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9 Tips To Photograph The Best Food Flat Lays

Flat lay photography is a staple technique for food photographers and it is something you need to know how to do.

It’s a great way to add something different to your portfolio of photography and lots of clients will specifically ask for it because of how popular flat lays are. 

While it is a popular technique, you can’t just throw things together and get a good flat lay image.

If you have wondered how to take good food flat lays, then follow the tips below to ensure you can produce the best flat lay images. 

Photo by Jonathan Gallegos on Unsplash

What Is A Flat Lay? 

Just in case you are unsure of what exactly a flat lay is: 

Flat lay photographs are simply photographs of things which have been arranged on a surface and photographed from directly above rather than from the side. In the case of food flat lays, it is the same thing except your main subject is going to be food. 

1. The Right Backdrop 

Shooting a flat lay with the right surface can make a massive difference. 

While there are plenty of options it depends on your preferences and you can either go for some DIY options or purchasable options. 

In general, go for colours that complement your subject without being too distracting. As far as material goes, it depends on your budget, your preferences and your requirements for the shoot. 

Check out the following articles for some guidance: 

2. Get A Bird’s Eye View By Mounting Your Camera

This is probably the most important tip. To get a perfect flat lay image of course you have to shoot the image from above. The most optimal way to do this is to mount your camera to something so that it is in a fixed position which is level to the subject. The camera lens should be perpendicular to the surface that is being shot. 

The benefits of doing this are the following: 

  1. Adjust composition on the fly – by having a fixed position for the camera you can play about with your composition without having to reset the camera every time and you can see it in real time if you are tethering. 

This also helps with other techniques like stop motion animation and is an efficient way of trying lots of different compositions without wasting too much time. 

  1. Shutter speed – similar to using a standard tripod, you will be able to use a slow shutter speed so you have more control over your exposure.

 Perhaps you are using natural light and you need a slow shutter speed to enable enough light into the shot. Well with a mounted camera you can easily do this as there shouldn’t be any shake from handheld movements of the camera. 

  1. Keep the camera level – by this we mean the surface being shot should be perfectly perpendicular to the camera. By doing this, you make sure that the images don’t look slanted and no matter which way you rotate them it wont look like the surface is uneven or that the items in the flat lay are leaning a certain way. 

A nifty way to make sure your camera is level is to use a hot shoe spirit level which neatly fits onto your camera’s hot shoe.

Your options for mounting a camera:

  • A tripod with a horizontal/overhead arm
  • Using a C stand setup

C stands are better if you want to get really high up to take quite a large flat lay. Take a look at the image below to see what a C stand looks like.

3. Let The Frame Overflow 

While it might be bad to cut off parts of bodies when you are taking photographs of people, it’s a different story with food and product photography. 

By filling the frame up and having objects stick in or out of the frame, the final image will look less staged and orchestrated. This way the viewer feels like they are viewing a subject which is part of a bigger scene rather than a staged standalone shot and it develops a story for the viewer. 

Photo by Melissa Walker Horn on Unsplash

Get creative with your props and use the edges of your frame to add a compelling story to your flat lays.

4. Use Aperture Appropriately 

Standard practice for flat lays is to use a high enough f stop number (narrow aperture) so that you have a large depth of field to make sure everything is in focus. Using an aperture of f/5.6 and above should normally be enough to get everything in focus.

This is because in flat lays there isn’t that much difference in height/depth so keeping everything in focus can look visually appealing. 

An example is if you had a bowl filled with soup next to a chopping board with some of the ingredients of the recipe. If your aperture was really wide e.g. f/1.8 and you focused on the soup in the bowl the ingredients on the chopping board might be out of focus and this can look awkward to the eye. 

Try to stick to at least f/4 f5.6 to be safe. 

Exceptions To The Rule 

You don’t have to use this as a strict rule though as you may WANT to have your depth of field very shallow so you can focus on one subject.

You might use an elevated platform for the main subject and focus on that. If you use a lower f stop number like f/1.8 then the rest of the background would be out of focus. This can work well when other elements of the background aren’t too important and are distracting. 

5. Adding Height For Interest

This links to the previous tip with aperture. Consider that you are able to use various heights for different subjects to add some visual interest (e.g. a bowl or plate on an elevated platform).

Just be careful with your lighting when using items that vary in height a lot. If your lighting is coming from one direction don’t use your tallest items closest to the light as they may cast shadows onto the rest of your items in the composition.

To prevent awkward shadows in your flat lay do the following:

Place the tallest items furthest away form the light source, so they can’t cast shadows over other objects in the composition. 

6. Use your hands! 

Using someone’s hands entering the frame of your flat lay can really add some story to the shot. Of course we don’t mean just putting a floating hand in the image – that’d look ridiculous! Think of ways that people can interact with the scene. 

Here are some examples: 

  • Pouring a liquid
  • Slicing / cutting a piece of food
  • Serving something onto a plate
  • Grabbing a piece of food

7. Use Props – Add Story And Shapes

You might notice a theme of adding story to your posts by doing things like using hands or filling the frame. This is another great trick to make sure that your scene can really take life. 

With food photography, there are countless props you can use to add context. Selecting the perfect props will definitely level up your photography, not just in your flat lay photography but also your general photography. 

If you’re stuck for ideas let’s go through some ideas for you: 

Let’s assume you have a completed food item which is your main subject e.g. pizza.

One thing you can use is ingredients. So in this case that would be things like the dough, tomatoes, cheese or any other toppings used. 

Another example of a prop you can use is anything used to prepare or serve the food. In this case something like a pizza cutter could be a good example. 

Finally, you can add any miscellaneous items that match the scene you want to go for. 

Perhaps you are going for more of a pizza delivery theme then you might include a can of soda in the scene. On the other hand, if you were going for more of a higher end restaurant then you might choose to use something like wine instead.

Props can also be used to create shapes in your composition like S-curves and leading lines.

8. See It In Real Time With Live View Or By Tethering

When shooting flat lays and having your camera set up high it can be very awkward to look through the camera viewfinder to frame your image. Also, having to check after every shot would be a real hassle. 

So to get around this, use live view on your camera and tilt your LCD screen towards you if your camera allows it. This allows you to easily monitor your composition in real time to make any changes without worry about climbing on a small ladder just to see the images you are taking. 

The other option here is to tether your display to an external monitor – this can be any laptop computer. 

To be able to tether your camera to a device you will need:

  • A USB cable that connects your camera to your laptop or computer
  • A software that can show you the tethered image
  • The device you will tether to

You will also want to consider the placement of your laptop since you want to be efficient and safe with the cables, but everyone has different shooting environments so we will let you be the judge of that.

For the USB cable, you can use a cable made by TetherTools who are a well regarded brand in the photography community. 

For software, Adobe Lightroom is an obvious choice for many as a lot of photographers already use this as their editing suite of choice. Many others will also let you do this (e.g. Capture One). 

9. Use Negative Space Effectively

Depending on the client and purpose of the shoot, negative space can end up being vital to a successful shoot. Perhaps it’s an advert or cookbook cover which will be using some text. 

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

If this is the case you need to make sure that you arrange your composition accordingly so your image caters towards the needs of the shoot. 

If you are struggling to think of how to use negative space effectively try using basic composition techniques like the rule of thirds .

For example you can have two thirds of the image without negative space and the other third of the image filled with negative space to be used by text which you will add later. 

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