One of the easiest ways to tell a visual story is with a flat lay photo. Social media friendly, though not necessarily quick to put together, this style of photography is visually descriptive and can have such a narrative when done well.
I posted this photo earlier this week with a long caption – not my usual style – but you see this seemingly random collection of objects has a story to tell, it is a story of connections, of how my mum likes tea and my dad liked coffee and much more besides (a lot of which is in the caption).
Aside from the technical aspects of taking this style of photo, I want to encourage you to think further about what you want your photo to say. Let’s start with the basics.
flat lay photo styling
First things first, select your background. You can use any surface you like, a table, a chair, fabric or paper or anything else, just remember that highly patterned backdrops will detract and distract from the objects you are using, especially if they are small.
As with all photography, light is of fundamental importance. I always use natural light, sometimes reflected to decrease shadow, I use the setup I shared here. Remember that being closer to the light source (a window for these photos) = bright and well lit, further from the light source = mood and depth. For a flat lay consider from which direction the light enters the frame, that is to say where would you like your shadows to fall? Any direction is fine, it’s up to you, except shadows above objects just look a little odd. I’ll show you…
This is where the fun is! To line up in straight lines or freestyle? Lining up is a really good place to start if you aren’t sure, it is visually striking and an easy style to create. Freestyling is about finding a balance and flow to your objects. Think about the placement of larger items, grouped together catches the eye but can feel clumsy. Scattered through the frame is friendlier to the eye and draws you in for a closer look. It encourages the viewer to absorb the details and take in the smaller items that sit between the larger ones. Think also about the texture of the items, if you are mixing objects consider using some hard (ceramics, metals, glass etc) and some soft (linens, feathers, flowers) to create interest.
Try and leave a little negative space in your composition. Although of course you do not have to if filling the frame is what you want to do, generally a picture is easier to view with a little blank space to rest in. Once again it draws you into the composition rather than the eye not knowing where to start, it instantly creates points of interest and places of calm within the frame.
Then also think of the big picture. Move away and consider shape of your composition. There are many guidelines and tips about this one, the rule of thirds, briefly explained in this post, and triangles are always helpful to a composition. Think of triangles in terms of three main points of focus, or three leading lines that carry your eye around the frame. The spiral shape in the first image of this post is significant in another way as this was a photo about my love of collecting, and how I will continue to collect but look more closely and you will notice that the tea tin / coffee cup / spanner make a triangle. The spanner / bolt / pair of spoons make another triangle. The larger objects are connected – do you see? But also the spiral is unending and so the story can go on, the viewer can easily imagine a continuation. Circles and squares are closed shapes, they say ‘this is finished’, lines and compositions that flow however are open ended stories.
Think also about the size and shape of your objects. This can also influence a composition, is there a big difference between the largest and smallest item you want to include? If so perhaps also use items of a medium size that link the two, so they don’t sit awkwardly next to each other. Consider layering items, overlapping and stacking can be effective in a flat lay photo, there needn’t be space between all the items in your composition as a hint of something more beneath is enticing. Furthermore cropping the edges off some of the items in your composition hints at something beyond the frame, that there is a bigger picture.
Just one more note here about the height of your items. Cameras are clever things but there does come a point when they have to choose where to focus therefore keeping the height of your objects to a similar range will mean more of them are in focus, if there is a big difference between the tallest and shortest object it is likely that they won’t all stay in focus.
Here we are thinking about what to include and what not. The props if you like. A simple floral study might require nothing extra, if you are creating a story about arranging your flowers then consider adding extra items but try and keep them relevant. For example secateurs, scissors, vase, a jug of water, string (maybe you are doing a hand tied bouquet…?). Or if you are sharing a botanical study consider using labels. You don’t necessarily need to stick to any rules here but do think about your composition. If you are baking then a bunch of flowers is not relevant – unless they are edible ones. Yes you can include them and I have done so many mixed message photos in the past, but honestly it would make more sense if you included kitchenalia, recipe books, ingredients and linens.
Perhaps you are composing a colour story in which case what ties your props together is exactly that, colour. Whether several shades of one colour or a mix of different ones, think of how they sit together. Not all colours agree with each other…
Knowing when to stop adding is tricky, I guess it’s about finding the right balance. Sometimes more is most definitely more and other times less works perfectly, it really depends on how you are planning to use the photo. That said minimal is really difficult to pull off with any kind of impact. The photo below I took on a weekend away last autumn, the pegs were at the house we stayed in and I just loved them. The age, the texture, the woodworm holes. As a single photo though it says, well, not a lot. Here are 5 pegs. But it does have it’s place as it then became part of a much bigger photo story printed into an album with pictures from the entire trip and as a mixed collection this fit perfectly, it is more of a space filler than a composition to be proud of though. To share as a photo on it’s own it doesn’t speak volumes, it is maybe too simple. To develop a story well you need more reference points.
Do you have an object that you want to be the main focus of the frame? Think about where you place it, nearer the centre or on one of the cross sections in your grid of 9 squares (again see the rule of thirds) will draw attention to it. If you are playing the centre game then use the grid to ensure your centre is just that and not simply almost there.
Are all the items you are including of equal importance? A collection, like the stamps below, can be a beautiful thing when laid out carefully. Each of these stamps is of a similar size, I have collected their colours and straightened enough without being over-perfect. Their uniform shapes lend themselves well to a square, which is handy for Instagram too. There are many variations you can try, many compositions to create and provided you get the basics right then you’re on the path to visual storytelling with impact.
So there you have it, my (almost) brief guide to styling a flat lay photo. It’s not all inclusive – as with any photography there are so many aspects to consider – what I am hoping to share here are a few of the basic steps to help hone your own photography style.