What is a Flat Lay and How to Style One

What is a flat lay? I hear this all the time and up until a few months ago it was me asking the Internet. Here’s the quick answer: it’s a photograph shot from above, flat.

What is a flat lay and how to style one for Instagram

Although this term is kind of sort of new (the earliest reference I can find is 2015) the style is not. It just went by different names.

Other names for flat lay

  • Flatlay (OK, that’s just a different spelling)
  • Collage
  • Bird’s-eye view
  • Top shot
  • God’s-eye view
  • Knolling (from the 80s, and the original flat lay)

If you’re styling your photo using a light background, natural light, and shooting it from above…then you already know what a flay lay photo is. You just didn’t have the vocabulary.

So. That was easy. Now what?

What is a flat lay? It's when you take a photo from above, parallel to the styled objects you're shooting. It's a great way to do #bookstagrams and showcase your products in an interesting and engaging light. Try different props, backgrounds, and textures to tell a story and involve your audience.

Now you have to figure out what you’re going to take photos of. When figuring out what you want to showcase you also need to think about why. Why are you showing this to your audience? What makes it special? Why do you want them to see it? Whatever product or prop you land on, this becomes your “hero” or the focus of your composition.

But let’s break the flat lay down a bit using a personal example

I love taking flay lay photos of books and movies because it makes them so much more interesting. The book or movie is the hero—none of the props should take attention away from the hero!—and everything else adds to the story.

If you look at the above examples, you can see I’ve achieved the storytelling angle better in some than others using props, background, and composition. The more flat lays you do, the better you get at them (trust me). I shot these over a period of months using different techniques, camera angles, and lighting.

What is a flat lay? The simple answer is a photo taken from above. It used to be called knolling or bird's-eye view (borrowing from magazines and movies). Now it's used on Instagram and blgos to showcase products in an organized, clean, and engaging way. Showing knitting as a flat lay is a popular way to make your products stand out from the rest.

I also wanted to include my knitting flat lays so you can see a more minimalist approach. I shot these all on the same day using similar props and the same background. I did this because I wanted a consistent look on my Instagram feed while showcasing my hand knit products.

Here are a few tips for styling and shooting flat lays

Use a light background. In most cases, a piece of cardboard or a sheet will work great. A flat surface is ideal.

Try and style your flat lay. This can be difficult if you’re not artistic or confident with what looks good. Here are a few questions to ask as you style: Is my hero product the focus? Do I like this composition? What will make this more interesting? What will my audience like? Take a few shots and then re-style your flat lay and take a few more shots. The more you tweak the better you’ll get at it.

If possible, use natural lighting. After MUCH trial and error I found a window in my house that lets in a consistent amount of natural light from day to day. I created a nice little setup with a card table by the window so I can take advantage of the great light.

Try to be parallel to your flat lay when shooting. This is where things get interesting. You’ll need to be above the shot in order to get it right. Try a stool, chair, step ladder, or whatever you need to get in the correct position. I use a combination of a chair and a tripod but I’m always trying to get my shots more parallel.

Remember to take lots of photos and to move your flat lay composition around a bit so when you get to the photo editing you have a few options. This may take a while at first but you will get better, I promise! If I can figure it out…then you’ll be just fine.

What is a flat lay? It is when you take a photo from above, parallel to the styled objects you are shooting. It is a great way to showcase your products in an interesting and engaging light. Try different props, backgrounds, and textures to tell a story and involve your audience.


More social media tricks and tips

Check out these posts on the blogging prompt “light”