A Quick Beginner’s Guide to Flatlay Photography

Anyone who knows me on social media knows just how much I have a passion for flatlay photography. I’ve been taking flatlay photos for 5 years now, and while there is still so much to learn, I’ve built up enough knowledge and experience to nail some of the fundamentals when it comes to flatlay photography.

With that in mind, I wanted to share this quick beginner’s guide to flatlay photography, so that any and everyone who has an interest in this particular photography form has something to refer to. I wish I had a guide like this to help me when I was starting out years ago, but I guess I needed to explore and experiment with a number of flatlay concepts before truly providing a guide like this. So, grab your notes (or bookmark this article) and let’s dive into flatlay photography!

What’s The Reason?

This is a very literal question that you should be asking yourself every time you are about to create a flatlay image. What is the reason? Why are you doing this?

Are you educating people through your flatlay photo? Is there a specific product that you are highlighting or showcasing? Perhaps it’s a service that you want to share in the image? Or maybe there is a story that you want to tell through your flatlay photo?

Whatever the reason is, make sure that you actually have one and build your flatlay around that.

flatlay photo of canon camera and polaroid

Choose the Right Background

I say this quite often whenever I speak about this aspect of flatlay photography but, the background that you use is like the location you use when you’re doing a portrait or fashion photoshoot. Wherever you place your model, or subject, will have some kind of impact on the overall image you take. Same concept applies to flatlay photography.

The background, or surface, that you use to place your objects on is important because it will either enhance the overall image or distract from the objects and items you are trying to place on the background. So, pick your backgrounds wisely!

My golden rule of thumb is to try keep your backgrounds clean and neutral. White is a staple background colour for me because it allows for the most versality in terms of the colours I can include through the objects I’ll use. Textured backgrounds (such as wooden tables or charcoal slates) are also great, especially for food flatlys, as they add this natural and organic feel that often compliments food. I personally get my flatlay boards from local South African brand, Flatlay Studios.

Just remember that when you are selecting a background for your flatlay photo, it shouldn’t be something that’s busy with patterns or distracting with harsh colours. Keep it as neutral as you can to make the most out of your flatlay photo.

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Light it Up!

So, I am a natural light photographer, both in my flatlays and portraits – in just about everything that I snap a photo for, natural light is my best friend. Of course, there are pros and cons to this, but I have found that the best flatlays are the ones that have been taken in natural light.

Some advantages for using natural light are, for one, it’s free and Mother Nature is quite generous in letting us get a lot of hours when it comes to natural light. Even though it’s not as easily controlled as artificial lighting, I personally prefer the overall softness and warmth that natural light provides.

However, you do want to avoid direct or overhead sunlight. There is a way to work around this (like having a diffuser) but the reason I say you want to avoid this type of natural light is due to the harsh shadows and contrast you can get in your flatlay photo.

Pick Your Theme

What kind of flatlay are you going to do? What’s the theme that your flatlay photo will take on? Food? Skincare? Makeup? Lifestyle? Camera gear?

You’ve probably come across food, beauty and camera gear flatlays (these are quite common) but there are so many other themes that your flatlay photo can take on as a theme, and it’s important that you have an idea of what the theme will be.

Your reason for the flatlay photo you want to take will more than often guide what theme you should select. If, for example, you want to showcase your morning breakfast meal, then the overall theme of the flatlay photo is “food” and you’ll create your flatlay photo around that theme. In essence, you want to select a theme that links back to the reason why you are doing this flatlay to begin with.

Choose the Right Layout

In my 5 years of flatlay photography experience, I’ve come across 3 distinct layouts to choose from when it comes to placing your products and props:

Structured

This is where you use gridlines as a template to help you place your objects and items. These layout styles have a rather masculine and stoic feel to them because they are quite rigid, and everything is placed in a meticulous manner (think “camera gear” and beauty flatlays).

Unstructured

Opposite to the structured layout, this is where you use more curve lines to help guide you on where you should place items in your flatlay photo. This layout style can get a little messy and frustrating if you have no sense of direction when it comes to product placement, so my advice is to grab a piece of paper and draw S-curves to create a template for yourself to follow. It becomes a lot easier for you to see where you can place your products and props, and you won’t feel so confused on where certain items should go.

“In The Moment”

This is phrase I have coined, and I refer to this layout as one that includes a piece of yourself in the actual flatlay photo. Whether that’s your hand or leg (or any other body part), in essence, you had a human component to your flatlay photo, which can oftentimes feel more inviting and personal (as opposed to just a viewer seeing a bunch of products on a service, adding a piece of yourself feels like the viewer is with you “in the moment”).

Photograph Your Flatlay Photo

Once you have worked your way through the above steps and tips, it’s finally time for you to actually take a picture of your flatlay photo. Whether you are using a smartphone, DSLR or Mirrorless camera, your flatlay photo will always be taken from one primary angle – directly above, or bird’s eye view.

You basically want to hold your camera directly above your flatlay scene, trying your best to get as parallel to your scene as possible, before snapping away! If you have a tripod, this will help you in terms of getting more stable images, and you’ll always have your photos taken from the same exact height (which is helpful if you are planning to switch out some props and products throughout your photoshoot). However, a tripod isn’t necessary, especially if you are a beginner. Working with what you have (tripod or not) won’t stop you from being able to capture amazing flatlay photos.

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Editing Your Flatlay Photo

I try my best to stay away from using filters with the flatlays I create (especially if I’m doing brand or client work) and instead, focus on getting specific editing techniques right. Whether I use Lightroom or Snapseed, some of the main editing tools I use for my flatlay photos (and the tools I’d encourage you to get familiar with) are:

  • Brightness
  • Contrast
  • Saturation (especially with food flatlays)
  • Highlights
  • Shadows

These really are some of the most basic editing tools you want to get right first before you add filters or presets (especially if you work with natural light, where it can change so often and you’ll need to adjust the white balance).

Go Slay Your Flatlay!

Now that you have a better idea of some things to consider when it comes to taking a flatlay photo, I hope this guide encourages you to keep exploring this photography style. Like I mentioned before, I wish I had a guide like this to help me out when I was starting, but I truly hope that this will be the guide that someone needs now.

I’d absolutely love to write a guide that’s even more in-depth that this one, but I’ll save that for another day. For now, grab your cameras and enjoy the art that is flatlay photography.

P.S.: I recently recorded a podcast episode with Orms for a discussion on defining authenticity for yourself as a content creator. I touch on my flatlay photography process, sharing tips that I believe will be helpful for you. Take a listen here.

Author: Khalipha Ntloko

I'm a South African blogger with a love for writing and photography. After completing my BA Honours in Industrial Sociology degree, I'm taking on the real world and embarking on a wonderful journey of continuous growth and success that is filled with nothing but authenticity. So, here's to inspiring real life!

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