How to Style the Perfect Flatlay

Oh, Instagram. Have we chatted about it enough yet? Too bad, I've got some more content up my sleeve.

Without tooting my own horn here, I get a lot of questions on Instagram about how I style flatlays. And while that may seem like something that doesn't require a lot of work, it can actually be a pretty complex process. (Anyone who's seen me taking them can attest to this). 

So today I thought I'd break down my best tips for styling and shooting dynamic flatlays.

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Before you start

Get a background.

Having a consistent background is the important first step to a great flatlay. The good news is, literally anything can be a great background. I usually use either my white bed sheets or a white faux fur rug, but you can use rugs, tables, sheets, curtains, hardwood floors, blankets, etc. I've even used a sweater on a few occasions. 

Get some props.

If you're trying to shoot several flatlays at one time, as I often am, it's a good idea to gather lots of "props" from around the house. Note that these don't have to be special items you've purchased just for the sake of Instagramming - it can be anything from decor to articles of clothing or whatever else you have lying around. 

Some of my favorite things to use as props:

  • Cups of coffee
  • Plants
  • Decorative trays
  • Wood slices
  • Books
  • Vintage cameras
  • Records
  • Candles
  • Matches
  • Twinkle lights
  • Sweaters
  • Vintage glasses
  • Shoes
  • Pillows

Styling the flatlay

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Work with layers.

Back when I first started trying at Instagram, I would just toss a couple random items down on a white blanket, take a washed out photo, and then edit it to death. Not a great look, all around.

It's better to add texture and layers for interest. Drape a sweater or blanket across one side of the photo, or layer some open books and a coffee mug. Organize things in that effortless "oh this? I just tossed it down and it fell that way" fashion, instead of lining everything up perfectly straight (unless you're going for that look).

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Add levels.

When adding layers, it's also a good idea to think about levels. Not everything has to be exactly flat and on the same plane as the main things in your photo. In this one, for instance, I put a vase of flowers next to the book, but since they were so much taller than it, they're just out of focus. It adds a bit of dynamic interest to the shot, as opposed to just a book on a white rug.

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Add a human element.

It's been proven that photos with a human element perform better on Instagram overall. And just because you're taking a flatlay doesn't mean you can't include a slice of life. Even just adding a hand grasping your coffee mug, instead of just the mug, can make it feel that much more dynamic and lively.

Or if you're like me, you can strap your camera to a lamp with a piece of string and use it as an overhead tripod. 

It's all about balance.

It can be tricky to find the right balance of stuff to white space in your flatlay. Really, the only way to figure this out is to go with your gut and experiment a lot. Try adding and removing props or changing the composition and take a few different shots to see which one you like best. 

Lighting tips

I had a lot of people ask me on Instagram about lighting and shadows, so here are some of my best tips for getting a well lit photo.

Natural sunlight always.

No matter what, you NEED to wait until you have natural light to shoot in. Set up your little studio by a window and go to town. It will always, always look better and be easier to edit if you have an adequate amount of natural light. 

Editing is your friend.

Don't shy away from editing! Use apps or Lightroom or Photoshop to lighten shadows and brighten exposure and highlights if you don't have great lighting, or even if you do but your photo just needs a bit of a boost. 

Want a more in-depth tutorial? Check out my post and video about how I edit my photos

Get a light kit.

If you live in a place that's often overcast or if your apartment is dark and doesn't get a lot of sunlight, you may want to invest in an inexpensive light kit. It really helps to brighten everything up and remove shadows. I got this umbrella light this past November and it really helped during the dreary winter months. 

Avoiding shadows.

I had a few people ask how to avoid getting your shadow in the photo when you're shooting flatlays, which like, story of my life. There's no glamorous way to do this, sometimes you just have to crouch at a really weird angle or else take the photo "upside down" then rotate it when you edit it. 

Need more tips? I wrote a post this past winter about taking photos when you don't have a lot of natural light to work with.