My Guide To Flatlay Photos

You know what a flatlay photo is, I know what a flatlay photo is, every blogger in the entire world knows what a flatlay photo is. Are they overused? Definitely. Are they going to go away any time soon? Probably not.

I am very fortunate in that I was a photographer before I was a blogger. I came to blogging already equipped with knowledge about cameras and composition, and I'm grateful for that. I've been reluctant to post about flatlays because they're such a blogger cliche. However, when I asked on Twitter whether you'd like a post about how I take my flatlay photos, the result was overwhelmingly "yes". The final push was the fact I was nominated for the New Generation Beauty Influencer Award in the category best blog photography - thank you so much to whoever nominated, it means so much to me! That definitely made me consider talking in depth specifically about my blog photography.

Keep it Candid 
My biggest tip would be to keep it candid. At least, keep your images looking candid. One of my biggest pet peeves is when bloggers take technically beautiful photographs but the composition just leaves me thinking what the fuck. People use some of the most random objects to assist their pictures, to the point it doesn't make sense at all. I despise the word "props" because I think that already puts you in the mindset of setting up a fake scenario.  Personally, I think that's what ruins an image - if it doesn't make sense. If they're not objects you'd find together candidly (a magazine next to a cup of coffee? That's realistic!) don't put them together.
I've seen wooden serving boards set up with lacy bras, a terrarium on a bed (interesting choice of pillow?), a keyboard clearly not attached to a computer next to a jumper, an empty phone case (seriously, why?) a flower crown, picture frames on a bed (no seriously, please tell me why?!), shoes next to make up, random boxed earphones next to skincare (?), ugh the list goes on. Maybe some of those examples make sense in your mind but in mine, I just can't work out how those things came together on their own, and I think that's the trick: making it look like they did. I always approach my photographs as if I'm setting up a story for myself: what am I take a photograph of? A dressing table? An office desk? A chilled day in bed? etc.  For a beauty blogger, I think things that would naturally fall into place on a dresser, for example, include: perfume, notebooks, pencils, to-do lists, paper clips, candles, magazine, glasses, flowers, make up brushes, eye lash curlers. Etc.  I think leaves/flowers can be good e.g if used to demonstrate that something is natural.  "What's in my bag" set ups (even if that's not to do with the post) are good, because they look candid.

Create a Snapshot
Like I've basically just explained, I am a big believer that the key to a "good flatlay" is to make it look natural. A good way to achieve this is to set up a larger area than you intend to photograph. For example, I use a white wooden panel (see below about set up!) and I make sure I set up all of it, then take a photograph of just a small section of it (with whatever it is I'm actually photographing in), or, if I photograph it all, crop it later in photo shop. Although this may seem pointless, you'll end up with odds and ends poking into the corner of the photo, which makes it seem more like a "snapshot" of something that already existed, not something that was set up.
Pick a Theme
When it comes to flatlays, I like to approach them with a theme. This is where "props" (ugh, that word) come into play, as they can help to demonstrate a point For example, to highlight that a beauty product is all natural, I framed the product with leaves: see the header image in this post. You could also take my recent post, My Summer Beauty Must Haves, as an example, summer was an obvious theme, so I picked my "props" accordingly:
Your theme could be anything, it could even be a colour! But everything you use to create the theme must be relevant to the main focus of the photograph. As I explained earlier, I once saw a lacy bra laid next to a wooden food serving board... 

Don't Over Edit
Whatever you do, don't over edit! It really is laughable when bloggers use a white background and then edit their photographs so much that any white objects can no longer be seen! I aim to make everything bright and airy, but for it still to look natural (do you see a theme running here?). I don't want my photographs to look edited, if that makes sense.

Something you might want to experiment with when taking your flatlays is your aperture. Another term you may hear for this is F stop. If you don't know what aperture is, put simply, it's how wide your lens opens up. The wider the lens, the lower the F stop number. The lower the F stop number is, the more shallow the depth of field will be, and you will get more bokeh (blur). I like to mix my photographs up and sometimes have a wide aperture (digital f/1.8 35mm f/1.2) - which looks particularly nice if I'm focusing heavily on one or two particular items (like the lipstick; see left image, above) - but I also like to have everything fully in focus, so like to use around f/8 to achieve this.  I like both! It just comes down to personal preference. 
Set Up 
A question I got asked is how I light my flatlays. I'm lucky to live very rurally, on top of a hill, with lots of natural light flooding in without any shadows from other buildings etc. I don't feel the need to use artificial light. I like to use a reflector opposite the window to brighten the whole area, as well as counter balance shadows if there are any.
Think about your background. I think a plain white is always a good bet, but see below about composition for how I change it up a little bit! Please don't use printer paper, which is a 'tip' I see often. It has a translucency to it that I find is obvious, and also it gives a blue tint. But, for the love of God, DO NOT use the floor. Don't even use your fluffy rug. It's really easy to tell what it is. And not only does it look bad (sorry), but I know when I see beauty bloggers photographing stuff (namely make up brushes/sponges) on the floor, my first thought is always: WHY ARE YOU PUTTING SOMETHING YOU PUT ON YOUR FACE ON THE FLOOR?!

Composition is really important in achieving a good flatlay, and you can find my composition tips already outlined here. All of them totally apply to flatlays. For flatlay photography specifically, when you're using a lot of items in a photograph - like the example below - try not to have everything arranged too uniformly, place them all at different angles. Spread things out evenly, too - I try not to have products touching each other, I think this just looks better because it makes the image seem wider and less claustrophobic. For beauty products, I like to experiment withs caps on/caps off. You may also want to consider cropping your photographs. I personally like to have some negative space (area that isn't filled - i.e white background in my case) because this keeps my photographs open and airy, but cropped photographs also make your images very concentrated and purposeful. 
A way I make photographs more interesting and break up from a boring plain white background (although these are effective!) is adding texture. This is where I use food serving boards, but I make sure the handle isn't in the photograph and just a corner is (see above), so that it's not immediately obvious it's a serving/chopping board. I just like it for the texture, not so it looks like I'm hosting a dinner party with concealer and lip gloss as appetisers. I also like to use trays, patterned paper (if it's totally opaque and isn't going to look translucent), and - cue extreme blogger cliche - marble. But again, I keep just a corner in, so it's not obvious what the object is (although sometimes a tray is something that would realistically be there, so I don't mind if that's obvious!) 

Please don't take these as "rules" - if they were, I'm sure I've broken them 100 times myself! But these are ways I tend to approach my flatlay photographs that hopefully will help with how you approach your own blog photography. I think at some point I will write a post about how I edit my photographs. Let me know in the comments any questions about editing you might have!

EDIT: Loved this photography help post? Please vote for me in the category "Best Blog Design & Photography" in the New Generation Beauty Influencer Awards! Simply fill out the form here. PLUS, every voter gets entered into a prize draw to win a beauty goody bag worth over £250! 

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  1. Great post! I feel like I learned something here. :) Now that you told you used to do photography I understand even more why your photos are so awesome - definitely a good place to start a blog. :)

    x charlotta

  2. I love these sort of posts and this is by far the best one I've found. Definitely will be coming back to this for reference from now one. Your photography is amazing. x

    Lisa | Soho Stripes

  3. If I had a surface I could constantly use for pictures, I'd be able to try these! Sadly I have to use whatever surface is tidied, haha! :) Tania Michele xx

  4. This is so helpful!! I can't wait to step my photography game up haha! X

  5. So I'll take it that you don't have a terrarium on your bed? *weirdo* hahah
    I really like your photos and what I loved the most here is the 'do not over-edit' part cause I seriously can't look at just white photos and then people saying how great they are when I can't even see a thing...
    I wish I was that good at photography (not just for the blog, just in life...)

    xo Honey - blog Royal Lifestyle - Twitter - Instagram

  6. Thank you so much for this post! I have learnt a lot :D x

  7. Fab post! I feel like I'm finally finding my groove with flatlays, a personal peeve of mine is the random objects in random locations like you said - plants on a bed... why?
    I've noticed the over exposed over edited trend a lot at the moment and it bugs me! I'd rather see a totally edited one rather than one that's been edited so much everything is washed out!

  8. I loved this post! I've read a lot of posts on setting up flat lays lately but none have gone at all into the more technical aspects so this is super helpful! I will definitely have to experiment with my camera a bit and find what works for me.