There are secrets to creating dynamic flat-lay photos.

When you’re struck by a frame picturing objects shot from above, take a moment to analyze what makes the image compelling. At first, the elements might seem to be scattered haphazardly, but you’ll begin to see how the combination of the lighting, location, composition, use of color and other qualities come into play to weave a story or evoke an emotional response, all in one frame.

When I began experimenting with flat-lay photography, I’d be disappointed in the results. I kept researching and practicing, though, and was pleased to see that compositional principles, color theory and the use of psychological principles of perception can be learned.

Here are my best tips for creating powerful flat-lay images:

Dynamic flat lay images of childrens items

1. Start with a solid foundation.

When I have an idea for an image, I usually start with the background. If I want a fun, lively mood, I usually select a colorful art paper. For a formal or dramatic mood, I go with black. For clean, calm desktop images, I typically choose white foam board. Of course, the choice of background involves practical physical factors as well, such as easily cleaned surfaces for food shoots.

dynamic flat-lay photo of oranges

My favorite sources for flat-lay backgrounds

Amazon: canvas and muslin fabrics

Crate & Barrel: marble slab; slate cheeseboard; linen tablecloths

Hobby Lobby (or any art supply store): 30×40- inch black and white foam board; large art/ mat boards

Home Depot, Lowe’s: 1×4-inch wood planks; 12×12-inch tiles

Ink and Elm Backdrops: faux wood floor backdrops

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2. The lighting has to be perfect.

Use the area with the best light — creating the appropriate set is part of the job. I set up on the floor in front of a large window with my camera opposite the light source. I prop up one white foam board as a reflector at a close to perpendicular angle to brighten the scene and reduce shadows. Throughout the shoot, I’m mindful of how the light varies from minute to minute due to factors outside, and make setting adjustments accordingly.

dynamic flat-lay photo of candle and matches
dynamic flat-lay photo of baking

3. Gather the materials.

Gather everything you’ll need, including props, products, and light modifiers. Incorporate a mix of large and small items to balance the frame. Also, select items with varying textures and colors to add dimension and interest. Adobe Color CC is my go-to resource for help in coming up with color schemes.

4. Use the best tools for the job.

Close to essential in flat-lay photography is a tripod with a center column that can be positioned horizontally. It’s the only way to ensure consistency in multiple shots of the same scene as you tweak the styling.

For lenses, I rely on Canon 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, and 50mm macro lenses. A large-aperture lens isn’t important to me here, because I typically shoot at a high f/stop (e.g., f/16 on my 50mm or f/22 on my 35mm) to make sure that everything is sharply in focus.


dynamic flat-lay photo of journal

Tether it.

Shooting tethered saves you time and headaches.

There are few things more disheartening in photography than getting excited about the flat lay you just created, downloading the images to your computer, and then seeing that the items weren’t aligned properly or that the focus was off.

OK, it isn’t a huge deal if your styled scene is still set up, but you could have saved so much time and aggravation if you’d had your camera tethered to your computer monitor in the first place, and been able to see what changes needed to be made immediately and much more clearly than on the camera’s bitty screen.

My go-to tethering gear and setup are the Tether Tools cable and Jerkstopper kit, combined with Capture One software.

Tethered set up for flat lay photos

5. Start laying out the design.

Think about the mood and story you want to tell. That will help dictate your lighting and the composition. The compositional rule of thirds is a starting point in flat-lay photos, but certainly not the only style to consider. Symmetrical layouts, leading lines, the use of triangles, and a knolling pattern are some options to try. Also, I find every opportunity to create movement with inanimate objects.

Styling takes a bit of trial and error. I typically go through multiple iterations of the styling before I arrive at the final image.

Example of good to better:

Check out these examples of how I took several flat-lay photos from good to better by careful stying, lighting, and composition.

Flat-lay photo of peach yogurt, before
50mm lens at f/16, 1/15, ISO 320

Set 1: good

What works: I chose to make the background from 1×4-inch wood planks painted white because I wanted an authentic feel. The use of complementary colors (orange and blue here) makes the image pop and seem bright and fresh. Also, there’s nice movement in the image.

What could be improved: The story is about the making of the yogurt bowls, but the finished product gets lost in all the other elements. The blank space in the bottom left is intended to be used for text, but I didn’t leave myself options in the event that I didn’t want to include text.

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Flat lay photo of peach yogurt
50mm lens at f/16, 1/25, ISO 400

Set 2: better

What works: I went with a symmetrical composition, which is pleasing to the eye. The story is clearly about two people sitting down to enjoy their breakfast, so I also brought in silverware. The meal is now the main focus. Whole peaches are apropos props. Groupings of odd numbers work well together.

What could be improved: The reflection of the tripod in the spoons is a bit distracting, as is the glare from the window. Also, the blue napkins don’t fit the mood well.

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Flat-lay photo of peach yogurt with yellow napkins
50mm lens at f/16, 1/20, ISO 400

Set 3: best

Why this is better: I decided to pull one of the colors from the peaches for the napkin to make the image feel more harmonious. Your eye is no longer being pulled toward the blue napkins, which helps center the dish.

A more monochromatic, warm color scheme adds to the cozy mood. I used dulling spray on the spoons to get rid of the reflections and glares.

In the end, sometimes it’s best to pare down the elements and simplify. Here, less is more, indeed.

Set 1: good

What works: Considering the mood, something about calligraphy and silk ribbon feels both romantic and rustic to me. The torn edge of the natural cotton paper and the raw silk ribbon on a neutral background made of natural material made sense. By design, styling the items in a knolling fashion (the objects are arranged at 90-degree angles to one another) looks highly organized.

What could be improved: Organized, yes, but the image also looks completely flat, with nothing to move the eye through the composition. The note cards get lost because they’re lying flush with the background and the background is so light. Moreover, you can’t see the complementary texture in the cotton muslin.

How to take flat lay photos of calligraphy
50mm lens at f/16, 1/20, ISO 400

Set 2: great

Why this is better: To play up the texture in the props, I decided to use a linen tablecloth stretched over foam board for the backdrop. The linen, also a natural fiber, has more texture than the muslin, and, thus, creates depth. I placed a few quarters under the note cards as risers to lend definition. Layering the items (see the note cards on the slate and the pen on the notecard) gives the image more dimension.

Further, I used triangular composition between the ink, cap, and pen and between the three spools of ribbon, and leading lines from the open spool of ribbon. Our eyes naturally travel down with the ribbon and land on the written notecard.

Overall, this image now tells a better story by showing the items in use.

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How to take flat lay photos of calligraphy, better
35mm lens at f/20, 1/6, ISO 500

Photos by Kimberly Murray

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Click Magazine. Buy single issues here, or subscribe now and never miss great photography articles like this one.