What is Flat Lay Photography?
Flat Lay Photography is a style of product photography that puts the product in its full scale with on a flat backdrop in the middle of the frame. The product is laid down, flat, and then photographed with its most important features up towards a camera which is situated above.
Also referred to as “knolling”, this presents a very symmetrical and simplified composition that focuses entirely on the photographed product.
One of the key components for flat lay photography is the background of the product, what it is resting on, as this provides not just a background to placate viewers with an agreeable sense of stylistically meshing color pallets, but can also help show a deeper sided story for the product that isn’t available in something like a keyed-out rotational composition.
It is a full-screen image where every pixel is used to impart a feeling onto a viewer and entice them toward the product in the middle.
This style of photography started out as a very clinical and stripped-down method of organizing tool boxes, to lay everything out symmetrically and in blocks of like-sized pieces almost like a puzzle.
That way each individual piece could be identified with ease and picked out of the rest without having to squint and see if it was a 1/8th or 1/16th sized socket.
It used the appearance and the proportions of each object individually to create a dynamic flow to the still image which guides a viewers eyes along from corner to corner, or in the case of modern flat lay product photography, from the center out.
This lay flat product photography originally served a functional purpose and evolved into a more stylistic way of showing off a product.
This method differs dramatically from its origin, and even from other modern compositional product photography. The least similar, and closest to being an opposite, might be the more clinical standing shot of a product on its natural end or hanging by a holster to show the whole thing with no backing and optimal front-facing light.
It’s the view that stores and online shops like Wal-Mart of Amazon might like but it has no personality. It is the product, on full display, with no additional attention to color or theming.
Simple top down photography isn’t the same as lay flat photography. It often comes down to the background and surroundings.
When taking a top down photo, you want the “stage” the product is on to be clear and open so that only the product is visible from that particular angle. It’s one direction of a 3D object that establishes what it looks like when viewed from above.
Again, very clinical and sterile.
Flat lay product photography is more about style.
Style and personality are the forces behind flat lay photography which other techniques lack.
The background shouldn’t be blank, but should match the mood of the product that is taking it up.
This can be a matching color or a strictly contrasting color which will make the product stand out.
It can even be an image, a simple assembly of elements that compliment the image and help build up a product narrative.
Narrative-based or lifestyle photography is popular for social media branding and creating content for increasing brand awareness.
It’s using a picture to say more than just 1,000 words. It’s all about consolidating the space given with as much information as necessary without evoking a feeling of chaos or bloat.
It’s artistic and minimalist and makes people think longer about your product than they would if it was just there, sterile and hanging in a void with nothing to interact with.
It places products in the real world while simultaneously placing them in an ideal space for them to flourish.
How To Do Flat Lay Photography
Where does lay flat product photography begin? The amateur’s answer would be taking an object, putting it on a table and taking a picture from above.
That is top down photography and misses the entire point.
Flat lay is more about setting up a mood to surround a product than just simple, basic product photography. You need to work through a few steps to establish what you want this photo to do:
1. Establish a Reason
What is the story you want to tell? What is the feeling you want to evoke? Work out the intention, the finalized vision of what a product photo should deliver to a viewer, something you want them to think when they see it. Having that as an end goal will help set a foundation to work from, and will give you path that you can alter as long as it remains true to your initial emotional vision. This is where you come up with the story behind the photo.
2. Choose a Background
The second most important piece of lay flat photography is the background, but it’s also the biggest part of the photo. The background will take up most of the space in the photo. Consider the product that will be in the center and think of a color palette that will compliment it, or a pattern that will help it stand out. You can also blend these together, making the product seem like it’s much bigger by having it compliment the background or blend into the patterns slightly. These can be anything from colored panels to towels or blankets, whatever it takes to set the right mood.
3. Light the Shot
Lighting is key to all photography. Photographs are the result of absorbing and redirecting light into a physical medium, and playing with light has resulted in static illusions in old photographs with haunting after effects. For flat lay, you don’t necessarily need flat light. You can use natural light, colored light, and even cast light at an angle to give a shadow to the product which will give it depth. Choose lighting that matches the story of the shot.
4. Place the Product
Often referred to as the “hero product” because it’s meant to be front and center, taking up all of the attention and doing all the important work. Placing the main product you want to highlight and tell a story about requires a bit more finesse than just putting it down and holding it in place. Make sure the brand is facing forward, even if it’s already part of the background. Wherever you put it, it should be the highest thing on the background so it has a greater sense of scale and depth. Flat Lay product photography is great for helping 3D objects really stand out.
5. Place the Props
Flat lay product photography doesn’t rely on just one single, lonely product. Choose complementary objects that enhance the product. Add the ingredients of a consolidated food bar or the various electronic parts of an otherwise assembled appliance. Don’t add so much that it clutters up or causes confusion. There is only one “hero” to the image, but all the extra “sidekicks” can help out by making it the most important looking product in the shot. They are there to help tell the story of the product, not have stories of their own.
6. Simple Colors
It can be tempting to turn on the inner artist and make a gorgeous scenic landscape painting full of blends and gradient hues to put your product on. But, consider the state of most products. Basic marketing requires simple, straightforward colors for backgrounds. The bigger an object is, the more visual power it has when it is mostly a uniform, inoffensive color. People will look at the full image longer if they don’t hate the background. Do basic color theory and matching to get the right look in simple, broad strokes.
7. Take the Shot
The most important part of photography isn’t the framing or the shutter speed or lighting, it’s actually just taking the shot. With flat lay photography, you have plenty of time to line everything up. Your product and background aren’t going anywhere. The most you might lose is light, which can be simulated with some extra care. Once you have everything in the proper place, get your camera in position and take the photo with whatever mode will fit it all without losing anything essential.
8. Edit and Post
Once you have the picture taken, bring it to your favorite editing suite and put some finishing touches on it. You may want a darker shadow, but the perfect lighting you found can only be so bright before it washes out the rest of the colors. To prevent that, just use some digital trickery and give it a harsh, striking shadow or give it more saturation. Make the shot more perfect than before, and once its ready, select your favorite social media and let the world see it.
Flat Lay Photography Tips
For those just discovering this functional fad or those who want to increase their capabilities, consider acting on these ten tips to make sure you take top-tier lay flat product photos and tell the stories you want people to see:
1. Be Inspired
Photography is about telling a story, capturing a moment of importance in a single still image that can explain a whole situation. So, you will want to know what that story is before you prepare for it. Find inspiration in different sources, things related to the product or in the world of photography itself. Don’t imitate, innovate, take something you like and make it yours.
2. Be Equipped
Don’t be caught needing something and not having it. Once you decide on Flat Lay, make a shopping trip and bring back the essentials:
- White Foam Boards. Easy to paint on and double-sided, and a good source of a neutral white for simple shots.
- A Camera. Get one within your budget and within your understanding. Reach out to a photo-happy friend to see what they would recommend that’s good at color and depth, in particular.
- A Tripod. You aren’t going to hold the camera yourself and reframe the shot every single time you make a minor change. Get one with an arm attachment so you don’t accidentally catch part of the tripod in the final shot.
- Lighting. If you have a window, you have lighting. If you need more lighting, you can rig up simple studio lighting with paper over a white-bulb lamp, or get production grade studio lights for longer use across multiple projects.
3. Have Props Ready
You never want to scramble and tear up your house or studio to look for the right prop. While planning ahead, think of what you’ll need and get it in time for the photo session. Keep a rotation of reusable props as well that can adjust the mood or add color, small pieces of art that can catch and reflect the light can turn a simple white backdrop into a pleasantly pastel one.
4. Keep It Simple
When preparing backgrounds for product photography, make sure they’re simple. Use basic colors according to mood. No big swirls or complicated patterns, that’s an entirely different kind of art that’s worth making, but not part of Flat Lay Photography. Concentrate on the overall image and keep compositions simple. The same goes for props. A regular tablecloth can do more than a perfectly rendered 3D printed wave pattern painted onto a foam board.
5. Understand Contrasts
It helps to touch up on your color theory for lay flat photography. Know what colors clash and contrast, the difference can save your composition. For example, if you have a green product, a purple background will contrast with it, making it stand out. However, a bright red one will clash and draw focus on the area around them where the colors meet. The basics of color theory can save you a load of headaches down the line, just memorize the basic combinations and then you can experiment with textures, fabrics and other depth-creating techniques that add more layers of immersion to the photo.
6. Balance is Everything
Make sure you don’t overload the composition with too many props or changes in color. There is a limit to how many words an image should tell. The more you add the longer a viewer will take to start thinking through it. You want immediate reaction followed by a long tail of contemplation. If someone takes too long to see through your picture or treats it like a Where’s Waldo of what’s the point, you failed at balance.
7. Living Elements
Don’t be afraid to get a bit of yourself in the frame. Adding the presence of a person will personalize the image and give it a more intimate element. Suddenly, you’re part of the story happening in the shot composition. Now you and the product are intertwined. Even doing something as simple as holding it in your palm, above the background, gives it weight. The viewer will be able to feel it the way you do as it rests in your hand. However, if you want to remain focused on less makeup-influenced colors, try adding flowers. The green of leaves can contrast and blend well with many colors. Just look at flowers, they’re mostly green with big buds at one end that stand out all the more because of it. Seeing life, even in a still frame, gives a positive impression.
8. Be Natural
Natural lighting is king in production photography. Hundreds of dollars can be spent on sunlight-simulating lightbulbs that pretend to have different frequencies of light that shines through clouds or mist or fog. But if that light already exists in the world, take advantage of it. All you need is a skyline and an open window. Wanting more isn’t bad, but don’t underestimate the appeal of soft white light against any color that you put down.
9. Know Your Software
Any picture you take will have to be run through software like Adobe Photoshop which will alter its appearance, compress it and mess with the carefully established color grading and light sources that you spent time setting up for your flat lay product photography shoot. Find an editing suite that can help you, not one that gives you way more work than you expected. Even if you’re totally confident that the image in camera is perfect and deserves to be uploaded, take a closer look and make touch-ups as necessary. It’s easier than taking a whole new picture. Saving time makes room for more chances.
10. Consider the End Result
If you’re taking up flat lay photography for marketing or product sales, a good picture can be enough to catch attention but it might not be enough to push sales if your product has details a viewer should know about. For that, there needs to be room for text to be incorporated into the final image. You can even plan it out in advanced by knowing what text you will put and writing it on a piece of paper to lay over the shot and see how it will look. No need to guess font sizes to find the right one. You can even incorporate the text into the initial photograph as a prop, as a clever twist.
Flat Lay Product Photography
Overall, lay flat product photography, is more than a fad or Instagram statement, it is a productive and useful tool for product marketing. Using it can enhance a brand with easy recognizability, using it well can even make a viewer think of a product just from a combination of colors. But it’s not perfect. Other styles are still in use for a reason.
- It’s much more simple than other methods. The static framing means no posing, no compensating for unexpected movement or proportions. It’s all on one layer and the camera stays still.
- It can be used for many kinds of products. As long as you have a larger enough background you can make any composition you want.
- It can be styled and personalized any way you choose so each shot is yours and yours alone.
- It lends itself well to multi-media as well, with moving graphical overlays and creative montages that can be used in different social media spaces.
- There is extra set up time compared to simpler modeling shots where a product is just hung up as-is.
- Products can look a bit “off” when laid flat, such as round jars or clothes that are meant to be worn.
- The larger the item, the harder the framing, to the point where if it’s too big it might be better to use more standard modeling techniques for it.
- The number of factors with colors matching, clashing and the highly stylistic nature can be overwhelming for first timers, or for seasoned photographers that want to try something new.
It definitely all comes down to you. Mix and match, try different styles and find the combination that gets you the lay flat results you want.
Examples of Flat Lay Photos
There are many products suitable for Flat Lay Photography. While it is a specialized style that focuses on close-up scale-based framing of centralized subjects it can do more than just make a single sample of a product look good. It’s useful for many different branches of goods.
- Fashion: Small articles like hats, gloves, sunglasses, jewelry - the smaller the better, and the more details to show off the better it will look against a simplified background.
- CPG: Consumer Packaged Goods. Canned food, pegged food, custom health snacks and drinks and salves. Anything that can stand on a shelf can be part of an iconographic Flat Lay.
- Food: Separate from CPG, this is more for social awards. Prepared food, cooked food, top-down views of food to eat or being eaten. This shows off the scale of food on a plate or in an arrangement and adds smell and taste to the elements a photo can provide.
- Tech: Everyone wants a good look at the latest technology, and it keeps getting smaller as power concerns disappear. Having a standout display for new tech will show its innovation, and yours.
The simplest methods often produce the most powerful results. Let the world see the story you can sell with one plane, one placement and one picture.