Flatlay images are showing up all over the place, and for good reason.
The style is so versatile, making it great for anything from capturing a crafty mess to showing off your capsule wardrobe.
The beauty, and the challenge, of a flatlay is that you are entirely in control of every element of the image.
You get to make all the decisions about the background, light, and props, and you have the freedom to move everything around until it conveys the story or mood you wish to create.
In this blog, I am going to show you the exact method I use to create all of my flatlay images.
Determine your subject
This may seem obvious, but really think about it. Is the subject the coffee cup itself or the story of that first morning coffee?
Getting clear on what it is you want to portray in your image will help you make all the rest of the decisions for your flatlay.
Choose your background
A kitchen table, a coffee table, and counter all work well for being your background. You can also use wooden boards that you’ve painted or stained, an old cookie sheet, fabric, paper, vinyl – anything goes.
The important part is making sure that the background enhances the subject and goes with the story. If you’re aiming for a moodier image, you’ll likely want a darker background. If it’s a light and airy image, choose a lighter background.
Pick your props
Once you’ve chosen your subject and background, think about your props for the image. You don’t need to have a prop closet available for this. Whatever you have on hand will work.
Think about the props that you need to help convey your story. With coffee, it might be a fabric napkin and a spoon. If it’s flowers, you might want to include some floral scissors and twine. If you’re laying out a food shot, consider using some of the ingredients as props.
I like to make sure that my props are adding to the story, rather than competing with the subject for attention. I also like to edit my color palette here, to make sure my image looks cohesive.
Gather your possible props, lay them together, and put back any that aren’t quite right.
Find your light
As with all photography, light is key. My preferred light is natural light from a window and I like to place my surface at window height, or on the floor near an open door, so that the light is entering my scene at the level of the “table”.
If my light source is too high, I find the shadows are harsh and the light looks cold and uninviting.
I never use overhead lighting. If I need artificial light, I use a tabletop light that I can set up next to my scene.
I rarely use a reflector, as I like some element of shadow, but if you’re going for a clean and bright image or a product photo, you might want to use a white reflector to reduce shadows and even out the light across the frame.
If you have too much light and are going for a moody image, try using some black foam core opposite your light source to absorb the light and create some shadows.
Lay out your image
This is the fun part! I begin by placing my main subject in the frame and then building the scene around it.
I highly recommend picking up your camera and checking your composition through the lens as you go, so you can make sure it fits in the frame and looks the way you want it to on camera.
Alternatively, you can set up a tripod with an arm so that you can check your composition all the way through. As you’re laying out your scene, keeping in mind a few simple rules of composition will make your image stronger.
The rule of thirds works great in a flatlay, as does creating triangles within the frame, and placing objects in threes. Remember to balance your frame, which doesn’t mean making everything symmetrical, it just means making sure that there is a balance between the placement of the objects, the negative space, and checking to see that your colors look balanced across the frame.
I like to squint at my composition and see if anything jumps out, like a bright prop that I might not have realized would draw my eye so strongly away from my subject.
The final touch
Now that you’ve gotten your composition roughly laid out, add a little life to it.
I like my photos to look like a person just stepped away from the frame, so I tend to like a lived-in look. I create movement with fabric or ribbon, and adding a little bit of action to the scene by opening the scissors or scattering some crumbs.
I often let my props spill out of the frame, which is also called an open composition, because it looks more realistic, like a scene that you just happened upon and snapped a photo.
If you’re aiming for a cleaner and more minimalist look, you can still create a sense of life, without adding an element of messiness, by placing your objects in a way that makes it appear that a person just set them down.
Take the shot
Take one, or twelve, if you’re like me!
Aperture plays an important role here and is the first setting I consider when I pick up the camera. If I have a lot of height disparity but want everything in focus, I will start with f/8.0 and if needed, I’ll go higher.
That said, I rarely want everything in focus. I like the gentleness of the image when only my subject is sharp and the rest is a little bit soft and blurred.
For that reason, I most often use f/4.0 – 5.0 for my flatlay images, even when I have a tall item, like flowers in a vase, in my photo. I don’t usually go wider than that because I find it makes my focus too narrow and blurs the photo more than I want.
I prefer to use my 24-70mm lens for flatlay, because it gives me a wide variety of options, but a 35mm or 50mm will work great too.
Once I’ve taken the photo I think I want, I rearrange the scene and take a few more shots. It’s worth it to just play around a little bit and see what else you can come up with!
Now it's your turn to bring out some props and put these tips into action!
still have a question about flaylay photography??? ask me in the comments below & start the discussion now!
Kate lives, and loves, the country life in rural Maine with her husband, two kids, and two dogs. She spends her days behind the lens, capturing all that she loves about quiet moments and living a creative life.