11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out From the Crowd

Explore tips and tricks for one-of-a-kind flat lay photos with insight from five professional photographers, and put your own spin on the trend.

Flat lays​ have dominated the world of still life photography for years. Whether they’re showcasing an “outfit of the day” or an elaborate breakfast spread, these meticulously arranged “bird’s eye view” photographs are everywhere. You’ve seen them in magazines, in editorials, and advertisements. You’ve also seen them on Instagram and Pinterest.

Why are these photos so popular? They’re easy on the eyes, and they convey a message clearly and effectively. They appeal to buyers because they’re fun and adaptable. “Flat lays are versatile,” Shutterstock Contributor ​Olena Serzhanova​ explains. “They can be used on banners, in backgrounds, for mockups, and so on.”

In 2019, is it even possible to create a truly original flat lay photo? Absolutely! It might seem like everything’s been done before, but this is a genre defined by endless possibilities. We asked five stellar photographers—Olena Serzhanova, ​Elisabeth Cölfen​, ​paulynn​, ​Renée Denise​, and Marina Rich​—to give us their best tips. Read on to learn how they each create flat lays that pop off the page.

Pro Tip #1: Play with color.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Play with Color
Image by ​Olena Serzhanova​. Gear: ​Nikon D850​ camera, ​Nikkor 105mm​ lens. Settings: Exposure ​1/250​ sec; f3.5; ISO 400.


“When the flat lay style was just becoming popular, it was mostly about top shots on a white background,” Olena Serzhanova tells us. “But now, if you are shooting photos like this, they will get lost in a sea of other similar works.”

The solution? Eye-popping color. “These days, I think color rules in flat lays,” Serzhanova continues. “Fresh and bold color combinations attract attention and make your photos stand out.”

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Eye-Popping Color
Image by ​Elisabeth Cölfen​ / ​Westend61​. Gear: ​Sony A7R​ camera, ​Sony Zeiss FE 35mm F2.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f8; ISO 100.

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Not sure what colors to use? Elisabeth Cölfen elevates simple pastels into the realm of fine art. ​“I love my pastel colors and have many pastel-colored dishes and matching backgrounds,” she tells us. “Watch color trends and combine colors that work well together.”

Pro Tip #2: Try different backgrounds.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Creative Backgrounds
Image by ​Marina Rich​. Gear: ​Nikon D3400 camera​, ​Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8 G lens​. Settings: Exposure ​1/60​ sec; f11; ISO 100.

Speaking of color, every flat lay photographer should have a wide assortment of backgrounds to fit any mood or concept. “It can be​ colored paper, wood, concrete, or just white fabric,” ​Marina Rich​ explains. “The main thing is that it harmonizes with and complements your composition, rather than distracting from it.”

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Switch it Up
Image by ​Renée Denise​. Gear: ​Nikon D600​ camera, ​Tokina 100mm f/ 2.8 macro​ lens. Settings: Exposure ​1/4​ sec; f7.1; ISO ​200​.

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Renée Denise​ agrees, adding, “You can​ create unique backgrounds for yourself or commission them from a surface maker.”

Pro Tip #3: Master the light.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Master Light
Image by ​Marina Rich

Some flat lay compositions shine in natural light, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Try out all different setups to find what works best for each shoot. ​“Light is important for all photography, but especially for flat lay photography,” Rich explains. “I use artificial lighting and reflectors to help distribute the light evenly. Don’t be afraid to be creative and use your imagination. Do what you have never dared to do before.”

Pro Tip #4: Keep it minimal.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Keep it Minimal
Image by ​Renée Denise

When it comes to flat lay photography, less is more. ​“Try using negative space as a visual element along with your subject,” Renée Denise advises. “Also, study and experiment with composition techniques such as dynamic symmetry and other design principles in your images.”

Pro Tip #5: Use shadows.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Use Shadows
Image by ​Olena Serzhanova

Like negative space, shadows can be just as compelling as your main subject. ​“Shadows can give your flat lay photos almost any atmosphere and mood you’d want,” Serzhanova says. “Long shadows capture the atmosphere of sunset or golden hour, while strong shadows remind us of a sunny day. Soft shadows will add a sense of tranquility and stillness to your work.”

Pro Tip #6: Stay ahead of the curve.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Stay Ahead of Trends
Image by ​paulynn​. Gear: Fuji XT2 camera, XF 23mmF2 R WR lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.


Cosmetic photographer paulynn always keeps an eye out for details other people might miss. After all, the flat lay trend was born on blogs and social media, so it’s always a good idea to observe how it’s evolving over time.

“I start with finding inspiration from magazines, Instagram, and Pinterest,” paulynn explains. “Then I create my own look and feel while also following the trends. Right now, we’re experiencing a boom of minimalism, plus an interest in natural and eco-friendly beauty products, so I am crafting photos to match.”

Pro Tip #7: Think outside the box.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Think Outside the Box
Image by ​Olena Serzhanova

Serzhanova keeps track of rising trends, but she’s not beholden to them. If she wants to break out and try an unconventional technique, she goes for it. “I definitely never miss a chance to experiment and try something new,” she explains. “If, in the process of shooting, I suddenly want to take a risk, like pour a glass of water on my layout, I do it.”

Before every shoot, she collects props and reference materials, and she plans everything to a T. But once she’s on set, anything goes. She gives herself the freedom to veer off track and play with different ideas. “Sometimes the result has nothing in common with the original reference, and it’s a win!” she admits. Her motto: “Why not?”

Pro Tip #8: Break it down.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Break it Down
Image by ​Elisabeth Cölfen​ / ​Westend61

Flat lay images can tell a story in ways that other still life images can’t. Take advantage of the possibilities by breaking down your composition into different components, “stages,” or “chapters.” ​In the image above, for example, ​Cölfen has​ shown us the step-by-step process of wrapping homemade toffees.

“You can show whole recipes or tell the audience how something is made, manufactured, or put together,” she explains. ​“​Depending on how the subjects are arranged, flat lays can attract obsessive collectors and messy people alike.”

Pro Tip #9: Keep a sketchbook.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Keep a Sketchbook
Image by ​Renée Denise

“I have a sketchbook where I collect inspiration and ideas, ​expand on my skillset, and ​switch things up,” Renée Denise says. “I use it to plan out lighting techniques or play around with various color harmonies.​”

Use your sketchbook as a playground where anything goes. Not all of your ideas will turn into photo shoots, but they’ll give your brain a workout and help you think more creatively about composing images.

Pro Tip #10: Experiment in post.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Experiment
Image by ​Olena Serzhanova

“I used to think that Photoshopping my images was somehow ‘against the rules,’” Serzhanova explains. “But now I see that processing is a continuation of the shoot itself. Don’t be afraid to change the colors or the location of your objects. Try different crops. Sometimes these changes can breathe new life into a very simple shot.”

Pro Tip #11: Find beauty in the mundane.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Beauty in the Mundane
Image by ​Olena Serzhanova

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. As these artists teach us, the real magic of flat lay photography is about showing ordinary objects in an extraordinary way. While it’s important to select the right props—fruits and veggies, in particular, should always be fresh and ripe, Rich explains—they don’t have to be unusual or exotic in order to make an impact.

“Flat lay photography is not necessarily about the object itself but rather the story behind it,” Serzhanova tells us. Most of the time, you’ll be working with inanimate objects, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add that human element. Think to yourself, “What kind of person could have prepared this dish, or who would use this makeup bag?” Advertisers want images that suggest larger narratives, so have fun and let your imagination roam free.

11 Tips for Flat Lay Photos That Stand Out from the Crowd — Have Fun
Image by ​Elisabeth Cölfen

Top Image by ​Elisabeth Cölfen.

Learn more about flat lays and shooting for social media with these articles:

Create the Perfect Flatlay Image with These 10 Tips
Composition Tricks That Are Perfect for Social Media
Creative Trends Close-Up: Flat Lay in Fashion, Food, and Social Media
Cheap Tricks for Wallet-Friendly Stock Food Photography
8 Offset Food Photographers Share Drool-Worthy Images

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