Lay Flat Photography: A Definitive Guide

Today, with expert insight from Pocket Creatives’ Lead Photographer, Kelly Hill, our team will tell you everything you need to know about flat lay photography – a staple in modern photography, especially when creating images to be used for business.

What is flat lay photography?

This genre of photography is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Flat lay images are comprised of a subject and additional props or other objects laid out on a flat surface and shot from above, with a bird’s eye view. The simplicity of this set up means it’s a great way of showcasing a theme or feeling in your photo, whilst maintaining total control over your subject, props, backdrops and lighting.


Where can flat lay photos be used?

Simplicity and sheer versatility has made flat lay photography popular in recent years. It sees vast usage across social media platforms today, where it’s used to promote all kinds of things. You’ll see flat lays used in shoots for food and drink, fashion, beauty & jewellery – almost any kind of product photography in fact – and you can even use it for videos too thanks to stop-motion.

You need only take a quick look at our portfolio on Vimeo and the catalogue of shoots we have right here on our own site, and it won’t be long before you’ve seen a few flat lays in amongst the rest of the professional photography and video projects we’ve done. Like we said – it’s popular!

Lighting for flat lay photography

Pre-shoot considerations

In our opinion, one of the first things to consider with a flat lay photography project is how you want the mood or feel of the image to come across, since creating this mood or feel is going to have an impact on the equipment and techniques you use. We also try and consider how we want our shadows to look at this stage – for example, if we want them to be hard or soft – since this will have a similar impact on the lighting setup we choose.

Practical advice

Whether you’re using natural light provided by a big window or glass wall, or artificial light from professional lighting equipment, one thing’s for sure – great flat lay images need soft light. As a result the best way to light a flat lay photography piece is in a studio, with a softbox – however, you can still create great flat lay images even if you’re shooting at home on a mobile phone.

It’s also important to light all sides of your flat lay photography setup – otherwise you will end up with harsh shadows on one side of the objects you’re using in your flat lay photos. To achieve this, you will often need something behind and to the side of the scene that you’re actually going to photograph, to act as reflectors for the light source. What should you use for this? The simple answer is ‘anything you can make work’ – but what you’re looking for in that ‘anything’ are the following qualities: It should be white or grey (as light a shade as possible), flat, as smooth as possible, and without a high-gloss finish.

Once you have something that fits the bill, prop it (or them) up vertically behind your background, with your light coming in from the side as we mentioned. Then, all you need to start capturing flat lay photos is a step stool, or something similar to help you get above what you want to photograph. Alternatively, if you lay your setup out on the floor you could just stand over it too.

The ideal distance between the lens and the objects will vary depending on how big those objects are – as well as your overall image – so we can’t give you a firm piece of guidance there. However, the good thing with a flat lay photo is that it’s usually easy to see when the proportions are off, and likewise, you tend to ‘just know’ when you’ve got a good shot.

Finally, a word on why this ‘reflector’ technique is necessary for flat lay photos, since we know it can seem counter-intuitive. The thing is, the way to avoid any shadows in something like a flat lay photography project would be to light it from directly above – but you can’t do that if you’re also going to be shooting from directly above, as you have to for an image in the flat lay style.

Choosing a flat lay background

Once you’ve decided on the lighting you want and how you’re going to provide it, then it’s time to move onto your background. When picking a background for a flat lay you will want to consider pattern, colour and texture as these can all add to (or alter) the theme or overall feeling of your photograph. This is also an opportunity for you to be creative. Any flat surface or material could be a backdrop for flat lay shots – if you can put items on it, then it’s an option! Whatever you choose, make sure it is the right fit for what you are photographing. At Pocket Creatives, we have a wide variety of vinyl backgrounds that give us a range of textures and patterns to play with, as well as the ability to pack them up easily and transport them to different locations.

Alternatives for background layers

For the longest time, the old standby for backgrounds in flat lay photography has been colored paper. However, as people get more and more used to selling online, we see it more and more – a piece of furry white fabric that you see everybody using to provide a flat clean backdrop to their flat lays. However, in practice Pocket Creatives would actually recommend going to your local home furnishings store and picking up some carpet.

A few patches of pattern-less carpet – say 6ft by 6ft – can do the same job while also being easier to use, clean and store. Carpet is much thicker than those fabrics we mentioned earlier, so it won’t wrinkle as easily when you place or move something on it. These wrinkles are an absolute no-no when it comes to flat lay photography, so you can imagine the pain of a multi-product shoot with backgrounds that like to wrinkle – it’s not fun.

Props for flat lay photography

It’s important when choosing your props not to overdo it. Remember – these are used to compliment your main subject, not draw focus away from it. The Pocket Creatives team consider colour and texture as well as shape and size when choosing props for flat lay photography projects, we look for props that will work well in the composition and balance out the image, and wherever possible, props that will emphasise that feeling you’re trying to achieve.

A good example of effective prop choice is some recent work we did for Protect My Pet. We used leads, pet bowls and toys to give character and personality to the flat lay photography we shot for their products. We provided versions for both a pet dog and cat so it was important the props had to represent each animal clearly for each shot. Both the client and our team agreed we achieved the desired effect!

Composition in flat lay photography

Once you’ve got all your props and subject chosen and ready, your flat surface prepped and ready and your lighting set up – now it’s time to build your composition. There are many different ways of using the space you have available when setting up your composition.

One option is to go for a geometric approach with straight lines and angles and symmetry with your subject – by placing props purposefully in a particular order, this approach can look quite striking. Alternatively you could go for something a little more ‘organic’, introducing curves and softer shapes into the frame. It really depends on the message you are trying to get across, but we like to play around with a few ideas before committing to a final composition.

The benefits of shooting with the lay flat technique is the simplicity and the versatility. You’re always working on one level, so you’re not going to have to worry about issues that can come with working on multiple layers such as losing a product behind a prop, or shadows being cast over parts of your layout, and yet, there are so many different ways of combining backgrounds, props and layout ideas that no two flat lays need feel the same.

Harnessing versatility & open-mindedness

Versatility is so important, because there are a lot of different products out there of all different shapes and sizes – and each one has a different use, target customer and so on. Don’t think that the flat lay photography techniques that work great for a pair of jeans will work just as well for a blender, because chances are, they won’t.

Sometimes, you’re going to want to shoot products on their own in a fairly minimalist way – garments like jeans are a great example of this – however, some products just cry out for a ‘collection shot’ where they’re paired alongside other items, and some need accompanying items of a fixed size to give scale and make people aware of their true dimensions. Both of these could well be true for a flat lay photo involving a blender – where you might need people to know how big it is, etc.

What’s more, some collection shots will call for a high level of precision as regards where items are placed and how they are aligned relative to each other, and yet others will look great as the stand-out item in a more freeform higgledy-piggledy mashup of objects. It all depends on what you’re shooting in your flat lay photography project and what you’re shooting it for, as we’ve said above. However, the important thing to remember is that the end goal – for flat lay photography or any other photography technique – should always be a good-looking end product, and to provide that end product we photographers need to accept that not every product looks great in the same setting.

Dealing with alignment & straight edges

With flat lay photography, because you’re shooting from directly above and essentially on a 2D plane, Its really important that any horizontal or vertical straight lines in the scene be lined up well with the frame of the photo. If you’re even a couple of degrees out, the lines in the image will be slightly on the diagonal when compared with the edge of the photo frame, and that slight misalignment will be really obvious to anyone looking at your image.

Lines like this can come from the items you’re using in your flat lay photography piece – a piece of parchment paper under some brownies, a book on a desk scene, and so on – but they can also be created by your lighting setup and the shadows it creates over your arrangement. However, Pocket Creatives know that whatever the cause, there are ways to get rid of these lines if you so desire.

If you’re dealing with a physical item like the parchment paper, you can crumple it up – giving it a rustic look while also getting rid of the hard edge. For situations like the book, unfortunately you can’t really crumple that up, but you can place items on top or underneath it so that they intersect and break up a straight edge, or ‘move’ the path of a visual line away from a purely straight vector.

Where such lines are created by shadows from your lighting setup, the answer is more simple – you need a diffuser, or some way to ‘soften’ your light source. This will in turn blur the edges of the shadows that source creates, and help to turn a harsh contrast line into a more gradual gradient between light and dark.

How to create balance in flat lay photography

After talking about composition, now is a great time to mention ‘balance’. Here we’re referring to the overall feel of the photo – does it feel weighted on one side or are the subject and accompanying props well spread out? This part is more subjective than the previous points as some people may prefer their images weighted and composed in a particular way – but we would always recommend experimenting with your composition, trying ideas to see if the balance feels comfortable. If you’re ever in doubt when building your frame, strip it back and consider the rule of thirds, then work your way forwards from there.

Elevating flat lay photography compositions

Now you have your composition built, well balanced, and correctly lit, how you can take this setup to the next level, what can you do to elevate it a little bit? This is the time to really think outside the box and find that unique detail that is going to set your work apart from everyone else. There’s lots of scope for creativity here, so try things out, play around with different ideas.

A great example of this can be found in our work for Connective 3. We placed an orange gel over one of the lights to bring out the orange branding on the products we were shooting. It worked a treat and the images really stood out from the crowd.


Themes in flat lay photography

Flat lay photography is a great way to tell a story concisely – but to do so successfully you also need to bear in mind the narratives. You need to know beforehand what the backdrop for your flat lay photography piece is going to be, because it will factor into the overall colour palette or visual feel of the finished image. Your backing can make a considerable contribution to that finished image, and to an extent it dictates the objects you’ll be placing on it. So, it is important to bear it in mind.

The other key thing to do is think about the objects that you want to photograph. For instance, if you were going for an adventure travel look then you might want an Indiana Jones-style hat, a foldable map, maybe a passport, travel ticket and some foreign currency too. However, you need to be careful that the items you choose to include in your piece abide by the theme. For example if your theme was ‘stationery and writing’ and you include a frying pan, it’s going to be really jarring for the viewer, and will steal the show from your main focal point.


In conclusion

If you need flat lays creating for business, you’ll want professional-grade right off the bat, and for that we suggest putting your project in the capable hands of the Pocket Creatives team. Contact us today to tell us more about your project, or to send us a brief!

Pocket Creatives are proud to shoot our flat lay photography projects on Nikon, Panasonic and Sony cameras, and edit them using Adobe software.