images and want to comp them together in a single shot then now is the time to do so.

dodge & burn

use adjustment layers or masks to selectively lighten (dodge) and darken (burn) any areas of the image that need extra work done. the idea is to create a good compositional balance between all the different elements in the frame while also emphasizing the importance of the hero product.

be careful not to overdo the dodging and burning: a photo can quickly start to look unnatural if the lighting is edited too much.

adjust color

now you get to be a little more creative with the color. this might mean just a simple adjustment of the color balance. or maybe you’ll use more advanced color grading techniques.

want a little more warmth in the highlights? a hint of blue in the shadows for a cooler look? split toning can work wonders. keep in mind that you should try to match the colors in the photo to those of the real life product as closely as possible. otherwise you risk disappointing any customers who order your product on the strength of the photos alone.

adjust vibrance or saturation

depending on the photo editing software you use you may have the ability to adjust vibrance and saturation. here’s what that means:

the saturation slider is fairly straightforward: moving it to the right will increase the intensity of all the colors in the image. moving it left will decrease their intensity. go all the way to the left and the image will become entirely monochrome. 

you can either adjust saturation for the full spectrum of colors all together or choose to increase or decrease the saturation of one individual color at a time. for example: you might be happy with the overall color grading but feel like the reds could have a little more punch. setting the saturation slider to affect only the reds will allow you to fine tune them to get the exact look you want.

the vibrance slider is very similar to saturation. the one key difference is adjusting vibrance changes the intensity of only those colors that are not already highly saturated. if you’ve already adjusted the saturation of individual colors using the saturation slider you probably won’t need to use the vibrance slider.

retouch imperfections

even the most beautifully executed flat lay will likely need a little retouching in order to reach its full potential. dust specks in the background? a distracting reflection on a prop? all should be cleaned up using Photoshop’s clone stamp tool or a similar retouching technique.

optimizing flat lay photos

here are our best practices in order to get the most out of your flat lay shoot:

plan carefully

the more preparation you can do in advance the more productive your flat lay shoot will be. save time with a plan of attack for your photoshoot. create a timeline for your preparations and your photoshoot and create a shotlist. these two things will help keep your shoot focused and efficient.

within a shotlist you can list out the shots you hope to get and assign backgrounds and props to each scenario while still leaving plenty of room for experimentation. having a shotlist allows you to succeed and fail fast so you can make any needed adjustments without bogging down your shoot. sometimes the most creative and exciting ideas will only come to you after working through other less successful ones.

shoot additional content

producing awesome flat lays involves a lot of hard work and time. maximize on the effort you’re putting forth by also shooting detail shots of your products while they are already styled and lit. 

flat lay setups are only really intended to be viewed from above since the background is placed underneath the subject and not behind it. but there’s no reason you can’t plan ahead and have a backdrop ready to put up once your flat lay images have been shot.

cross-sell when it makes sense

consider if you have multiple complementary products that could work together in a single flat lay scenario. like we mentioned in point #2: you should always aim to get the most out of each flat lay set up. so think about if and how  you want to shoot product families or product categories. 

imagine you sell both swimwear and eyewear. it wouldn’t be any stretch of narrative credibility to add sunglasses to your swimwear shoots as props. or let’s say your main product line is bags but you also produce a number of accessories. the public may know you primarily for the bags but that doesn’t mean that they won’t also buy a few accessories after coming across them  as “extras” in your flat lays.

professional flat lay photography services

if you’re looking to commission a flat lay photography shoot there are several different types of professional service you can use. Let’s take a quick look at the main ones:

local freelancers

there are probably several freelance photographers in your area capable of producing high quality flat lay photographs.

pros: 

  • one-to-one relationship with the photographer
  • you can likely attend the shoot
  • products can be delivered in-person and even sent over to be shot on an ad hoc basis

cons:

  • if the photographer is good they may not always be available
  • slow turn-around time
  • typically expensive

individual outsourcing

as an alternative you could try contacting individual photographers in other parts of the world via freelancer marketplace websites such as Upwork and Fiverr.

pros

  • often competitively priced

cons

  • shipping products is unlikely to be convenient
  • cannot attend shoot 
  • quality of freelancers is highly variable

soona

soona has taken the full service content creation concept and personalized it. making it much better suited to clients’ needs. you get the same advantages as with a regular photography service but none of the disadvantages.

pros:

  • attend shoots virtually or in person if you’re local to Denver. Austin. or Minneapolis.
  • if ordering your flat lays remotely you get to attend the shoot virtually via soona’s dedicated platform. viewing the images in real-time as they are shot and providing instantaneous feedback.
  • amazing prices: just $39 per image.

cons:

  • we honestly can’t think of any. 😉

learn more about what soona can do here.

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