How to take a flat lay photo

Nikki Parkinson Life 53 Comments

Sponsored by Olympus Australia

So you’re not a fan of the selfie when it comes to sharing photos on Instagram or other social media or blog platforms?

That’s ok.

I get that.

There is another way to otherwise tell a story or give people a visual insight into your daily life, your wardrobe, what you like to eat, what beauty products you use or how you like to celebrate certain days.

The flat lay.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering what kind of language I’m talking, take a little scroll through the Instagram hashtag feed #flatlay. There are more than 113,000 images tagged as flatlays. Yes, like all hashtag feeds, not all will be on topic but you will get a good indication of what I’m talking about.

In a nutshell, a flat lay photo is a photo of a single or group of items taken from above. By doing so, the visual effect is one of “flattening” the photo.

I may not shoot a flat lay photo every day but I do style and shoot them when I want to tell a visual story with an image.

Think about how quickly YOU scroll through your Instagram feed. What stops you in your tracks? To like and comment?

For me, it’s an image that immediately tells a story and/or has visual impact.

That’s why the flat lay style of photography has taken off. You get the visual impact and the story of that image in the flick of a scroll.

As a creative, shooting this style of photo gets me thinking outside the square. Or inside the square … as is the case for Instagram.

My own social media photos – including flat lay photos – have been a whole lot better since I started using the Olympus PEN E-PL7. You can catch up on all the features of this compact system camera here but, in a nutshell, this camera is a social photo-sharing dream. It’s compact enough to fit in my handbag and then connects via built-in wi-fi so I can upload photos immediately to my phone or tablet and share via social media. Yes, it’s one extra step but the big win has been a HUGE improvement in the quality of photos that I now share on social media.

I’m by no means an expert when it comes to shooting flatlays but I thought I’d share my 13 tips on how to take a flat lay photo from what I’ve learned so far – from playing around with different things myself and for studying the work of those who nail it every time.

How to take a flat lay photo

1. Choose the visual story you’re going to tell with your photo. Are you showing what you plan to wear that day? The ingredients for a recipe you’re cooking? What’s on your desk? What beauty products you’ve used on your face today? Are you aiming to tell a story about a particular day – Australia Day? Valentine’s Day? Easter? Pretty much everything you do can be told in a flat lay visual story. Think about what elements could best tell that story.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

2. Shoot your photos in an area that has great natural light. Indirect light shining through a window is ideal. Just don’t block the light source by standing in front of it to shoot your photo. I like to minimise the shadow but some Instagramers do it very well by harnessing shadow from natural light in flat lay.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

3. A white background/surface is always a good idea but don’t be afraid to play around with different colours and textures. Some Instagramers stick to the one background – it’s become their brand – and that’s ok too. I use a mix of backgrounds – timber, coloured rugs or fabric, white paper, coloured paper – contrasting with the items that I’m photographing.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

4. Placing items on the floor enables you to more easily get the height you need to shoot from directly above. If this is not enough height to be directly over your flat lay subjects, use a chair or stool. If at a restaurant, I am THAT person who will stand up and shoot the meal or group of meals from above. It’s important to be totally above the subject because if there is even the slightest angle it will distort the perspective.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

5. Choose one hero item when styling your flat lay grouping. This anchors the photo and allows the eye to focus on the main thing first and then travel around to take in the whole image.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

6. Choose item that work together in colour groupings. Think similar tones of the same colour or complementary colours. Or there could be one hero colour that you then bring in to the image with a couple of other pieces.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

7.  Include items of different size. Leading the eye around the image through different sized items adds to the visual story.

How to take a flat lay photo

8.  Get your head around the photography “rule of thirds”.  Switch on the grid on the camera’s LCD screen – this divides the screen into nine squares. The idea is that you place anything of interest in the photo where those lines intersect or along the lines. I know it seems tricky but once you start playing with this you can see why it helps to create an image that attracts the viewer in.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

9.  Allow for space around the items in your photo. You need to play around with the space because what it looks like through the lens is slightly different from without. I will often take a dozen photos, moving the items around until I’m completely happy with the spacing and composition.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

10. Shoot the image with a 1:1 aspect. This means that you can frame your image without having to guess how the crop is going to work.

11. Study and learn from the flat lay leaders. I’m sure there are so many fabulous flat lay photographers out there but for starters, check out fashion blogger @margaret__zhang for her food/restaurant flatlays and her ability to make a very busy flat lay extremely visually appealing; fashion blogger @oraclefoxblog for tonal flatlays that utilise texture for opulence; illustrator @kerriehessillustration for French-inspired flatlays that feature Kerrie’s illustrations and splashes of pastels and tonal goodness; recipe developer and stylist @84thand3rd for visually stunning food ingredients that you wish you could eat; and graphic designer @lauren.storey for beautiful minimalistic flatlays that “own” the rule of thirds.

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

12. Find your own flat lay heroes. The other way to find flatlay inspiration is to follow certain Instagram hashtags. Try the #7vignettes feed (started by The Interiors Addict); #fmsphotoaday (started by Fat Mum Slim); and #collectivehub (a great example of a business harnessing the power of social media and getting fans to share their product – because the magazine is already flat, many of the fan images are flat lays – the best ones get selected and published in the Collective magazine).

How to take a flat lay photo | Olympus PEN E-PL7

13. Experiment and have fun. That’s the beauty of photography for social media. It’s not serious but it is a fantastic way to explore your creative side through the power of an image.

How to take a flat lay photo

The Styling You/Olympus Selfie lunch

I’m so excited to announce the 20 people who’ll be coming along to lunch in the private dining room at QT Sydney with me on March 11 between 12 and 3pm. There will be much talk, much selfie taking, you’ll get to play with the Olympus PEN E-PL7 and learn tips on how to get this most out of this camera from a professional photographer.

Drum roll please …

K. Murray

M. Van Tulder

J. Taylor

M. Bender

A. Kell

M. Dann

V. Wallis

W. Boyd

I. Norris

L. Johnson

L. Hurren

A. Stevenson

N. Somaiya

S. Colden

S. McCarney

R. Eagleton

A. Subotic

J. Mrdak

C. Thornton

A. Hurley

For more information about the Olympus PEN E-PL7 camera, visit here.

Coordinated by The Remarkables Group

  • Embarrassingly so, I’ve only just discovered your site & it’s a goldmine of blogging knowledge & advice that I’m going to be spending a lot more time at. Thank you thank you Nikki. 😀

  • This is so awesome! Can’t wait to get snapping and to see you on Wednesday!

  • Such a great post – so inspired to get snapping!

  • Thanks for this. I’ve taken a few flat lays without knowing what I was doing or that it had a technique. I have found angle and light problematic. I have so much blogging techniques to learn.

  • This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me! I just joined Instagram (I know, I’m very late to that party) and I’ve been seeing all those great flat lay shots with no idea how to reproduce them. Thank you so much for your tips. I’m off to follow you on instagram now 🙂

  • rocky

    awesome tips!

  • Alex

    These look great Nikki, awesome tips! Have a great time at the Styling You / Olympus Selfie lunch, that sounds so much fun!

  • Great tips! I love experimenting with flat lays. Shadows often end up being a problem for me. Do you just use Instagram to edit your photos or do you use another app?

    Looking forward to the lunch to meet you and the other lucky ladies there plus to learn lots more tips!

    • Hi Ingrid, some of the best flatlays can include shadows as an effect. I mostly try to avoid and this is best down with natural light. Looking forward to the lunch!

  • Susan Coleman

    Great article Nikki……..must have husband…..the Beauje Photographer, stock boy and likes to think financial controller read thoroughly and start practicing :-)……so true re that visual story telling. Spot on again. Susan

  • Yeeeesss! I love Oracle Fox too. Almost as much as I love Ashley Rose and Margaret Zhang as mentioned on Instagram. Sooo good. I endeavour to flat lay like the pros, maybe someday practice will make perfect. x

    • The practice bit is the fun bit I think Mel … gets the creativity happening.

  • Anita McLachlan

    Woohoo and mega clapping here. Thanks for shedding light on a topic I am wanting to master. Thanks Nikki. Ax

  • Lauren Roney

    another fabulous lesson xxxxx

  • Cindy Thornton

    Thankyou, very excited to be included.

    • Yay for that – can you please email me back with answers to my questions – particularly any dietary requirements!

  • Nice tips. I’m still too embarrassed to stand on a chair to get the height. Eekk!

    • I don’t do it publicly May but I will stand up at my table in a restaurant to do!!

    • I don’t do it publicly May but I will stand up at my table in a restaurant to do!!

  • I’m such a flat lay novice, so these are all awesome tips – thanks lovely. I especially need to take on your last point: to experiment and have fun with it. x

    • That’s the best bit. I’m no professional but I do love to play with my creative side!

  • Great post! I’ll be using some of these tips for sure! Thank you! x

  • Great post Nikki, I’d like to try doing more flat lays and now I feel much better educated! Can’t wait for the lunch on March 11th xox

  • Lisa Mckenzie

    Thank you Nikki for all the tips and tricks on how to do a flatlay,I need to do more practise on this technique Xx

    • If it’s something you’d like to do Lisa … I love the creativity that’s what keeps me experimenting!

  • What a great post, so informative. Thank you for sharing.

  • Guest

    Sall

  • Johanne Taylor

    Yay! Looking forward to lunch and meeting lots of other lovely readers!

  • merliyn

    all good! … love the flat lay tips nikki!
    I do them with my assemblages!
    I’m closely copying your travel outfit ideas for our trip to Melbourne next week!;0 … YES! & the birthday continues! … why not! cheers hun! love m:)X

  • You put so much effort and research in a post. I salute you for that. Plus I am super excited to be in this list. Thanks for the opportunity Nikki. 🙂

  • Lauren @SAHM I am

    Great tip- I had completely forgot about the nine grid option on my camera but that will make it so much easier!

  • Jenni from styling curvy

    Awesome tips Nikki, this is something I need to do more of x

    • If it works for you then yes Jenni, jump on board!

      • Jenni from styling curvy

        I’ve tried a few times but was winging it. The lighting tip is a good one x

  • I quite enjoy taking a flat lay Nikki. I think I am much better at the flatlay than the selfie. Great tips. See you on March 11. Thank you. V x