Whether you’re a blogger, a tech-savvy business owner or simply obsessed with documenting your life on Instagram, chances are you know what a flat lay is. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying they’re one of the best ways to gain attention on Instagram and showcase… basically anything really! Food, beauty products, your desk, your products. And while we’ve all attempted some form of a flat lay at one point or other, it’s unlikely many of them actually turned out the way you’d visualised in your head. Don’t worry – I’ve been there. And this article is all you’ll need to make those flat lays as perfect in your photos as they are in your head!
5 Flat Lay Photography Essentials:
The art of the perfectly composed flat lay has nothing to do with magic and everything to do with trial and error… and a lot of patience. While there are no rules to what makes the “perfect” flat lay, you will definitely notice some consistencies in the best ones. They tend to involve minimalism or chaos, both in the content and in the way they’re arranged. The former might only involve 3 simple items, perfectly aligned in the square – and on the flip side, you’ll see images teaming with products with the edges cut-off. You might prefer one or you might want to do both.
The easiest place to start is with a clean, flat surface (I use a little coffee table) and then choose your backdrop. This time around I used coloured cardboard from a craft shop, but you can also buy vinyl backdrops that look like wood or marble if you’re not lucky enough to have the real thing. You’ll then need to set your phone’s camera (or real camera) to take images in square. Trust me, you need to know what it looks like upfront rather than trying to crop them later on! Alternatively, you could take them in a nice rectangle – perfect for blog headers – then give yourself a square crop for Instagram. It takes a bit more time to get right, but with one image you have two kinds of content… win!
Without good lighting, you’ve got no chance of taking a flat lay with wow factor. Depending on what you’re shooting, natural light might be all you need – but obviously, that limits when and where you can shoot. While I love using natural light to grab a cute cafe flat lay on the fly, my preference is to set up a little studio in my home so I can do a big shoot and create enough content for the next month. Best of all, it means I can do it in the evening when I’m feeling most creative!
I have a couple of (giant) soft boxes thanks to my acting work and they work really well as the fluoro bulbs are nice and white. I set them up so they’re pointing down at the table like this \ _ / meaning they cancel each other’s shadows out. You could do the same thing with a couple of office lamps, but make sure they’re using fluoro bulbs as the warm light in tungsten bulbs (the traditional kind you use in your home) will mess up the colours of your objects and won’t look crisp. FYI I got my lights on eBay way back when, but these days I like hypop.com for any lighting needs as they’re based in Australia and offer great customer service.
While you’ll probably find yourself taking pictures of anything and everything during your practice shoot, the key to successful flat lays is finding a theme to make them pop. If you try and put every cute item you own into the shot, you’ll probably just end up with a cluttered mess. Instead, break them down into sub-categories or themes. Tea + book + candle = relaxing afternoon. Donuts + lollies = yummy things. Jeans + top + heels = OOTD. Laptop + glasses + camera = bloggers life. You get the idea!
I took this one after being given some cute kicks for my birthday – only took about 10 seconds to set up, but the image got a great response!
This is the step a lot of people leave out, but one that’ll get you massive brownie points from your followers. Try and use your flat lay to tell (or add to) your story in your Instagram feed rather than just putting them up randomly because they’re pretty. Reading some good books and going through a time of self-care or growth? Tell us about it and show us through a series of images. Same if you’re downsizing and decluttering – find a way to show us your progress and inspiration. Curating your closet? Working hard on a project? Anything you’re experiencing in your life can be the inspiration for a flat lay story – and one that’s so much more interesting than the generic “here’s my laptop, a tube of lipstick, 5 rings and a magazine”.
This example created by marketing agency, Revenge Creative is the perfect example of “less is more”. Two pieces of cardboard and one item are all it took to create a high impact image that tells their brand story.
Don’t expect your photos to look perfect the second you snap them. Almost all of your favourite Instagram images have had some work done and you’ll need to do the same to really impress with your flat lays. Aim for bright, sharp and high contrast images with your flat lays – but of course, take some time to experiment early on. Once you find an aesthetic (and specific filter) you like, it’s best to stay consistent for the sake of a beautiful grid. VSCO.co have some gorgeous, subtle filters that are a favourite with many high profile Instagrammers, plus it can be helpful to do a bit of retouching via the Snapseed app before you get to that stage.
A note on camera choice: I actually own both an expensive point and shoot as well as a Canon DSLR, but when setting up for this shoot realised that neither were ideal for flat lays as they struggled to find the right focus. For that reason plus ease of visibility (not to mention being lighter to hold!) I highly recommend sticking with your smartphone for these shoots – unless you’ve got a special relationship with your point and shoot meaning you can get it to behave (I certainly don’t).
BONUS: Your Flat Lay Prop Kit
Now for the fun part! Below is a list of items that tend to photograph really well in flat lays. See what you have around the house to experiment with before buying anything because you won’t necessarily want all of these items. More importantly, if you DO go out and purchase anything, do so thoughtfully. Make sure the items don’t just look good individually but all together. Try and stick to one feature colour and type of metal so they’re consistent and versatile.
Vintage look cameras
Books (either really new or really old)
Magazines (make sure they’re in good condition)
Throw rugs & sheepskin
Makeup (especially lipstick tubes)
Nail polish bottles
Sweets & desserts
And my personal favourite:
Flowers & succulents
I saved these for last because I truly believe they are like flat lay BFFs and can turn any “meh” looking photo into something bright, happy and dynamic. For instance, I quickly realised when setting up for this shoot that I owned barely anything “photogenic”. My makeup is all used and dirty, most of my new books are in digital format, and all of my candles and kitchenware, old and chipped. Thankfully none of that mattered since my silk flowers from Secret Blooms filled up the space, brightened the look of the image and even made the few items I DID have look more impressive. Best of all, since they’re individual stems, the possibilities were endless and each image looked different to the last despite making very few changes to the setup.
My advice? If you’re going to scrimp on everything else (hey, Kmart has most of what you need anyway), invest in a quality kit of faux blooms and a few nice backdrops. Those two things will help you to look like a pro no matter what else you’re photographing.
Where to find the best backdrops:
Wood and marble look vinyl: eBay & Amazon
Rugs, table cloths and sheets: Kmart, Target & Ikea
Large pieces of cardboard: Craft stores & newsagents
Where to find silk flowers:
While there are heaps of cheap and nasty fake flowers to be found (literally every bargain store you’ve ever visited!) you need a higher quality for photography which is why I got the team at Secret Blooms to custom build me a digital styling kit full of blooms that were really versatile as well as “on brand”. You can find their kits here – they start at $130 – and be sure to follow them on Instagram and Facebook for more flower styling inspo and don’t be afraid to chat to them directly if you want something that’s not listed on their site!
I hope you found this helpful and are now ready to overcome your flat lay overwhelm. If you have any questions about the subject, please leave me a comment below – or if you want to show off your handiwork, be sure to tag @surewhynot.blog on Instagram! Thanks for reading… and happy snapping! x
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The gorgeous team at Secret Blooms have created a discount code that’ll get you 15% off their digital styling kits until July 31, 2017. Pretty cool right? All you need to do is enter the code “bloomstyle15” at checkout. Thanks, Secret Blooms!