Flat lay food photography is a popular sub-genre of still life – in fact, you’ve probably seen plenty of flat lay shots while scrolling through Instagram or even while browsing recipes on a cooking website. But how can you create a professional-looking flat lay shot, the kind that is beautiful and elegant and mouthwatering all at the same time?
In this article, I share nine flat lay tips that are guaranteed to enhance your photos, including simple settings tips for beginners as well as high-level composition tips for more serious shooters.
By the time you’re done, you’ll be ready to capture gorgeous flat lay food images of your very own.
1. Try to create depth
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III | 14mm | f/3.5 | 1/100s | ISO 800
Flat lays are images in which the subject – in this case, food – is displayed on a flat surface. Then the camera is positioned to capture it directly from above.
However, while flat lays are displayed on flat surfaces, they’re not necessarily two-dimensional. You see, the more you add depth to your flat lays, the more you enrich the scene, captivate the viewer, and come away with a beautiful result.
How do you create depth in your flat lays? You can use shadows, overlapping objects, or both. If you place a cookie on top of a table, for instance, you won’t have a lot of depth. But if you put a tray on the table, upon which you lay a plate, upon which you put two or three overlapping cookies, you’ll get plenty of depth.
Then, by carefully positioning your artificial lights (or by working with existing natural light/Bright Sunshine), you can use highlights and shadows to reveal the shape of each element.
And your final shot will be full of depth.
2. Keep the camera parallel to the surface
Canon 70D | 17mm | f/8 | 1/200s | ISO 100
The best flat lay photographs feature a perfectly flat plane of focus; in technical terms, the focus plane and the flat lay surface must be perfectly parallel. This will keep all the objects equally sharp and will allow you to best emphasize flow and patterns within the flat lay arrangement.
Unfortunately, nailing a flat plane of focus isn’t so easy to do. You can try to eyeball it, but you’re bound to mess up, at least occasionally. To help you out, I’d recommend buying a double bubble level, one that attaches to the camera’s hot shoe. That way, as you position your camera, you can constantly check for unwanted tilt.
A tripod will make this process much easier, and it’ll be good for your back, especially if you frequently shoot flat lays. If you don’t yet own a tripod, I’d suggest one with a 90-degree arm, which will let you position the camera out over the flat lay. Alternatively, grab one that allows you to invert the center column and shoot downward (though be careful not to cast shadows on your scene with the tripod leg).
Also, while working with a tripod, you can shoot tethered to your computer in a program such as Capture One, Lightroom, or even some native software from your camera manufacturer. Tethering will allow you to view each image after you fire the shutter (and you can use it to check for a perfect plane of focus, too).
Pro tip: If you do flat lay food photography with your smartphone, you can download a special app that’ll help you align your camera. For example, Foodie illuminates the frame in yellow to let you know when it’s parallel to the sensor.
3. Step out of Auto mode
Canon 70D | 55mm | f/8 | 1/13s | ISO 400
Choosing the perfect food flat lay settings is not just about nailing the right exposure. Sure, with the Auto mode you’ll often get a technically correct photograph, but it won’t guarantee a great result.
For instance, the aperture determines how much of the image is in focus. Remember how I encouraged you to increase depth in your flat lays? That means you need control over the depth of field, and you can’t get that with Auto mode.
Also, if your flat lay includes an object in motion – for example, coffee in mid-pour or sugar in mid-sprinkle – you’ll need control over the shutter speed. Again, this isn’t possible with Auto mode.
Plus, things get complicated if you want to experiment with light. For example, you’ll struggle to capture low-key images in Auto mode, because the light meter will view the scene as underexposed.
Instead, for the best photos, start using Manual mode. If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge, use the semi-automatic modes – such as Aperture Priority – to make the transition easier.
4. The background is as important as the subject
Canon 70D | 17mm | f/8 | 1/200s | ISO 100
Unless you’re shooting an extreme close-up, parts of the backdrop are going to appear in your photo, and this can make or break the shot. Therefore, you must choose the background carefully.
If you don’t want the background to dominate, you can use a neutral color, like gray, white, or black. You might try a complementary color to help the subject stand out (e.g, a blue background for a yellow subject).
You can also use the background to help you to set the mood and tell the story. For example, if the flat lay is about breakfast in bed, you can use a quilt as the background; if the flat lay features a rustic dish, you can use a wooden background.
5. Every dish has a story
If you’re photographing produce on an evenly lit white background, you’re not doing flat lay food photography – you’re doing product photography for e-commerce!
Instead, aim to tell a story with your flat lay. What do you want to say? It’s important to answer this question before you start shooting because it will help you determine the lighting, the props, etc.
Note that your story doesn’t need to be complex. You can tell the story of how the dish was made by styling the scene with raw ingredients. Or you can display the different parts or stages of a single food item – as I did in the photo with clementines (above).
Another way to give context is by showing a broader scene. For example, you might include the entire table with all the dishes, drinks, and placemats. You can even capture the hands of people as they eat or grab one of the side dishes.
There isn’t just one way of doing it. It all depends on what you want to say and on your photographic style.
6. Take control of the light
If you want great flat lay photos, you must pay attention to the light.
The most common type of lighting in flat lay food photography is natural, soft light – preferably coming from a 45-degree angle to create a little bit of shadow.
To achieve this, you can shoot outdoors, or you can set up indoors using window light. Be aware that direct sunlight is harsh, so unless you’re shooting during an overcast day or when the sun is close to the horizon, you’ll need a diffuser.
Of course, there are other methods of lighting flat lays. You can use hard light and experiment with shadows. Or you can use artificial light (which is always useful if you’re working in a closed environment or you can’t shoot until the evening).
However you decide to light your images, keep in mind the quality of the light, the color temperature, and the directionality. These three factors can completely change the resulting image – by creating depth, flatness, contrast, color harmony, and so much more.
7. Use composition guidelines to your advantage
Canon 70D | 42mm | f/8 | 1/200s | ISO 100
Composition refers to the way you arrange elements inside the frame; it has to do with the position of elements in relation to the edge of the frame, to one another, and even to empty space.
The best compositions tend to guide the viewer through the image and emphasize the main subject. This might sound hard, especially if you’re a beginner, but there are many rules and guidelines you can follow according to the style and the story you want to tell.
For instance, some flat lay subjects might benefit from a central composition using symmetry, while others look better using the rule of thirds, diagonals, or the rule of odds.
The key is to learn different compositional guidelines, then – for every new setup – experiment until you’re satisfied.
Also, you can always use the Crop tool in your favorite post-processing software to fine-tune the composition. Some programs, such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, have composition overlays that make cropping even more intuitive.
8. Edit your flat lay food photos
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III | 14mm | f/8 | 1/15s | ISO 800
Post-production is the process that happens after the photoshoot using programs like Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, and Luminar.
And it is an absolutely essential part of food flat lay photography.
Yes, you should aim to get everything right in camera. But through careful editing, you can enhance your flat lay images to create a polished, professional look.
I definitely advise shooting in RAW, which will increase your post-processing flexibility (though note that all RAW images do require some editing to look good, so be prepared to log hours behind the computer). Start by fine-tuning the exposure, contrast, white balance, and color intensity. Then go on to add local adjustments, such as vignettes that help the subject pop.
You can shoot in JPEG, of course, but it’ll limit your ability to create gorgeous edits (though I do still recommend you consider possible adjustments to exposure, white balance, etc.).
Another part of post-production is retouching, where you clean up the setup and get rid of distractions. Not all food is perfect, so unless you’re working with a food stylist and have tons of produce to choose from, you’ll probably need to do a bit of retouching. In most cases, the fruit will have a brown spot, the chocolate will have a scratch, the cookie will have a dent, and so on. Fortunately, all these issues can be dealt with in Photoshop or another dedicated editing program.
9. Take every opportunity to shoot
Redmi Note 8 | Foodie App | Filter BQ3
The best way to improve your flat lay food photography is by practicing – and by stepping out of your comfort zone. While working in a controlled environment will help you get great shots, improvising and working in real-life conditions will develop certain key skills.
So if you’re traveling and you see some eye-catching exotic fruit in the market, ask if you can arrange a quick flat lay.
And the next time you’re eating out in a restaurant, if you or someone at your table orders a mouth-watering dish that’s beautifully styled, try to capture it. Of course, the light isn’t great in most restaurants, but that’s part of the challenge!
Bottom line: Practice your photography whenever possible, whether it’s on carefully prepared studio setups or food on your travels.