View from the top: six tips for shooting striking flat lay images

Lifestyle photographer and popular TikToker Chris Priestley demonstrates how to take your flat lay photography to new heights.
A person arranging a flat lay, with a pink watch, a notebook, a keyboard and pink macaroons on a plate.

Flat lay photography is a creative way to showcase all kinds of subjects and products – from make-up and jewellery to food and baby announcements. Bloggers and content creators on social media provide a rich source of inspiration for these types of photos, but where do you start when it comes to designing and styling your own flat lays, and how do you make sure your top-down shots stand out on social feeds?

Keep it simple, suggests commercial product and lifestyle photographer Chris Priestley, who makes a living shooting flat lays as part of his day job and has 54,000 followers on Instagram and more than 1 million followers on TikTok. "Less really is more when it comes to props in a flat lay photo, and a distracting background can ruin an image."

The good news is that flat lay photography is open to everyone. You don't need specialist equipment – a standard kit lens or even a compact camera is all you need to try out this fascinating technique. In fact, it all begins with a pencil and paper, as Chris explains in the first of six tips below.

1. Plan your composition

A flat lay shot of a red and black watch positioned on small white stones, with white leaves and other white props scattered around it.

"I like to work with a colour theme when shooting a flat lay," says Chris Priestley. "I start by looking for accent colours on the main product. With this red watch, the number notches were highlighted in white, so I knew a white background would complement it. I couldn't find all of the props I wanted in white, so I spray-painted the carabiner, the compass and the fake leaves to help bring the whole image together." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Chris Priestley

Chris begins by drawing layouts on a sheet of paper to help with composition, because, he says, it can be quite daunting to start from scratch when you've got the camera in position.

"When I sketch a flat lay, I focus on making sure that the main object is placed in a position that will make it stand out," he explains. "The background and any accompanying props need to complement the subject, whether that's aesthetically, by functionality or through the lifestyle of the target audience."

Knowing when a flat lay image is becoming too busy and distracting comes through trial and error, Chris adds. He suggests building everything around the main object and the background that you've chosen. "I like to use the rule of thirds, and break my image down into nine boxes. I then ensure that each prop or element of the design has its own box."

2. Build up your prop collection

The LCD screen of a Canon camera showing a flat lay image of a pink watch and complementary pink and white props.

"I like to have props cut off, so they're not fully in the frame, like the keyboard and notebook here," says Chris. "I also wanted the props to create shapes that would guide the eye through the images, so I aligned the keyboard, desk topper, notebook, pen and watch to achieve that." © Andy Holbrook/ Chris Priestley

A flat lay image of a pink watch with a keyboard, notebook, pen, petals and macarons carefully positioned around it – all pink and white in colour.

"I don't like to have too much negative space, as it just unbalances the image," says Chris. "With the keyboard in position in the top-right corner of this image, I wanted to find something for the bottom-left corner, even if it was just a petal. It means that area doesn't look as though it's just been forgotten, and the whole image feels 'closed'." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Chris Priestley

Chris advises never throwing out any of the props you purchase for your flat lay shots. "You never know when you're going to need them," he says. "I now have a large box of props that I can draw from. It's good to have things ready to go, just to fill those spaces that aren't working."

Rather than having to store a large number of cumbersome backgrounds, however, Chris suggests using lightweight, commercially available photographic backdrops. "You can buy A1 size photo boards that come in lots of different styles, including wood, marble and slate effects." That's what he used for the marble backdrop in his watch flat-lays above.

The props in a flat lay really help to tell the story and give context to your subject, showcasing who the product should belong to.

Whatever props you choose for your flat lay photo, Chris recommends always making sure that they are impeccably clean. "One thing that I've learned from working with big clients is that if you have any smudge or any dust or anything like that, the photo is essentially ruined. No matter how good the image is, the viewer's eye will naturally be drawn to the imperfection.

"If there are any scratches and marks, try to hide them with other props, and make sure everything is spotless before you shoot," Chris continues. "You really don't want to be going back through your images in post and cleaning them all up, because that's a nightmare."

3. Camera setup and settings for flat lays

A man prepares to shoot a top-down image of a black watch using a Canon camera on a tripod. A large studio light illuminates the setup.

"Keep the back of the camera parallel with your flat lay," Chris says. "If you're slightly off then it will distort the image." Some tripods feature spirit levels built into the tripod head, which can be incredibly useful for ensuring your camera is square-on. © Andy Holbrook/ Chris Priestley

You don't need specialist kit to shoot striking flat lay photos, but a tripod will keep your camera locked in position while you arrange your props.

Chris uses a Canon EOS R5 and says its weight was an advantage when shooting the flat lays in this article. "It meant that I had no problems in being able to tilt it over the table. With a heavier camera, I would have had to add weight to the tripod to stop it falling over. The articulating vari-angle screen meant I could move it into a position where I could see the image as well."

When it comes to choosing a lens for flat lays, Chris recommends a standard 50mm such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM. "The reason why I would choose 50mm over a wider lens is that it doesn't introduce lens distortions at the distances you'll be shooting from. If you shot a flat lay with a 16mm lens, for instance, then you'd get perspective distortion around the edges, which doesn't look good in product shots."

A camera such as the Canon EOS RP is also a superb choice for this type of image, paired with a kit lens like the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens – this would still cover the 50mm range and the apertures Chris recommends here. You could also use a compact camera such as the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III especially if you're on a tighter budget. It weighs just 304g (including battery and memory card) but will capture ample detail with its incredible 20.1MP sensor.

Although small apertures such as f/16 and f/22 will bring more of the flat lay into sharp focus, Chris typically uses f-stop settings between f/5.6 and f/8. "I don't like to go any higher, otherwise too much of the image will be shown in detail," he says. "I like to create a bit more depth, so that while you're still able to clearly make out what the background is, it's slightly out of focus – which will naturally draw the eye to the main subject."

4. Light your setup from a 45° angle

A man dressed entirely in black adjusts a large studio light within a kitchen setting.

When it comes to lighting flat lay images, Chris recommends using a single light source, be that a studio light like the one pictured or natural light from a window. "Natural light is really good for shooting bright, dreamlike images," he says. © Andy Holbrook/ Chris Priestley

A photographer using the Canon Camera Connect app on a smartphone to take a picture of a red watch surrounded by climbing equipment.

Chris used the Canon Camera Connect app to take his shots. "Obviously once a flat lay is set in place, I don't want to move it," he says. "Using the app allowed me to interact with the camera without touching it. I was able to change the aperture and the shutter speed, fire the shutter, and also zoom in to check the high-res image." © Andy Holbrook/ Chris Priestley

When it comes to lighting, Chris recommends keeping it relatively basic. "For a lot of my work, I shoot with a single light that's positioned at a 45° angle, both horizontally and vertically from the subject. This normally creates a really nice light on the image.

"There are many different types of lighting that you can use," he continues. "Because I work on a commercial level I normally use studio lights, as it's easy to use modifiers to shape and soften the light. Continuous lighting is also a great option, as you can see where the shadows are falling, which makes it a lot easier when arranging props in your flat lay."

A Canon Speedlite, such as the Canon Speedlite EL-1, triggered remotely using the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT V2, also gives you creative control over your flat lay lighting, especially when used with an umbrella or softbox to diffuse the light.

Alternatively, Chris says, you can also use natural light. It's often best to shoot on a cloudy day rather than in bright sunlight, because clouds act like nature's diffusers, softening the light. "If you set up your flat lay at a 45° angle from a window," Chris says, "essentially it's going to be the same sort of result as you'd achieve using artificial light."

5. Customise your layouts for different social channels

A close-up flat lay image of a black watch with black straps positioned either side of it on a broken slate background.

For most of his flat lay photos, Chris prefers to frame the final image in-camera. But for this moody slate setup, he shot slightly wider so that he had some wiggle room to crop the image afterwards. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Chris Priestley

A top-down image of a black watch and two black straps on shards of slate. A camera on a tripod can be seen in the foreground.

Chris initially planned to use a slate placemat for the background of this flat lay, but it wasn't interesting enough. So, he broke it up with a hammer and arranged the shards before filling in the gaps with black fish tank gravel. He recommends adhesive tack when positioning and repositioning items. "It's definitely your friend when it comes to flat lays and product photography. Once I've got the background down, I like to get the main object set up before dressing the rest of the layout. To make sure it stays in place, I'll use a discreet piece of tack." © Andy Holbrook/ Chris Priestley

"One of the things I like about my Canon EOS R5 is that it has a high megapixel count, so I am able to crop without losing quality in the image," says Chris. But he also points out that social media channels have different requirements for image sizes and specifications. Rather than shooting one flat lay and simply cropping a range of alternative images from it in editing software, Chris suggests taking the time to style a shot for each type of online use.

"I shoot in a 3:2 aspect ratio because flat lays are normally used for blog images or website images," he explains. "But one thing I would take into account is that if you're going to adapt your image for different social channels, such as 4:5 for Instagram or even 9:16, then you're going to have to change where the props are positioned. I would also recommend removing some props because you'll be working with a much smaller space."

6. Experiment with moving elements

If you really want to push the boundaries when it comes to your flat lays, you could try experimenting with motion, as Chris has done in the visual above. To achieve this stunning effect, he recommends shooting the moving elements separately, rather than trying to capture everything in one shot. Check out more of his work on TikTok.

A man setting up a camera on a tripod facing down photographing a pink watch on a circular white board with pink rose petals falling all around it.

"I set up the watch strap and arranged all the petals around it, and then slowly dropped petals while taking a series of images," he explains. "I then cut out each petal that I liked in Adobe Photoshop and created a composite image. © Andy Holbrook/ Chris Priestley

A camera on a tripod facing down to photograph a flat lay of a pink watch on a circular white board with pink rose petals falling all around it.

Adding motion to a flat lay is a great way of making it more dynamic. A simple way of including motion is adding props and removing them so the final video shows a product moving or disappearing. © Andy Holbrook/ Chris Priestley

"One of the benefits of creating a composite in Photoshop is that I could put the petals onto different layers," Chris continues. "I was then able to take those layers into Adobe After Effects, where I added a virtual camera. I then moved the camera through those layers towards the watch, to get the 3D effect that you see here."

If you would prefer to keep things simple, then you can attempt to capture moving elements in the right position in a single picture. This will involve a bit of trial and error, so set your camera to its continuous drive mode and fire bursts of shots as you add the movement. To bring the images to life, try combining them into an animated GIF using Adobe Photoshop or your preferred image editor.

Feeling inspired? Try a flat lay for yourself, and share your results with the hashtag #FreeYourStory, tagging @canonemea.

*Adobe, After Effects, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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