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Yes Please

Flat lay photography is an extremely versatile sub-genre of still life.

It can be minimalist and simple, containing only key objects arranged in a well-thought composition. Or it can contain dozens and dozens of tiny items, forming a sort of an organized chaos.

Let’s take a look at some flat lay ideas for your next creative still life project.

Flat lay photography shot of a person painting a small map underwater

How to Get Started

The most important thing in a photograph is the story. That’s not an original thought, but it’s true. That’s why I strongly encourage you to make sketches for your flat lay in advance.

Think about your story first. Gather specific objects and plan your shooting.

Taking a few cute things and trying to arrange them in a meaningful composition might work. But it’s much more efficient to know what you’re doing and walk consciously to your planned photograph.

Discovering your ideal photo in the process is great. But imagining your photo and bringing it to life saves time and energy. Which you can use for one more picture.

Pretty flat lay setup with colored macaroons, paintbrushes and leaves on pained background

1. Capture the Season

The best seasonal photos can convey a unique mixture of photographer’s feelings.

Winter can be a cozy season of hot cocoa, silly sweaters, and marshmallows. Or it can be a cold and simple time of minimalist Nordic interiors, pale colours and snow-white decorations.

Cosy autumn flat lay photo of a persons arms gathering colored flowers on a wooden background

My favourite season is autumn, which is a ready-made vanitas on its own. Orange pumpkins, red fallen leaves, nearly transparent persimmons, cold rain and last berries.

Perfect for a still life! So, how can we shoot it from above?

Cute autumn flat lay photo of the cut out text 'A for autumn' on a blue background

Brew some tea and put a fallen maple leaf in a cup. Take your favourite rainy day book and make it the centre of your composition. Make it about Halloween! Make it about summer’s end.

Think about what your favourites are, and make a list of 10-20 items. Pick the feeling that seems like the easiest to visualise.

Finally, choose some objects to represent that feeling. Arrange them in a simple composition and take a shot.

A three photo grid of atmospheric autumn flat lay still life

Autumn flat lay photos can be different

A three photo grid of bright and airy spring themed flat lay still life

Spring photos can be different too

2. Add Hands in the Frame

Human presence in a creative flat lay works great. Whatever you work on, including hands in frame brings your image to life.

Are you creating a food photography flat lay? Capture hands serving food or adjusting napkins.

Or maybe you’re trying to capture someone’s workplace? Perfect! Let the hands of an artist, carpenter, tailor or barista be your star!

A food photography themed flat lay still life with egg shells, cooking utensils and hands holding a note saying 'better luck next time'

It doesn’t even need to be a rare trade. Hobbies have a huge number of narrative opportunities!

Capture your mom working on seedling, for example.

A gardening themed flat lay still life with plants in glass jars and a hand holding an earth covered trowel

I’m not saying you need to convert to photojournalism, of course! Stage your composition in advance and bring your own hands into the picture.

If you don’t have a remote shutter release it could be difficult to photograph your own hands. So ask a friend for help! Prepare your set and lighting, make sure you like it.

Ask your model to pose for the shot when everything else is already at its place. That way you won’t have to worry about your model’s patience.

They would need to pose only for a few minutes, and you’ll get your perfect shot!

A bright and airy flat lay still life with a typewriter, pink roses and a hand holding a crumpled ball of paper

Atmospheric flat lay still life with a typewriter with burning paper surrounded by writing materials and a hand holding a lighted match

3. Use Coffee

To be honest, coffee is my go-to object for any project. Every time I don’t really know what to shoot my first thought is about coffee.

But it’s also the perfect model for a cool flat lay! There’s no limit to how you can use coffee as a prime hero of your flat lay.

Let’s look at a couple of them.

A travel themed flat lay still life with a cup of coffee perched on a suitcase with the shape of an airplane inside

Make Up a Character

First of all, coffee can bring you everywhere. A botanist can have a cup of coffee and you can shoot it surrounded by Petri dishes and strange plants.

An artist can drink coffee for inspiration and you’ll get a chance to shoot swathes and pallets in colours of latte and espresso.

A bright artistic themed flat lay still life with a painters palette covered with paint, cups, paintbrushes and other art materials

A barista themed flat lay still life with coffee cups, color charts and other brewing utensils

Create a Metaphor

Use a coffee cup like a flat circle. That will help you come up with metaphors for creative still life photos.

What can be represented by a circle? A balloon? Ok, then shoot a set of coffee cups as a bunch of party balloons.

A planet? Create your own Solar system with coffee cup planets, cookie asteroids and a cake Sun.

Brainstorm for at least 15 minutes and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to come up with stories for your next shooting.

A creative flat lay still life with 10 cups of coffee arranged in a circle with strings attached and a persons hand holding the strings as if it was a bunch of balloons

A creative flat lay still life with cups of coffee, cinnamon sticks and spoons arranged in a tic tac toe grid

4. Use Decorative Ornaments Made From Food

We already talked about food typography, which generally counts as flat lay photography too.

If you liked that idea, but creating an entire food lettering composition seems like a bit too much for you, why not incorporate some elements of it into your flat lay?

You can draw swirls, circles, and vignettes with honey, thick syrups and sauces. Honey is my favourite to use.

You never know how sauces, jams, mayonnaise, and yogurts will behave, but you can always trust honey.

A bright and airy food photography themed flat lay still life diptych with honey, fruit and leaves on a light background

Here’s a simple trick. If you can’t make honey hold its form, make a paper template, cover it with honey and use in your composition.

In this example, I cut out a couple of swirls from paper. I took a white background (so the paper won’t be noticeable) and glued my templates to it with a simple glue stick.

After that, I covered the templates with honey and took a shot. Surface tension is a marvellous thing!

A bright and airy food photography themed flat lay still life diptych with honey, fruit and leaves on a light background

This trick works with practically any thick liquid like ketchup or jam.

If you’re not in a crafty mood, you can try something even simpler.

Use a small syringe to create drops and put them in beautiful little curves. Or arrange berries or coffee beans in tiny curls and waves.

It doesn’t take much time, but it looks pretty cute and creative!

5. Show Ingredients Instead of the Final Product

Pies, cookies, buns, cakes, and donuts! The alchemy of baking is perfect for a flat lay photograph.

Food looks gorgeous from above, but for pies, that goes twice. And there are so many stories you can tell with dough and flour!

A dark and mysterious occult themed food photography flat lay still life

Flour drawings

The Milky Way always comes to my mind when I look at scattered flour.

I thought it’d be a good idea to include silhouettes of stars and starships in a typical baking flat lay.

Make a couple of paper templates and put them in calculated places in your composition.

Once everything is ready, scatter flour on your templates and remove them with tweezers, leaving dark silhouettes.

A dark and atmospheric food photography flat lay still life with flour, eggs, butter and cooking utensils on a dark background
It doesn’t have to be spaceships. Or flour, for that matter. Try this trick with spices or cocoa.

Make a silhouette of a dish you’re going to cook. Or a place or a character associated with this ingredient.

A dark and atmospheric food photography flat lay still life triptych with flour, cinnamon, butter and cooking utensils on a dark background

Decorated Crusts

Another way to make your baking flat lay interesting is to experiment with pie crusts.

Tiny flowers, complicated, stripes, leaves, stars, birds, and other fantastically intricate abstract ornaments!

I’m practically hopeless at baking, but I bet even I can arm myself with cookie cutters and try something like that.

Meanwhile, check this out for some baking flat lay inspiration.

A screenshot of 'crust and stardust' pinterest inspiration board

6. Big shapes from tiny objects

I rarely see this trick executed, but I love the idea so much! Objects can tell so many things about their owners.

What they’ve seen, who’s held them, who accidentally broke them, who lovingly gathered them in pieces and repaired.

So why not use it to create a conceptual flat lay?

Create Silhouettes

First way to create this flat lay is to imagine a symbolic shape and fill it with lots of tiny objects. Pick a silhouette. Choose something fun. I went for a fortress.

Draw this silhouette with a pencil on your background. And finally fill it with lots of tiny objects, somehow connected to your theme.

Fill the silhouette of a sailboat with sand, seashells, maps, and compasses.

Combine books, papers, pencils and early drafts of a novel to a fantasy castle. Make a dragon out of burned matches.

A creative flat lay still life with the silhouette of a fortress comprised of many small objects
You can even create a sort of self-portrait in still life. Gather your favourite things.

And arrange them in a symbolic silhouette or on an outline of your own profile.

A creative flat lay still life triptych with the silhouettes of different shapes comprised of many small objects

Use Negative Space

This idea works great for negative space too. Fill the background with objects and leave the silhouette empty. I’m going to use object lettering as an example.

I cut letters from paper to use them as a template. After that I started to fill the space around them with different little things. It’s more interesting when your items relate to the content of the inscription.

For example, you can make the words Drink Me from potions, little bottles, keys and other references to Alice in Wonderland. I made my DIY and Try Harder photos from items, related to artistic activities.

I used coloured pencils, brushes, paints, fabrics for patchwork, and stamps for scrapbooking. Lots of little things that I use for my photos, and that inspire me.

A creative flat lay still life triptych with the silhouette of the word 'DIY' comprised of many small objects

As a final touch fill the remaining space with smaller objects. So large parts of the background will be visible only under the letters.

Then remove the templates.

I did it with adhesive tape, in order not to move anything around. Voila!

A creative flat lay still life with the silhouette of the word 'Try Harder' comprised of many small objects

7. Make Ice Cream

Ice cream cones are an Instagram star. By all means, photograph an actual ice cream. But you can also add a little twist to it!

Maybe you would like to enhance your flat lay with a chalk drawing, making clear the properties of this particular ice cream.

Or specifying the taste of each different scoop.

Make it look like a blueprint of a dessert.

A bright and airy flat lay still life with an ice-cream cone filled with roses on a light background

A creative flat lay still life with an ice-cream cone on a chalboard

You also can fill it with all sorts of small things creating a conceptual flat lay.

Flowers is the first that comes to mind. And scattered sweets. And all sorts of berries!

Combine it with jewellery or cosmetics and you get a gorgeous product photo. And finally, the trick that makes your flat lay look like levitation.

A hand holding an ice-cream cone filled with cherries against a blue background

Put your ice cream on a sheet of transparent plastic and set it a short distance from the coloured background.

All shadows that create the volume of objects will remain in place, but all shadows falling on the background will disappear. Your ice cream cone will look like it’s levitating.

This shot with splashes and cherries is actually made from above. Technically, it’s still a flat lay.

A fun flat lay photo of cherries spelling the word 'sweet' on blue background with a hand holding an ice-cream cone underneath

8. Use Colour Blocking

Take your inspiration from Pete Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. Look at all these bold colours and simple forms! It looks fantastic as a painting and it would look great as a flat lay too.

Cut some triangles, circles, and squares out of colourful sheets of paper or vinyl.

Focus on basic geometric forms and limit your range of colours. Make sure the colours you picked look good together.

You can use many bold colours, but organise them in a harmonic palette.

Three photo grid of a colorful flat lay photography setup

I can use my Suprematic Tea series as an example. Round lemon slices look vibrant and have a clear shape.

So I used them with geometrical figures made from paper.

I started arranging my composition from largest spots of colour and most important objects (teacups and lemons). After that I moved to tiny details.

Three photo grid of colourful flat lay photography

This may look complicated since there’s a lot of little details, but actually, the entire process is quite easy and super fun!

Four photo grid of colorful flat lay still life photography

quirkly flat lay of a pink doughnut on blue background

This is only the tip of the flat lay photography iceberg. Try these ideas as they are, play with them, change them, distort them.

Use them as ground for your own unique projects.

Stay inspired and best of luck with your flat lay photography!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Dina Belenko

There is one phrase I always use to introduce myself, it describes me precisely: "My name is Dina and I tell animate stories about inanimate objects". I'm a person with little paper cities, sugar cubes, moon from polymer clay, doll's miniatures, broken cups, handmade Rube Goldberg machine, repainted puzzles, wire trees, cardboard dragons and spilled coffee. And with a photo camera. That's quite essentially me. You can see more of my work here:

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