In my last post, photography 101: creating visual interest I said I’d get into Lines & Curves, which I’ve done —but not elaborately. Instead I’m focusing on Flatlay / Overhead photography. This is partially because I will be leading a photo club on one of my favorite platforms on the internet! More to follow!
The subject of my photo club group this month is Valentine’s Day! I didn’t have to pick an obvious theme but I thought it would be fun and because I recently ditched my tripod for a C-stand (!) I thought it would be good practice for me to shoot some flatlay / overhead photos. Once the photo club information has been announced I’ll give you more details and share the other groups and their subjects along with the details of how you can participate.
So for this reason we’re skipping to flatlay! The information in this post is not strictly just for flatlay, and by far doesn’t cover everything. See it as an introduction to flatlay / overhead photography!
flatlay vs overhead
A flatlay is a top-down photo, as is an overhead. However an overhead shot is from the top down, but isn’t always a flatlay. A flatlay is often a top-down shot of things, and an overhead shot is often capturing a moment if you’d like. It’s all in the angle –top-down photographs of coffee cups on a table; feet standing next to a table with pieces of cut flowers scattered on the table and ground; a woman looking down on her pregnant tummy. The idea behind all of these shots is to put the viewer in the place of us, the photographer, and let them ‘see’ through our eyes. It’s a powerful way to share your perspective, to tell a story almost like a documentary.
When shooting flatlays I think sometimes you can better add some life. A hand reaching for something; a movement that gives it life. The photographs are more powerful. That said it isn’t always necessary and can even be a distraction. It all depends on your reason for taking the photo in the first place.
In the above photo, a hand could have been added but I think the composition is more powerful with the repeating pattern of the headphones. Below is a classic ‘blogger/Instagram’ flatlay.
tips to help you (us) improve our flatlay photography
Tips for shooting overhead with remote controls, tethering etc. can be found below.
the first steps
Before any shoot it’s important to ask yourself “what do I want to accomplish with these photos?” Are you wanting to tell a story or putting a hero subject in the spotlight? Your answer will be the foundation of all the decisions you make when creating your photo series.
in need of inspiration?
Are you wanting to create photos for your Unsplash, Instagram or blog without a goal or brief from a client?
You just want to take photos! I feel you! #same I don’t work for clients, I just like to take photos. There is a ton of inspiration online, sometimes it can be overwhelming and before you know it you are feeling uninspired –social media is saturated with creative, beautiful inspiring photography. Sometimes I think “what can I do that hasn’t been done?” Then I think “I can do whatever I want.” That said, I would like my photography to be original but I am for the most part concentrated on signature style. I want my photos to be recognizable. No matter your goal, there are tricks for boosting your creativity.
Most of my photography these days is for my Unsplash profile. So I have complete freedom as to which direction I want to go, and what I want to shoot. Sometimes I’m unsure of what to shoot, and with the lockdown my options are limited outside of the house so flatlay, and overhead is something I’ve been doing more and more of.
When daily life fails to inspire us, find something worthy of photographing. You can do things in your home like cooking, arranging flowers, wrapping a gift, reading a book, or anything crafty.
Arts and crafts are perfect for shooting flatlay / overhead photos. Flowers, fresh or dried work really well. Same goes for baking, reading and tea time moments.
This photo above from Roman Kraft painting is a great example of capturing a moment of ‘making’.
Making and doing is a calming way to bring something new and conveniently ’photo worthy’ into your day.
show the process, and don't be afraid of the mess
When photographing moments like baking, and crafting, don’t neglect to show the work in progress. Just the tools and materials laid out can set the tone of possibility. Adding hands strength’s that possibility and captures the quiet enjoyment of halving time in your day to be creative.
There are many options for surfaces. You can simply pick out something from your home, or you can create or purchase backgrounds to use for your photography. I choose almost always vinyl backgrounds and after the lockdown is over I am definitely making my own wooden backgrounds. I’ve previously written over backgrounds —Photography: Backgrounds & Backdrops. Fake it ’til you make it?
The amazing Joanie Simon has taken the time to make a video for us on making your own backgrounds. Like I said I’m going to do this. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time. I just need it to be safe again to go to the hardware store for wood, and the opportunity to have it cut to the size I need (I don’t have the tools for that!).
Joanie's video on DIY wooden backgrounds
choosing your background
A clean, uncluttered background is the best and easiest way to highlight your hero subject. A busy pattern or overpowering colored background is often distracting and it will most likely compete with the subject and props in the scene.
You may already have tons of great background options lying around your home. Wood tables, and marble countertops are popular because they’re clean and readily available. You can also use craft paper or fabric.
We’re always chasing light. If you know your home well and are anything like me you know when and where the best light is at any given time of the day!
Natural light is the easiest way to light your flatlays when you’re starting out. Natural light is best next to a window on the shady side of your home. The key is to avoid direct sunlight so you don’t get harsh shadows and extreme contrast in your image –unless that’s what you’re going for. Take for example the photo below from one of my Unsplash faves, Taylor Simpson. Taylor has gone for hard lighting in this photo which works well with the colors and subject.
The videos below from Joanie Simon are helpful when it comes to lighting.
things to remember about light
Too much light can become a problem. Photography is writing with light, we photographers obsess about light! However it’s about the correct light, not just more of it. Too much light can wash out all of your shadows and kill dimension in your images. A skylight, giving you light from above may be the reason your photos have no shadows and look flat. Subjects for flatlays are relatively small and don’t need as much light as we would if we were photographing interiors or people.
The time of day and year can affect the light. The lower the angle of the sun, the longer the shadows. You can observe this in the morning and in the late afternoon up until the sun sets. The higher the sun is—for example noon—the shorter your shadows will be. The seasons will also affect the light. The angle is higher in the summer and lower in the winter.
Weather will of course also affect the intensity of the light. Intense on a sunny day, and soft on overcast days. This is something I struggle with in the shorter days of winter.
Your surroundings will also influence how the light is reflected in your shadows, and reduce contrast. Vibrant colors can create a color cast in your images. White walls brighten your scene, open up the shadows, and reduce the contrast. Dark walls, on the other hand, will absorb the light, adding contrast and shadow to your scene. I use foam core boards that are two-sided—white & black. I recently watched a video from Joanie Simon and she places a black foam core on top of her camera when shooting flatlays. Watch below and see what effect that has. (the entire video is good, but I’ve skipped the video to the part I think is relevant for this section of the post).
Use hard and soft lighting to evoke certain emotions around your subjects. You can use hard light to help you conjure a sense of vibrancy, energy, and fun. Sift light, on the other hand, helps create a more delicate atmosphere and suggests calmness.
You can turn hard light into soft light with the use of a diffuser. You can create hard light with artificial lighting (not normal household lighting!).
A good visual story has a main subject, and supporting characters. The stories that interest us the most are usually described as having more visual weight, that is what draws the eye to your hero subject. You’ve got to make it the most interesting part of the photography. This way your viewer will be drawn to it.
Here below links to several posts on creating visual interest and the many methods for better compositions.
Understanding what makes a balanced composition is important if you want to achieve photos that ‘feel right.’ When the elements in the frame feel natural and their arrangement is harmonious, the photos will be engaging and pleasant to look at.
Whatever story you’re telling, your hero —the main character of your photo needs to be carefully placed and in most cases supported by props. You can use color theory for creating appealing compositions, the rule of thirds, the rule of odds as well as many other methods.
For flatlay I suggest in the beginning choosing a simple color palette. Try limiting colors to a limit of three unless you have knowledge of working with color theory and palettes.
Your props should support the hero subject and not distract from it. If you’re shooting food use props that make sense for the story. If you’re shooting cookies and add parsley it doesn’t make sense. You could better opt to choose some chocolate chips, or add eggs (or even egg shells) and other items used for baking.
Add layers! They allow you to add elements that work cohesively together and help tell a story. They give a photo texture. In Food Photography layers work miracles with flat foods, that don’t have a very distinct texture.
Layers can be anything. A backdrop, fabric, props, the food itself when it creates a nice texture and so on.
Add negative space. Negative space works really well with flatlay. If the frame is full of too many patterns, colors or shapes it becomes too distracting. Give the hero subject a little bit of breathing space. For stock photography (what I do for Unsplash) negative space allows the consumer to add text.
Use curves and lines. Curves can add softness and a natural feel to a photo.
Your photograph is a slice of life. By cropping the edges of your photo, you can suggest to the viewer that this photo is part of a bigger picture. It’s not true for every photo, sometimes you want to center it and keep the edges clean but often it is a good idea to place some of the elements partially out of the frame so you can leave the viewer to imagine the ‘big picture’. Our eyes will recognize what is cropped out, and it helps give the illusion that the image is part of a real scene.
In the photo here you can see that Bruna has overlapped not only the packages, but the cookies. This would look unnatural had everything been evenly spaced throughout the composition.
Flat lays are the best shoot with lens aperture at 5.6F or above, so all the objects in the frame are sharp. If you have higher elements, for example flower vases maybe don’t open your lens higher than 3.6. This is all of course depending on your other subjects.
how to get your hands in the shot when you have no assistant
There are a number of ways to get your hands into the shots if you’re working alone. If you’re using your phone you can tape it above (yes, tape it to the ceiling). Use the timer. I don’t do this but a lot of people do! Some people place their phones in their mouths to do this (not kidding!).
I use a C-stand and bring it to ceiling height with my DSLR and a 50mm lens with live view tethering for one hand in the shot, the other using my mouse to set off the trigger. I also use a remote control for getting both hands in the shot. With live view tethering on you cannot use the remote control. Live view needs to be turned off. This is really annoying and there are ways of working around it. I don’t have a modern camera so I cannot use it in combination with my smartphone so I am currently working with live view out. I take test photos using live view, once they are to my liking I turn off live view and look at the image previews so I know where my hands are placed and to make sure things are as they should be. I place the remote control on the floor and set off the trigger with my foot.
Another way is to use a tripod. This is rather obvious, but I’ve ditched my tripod! A tripod is however a very good option for shooting overhead (just not my personal choice). A tripod with a lateral arm is often used. You can place your scene if need be on the floor, or a low table. I’ve often used chairs of the same height and placed my tripod on top. I quickly ditched climbing a ladder to take the photos (!) and bought myself a tethering cable!
There are other alternatives using modern cameras with WIFI. My Canon EOS 550D doesn’t have this, and I only have one camera lens, a 50mm. This means there needs to be a lot of space between my scene and my camera. I will soon be making a post with photos and video on my set-up.
I use Lightroom. However you can use free software such as Luminar. If you aren’t familiar with these programs then it is my advice to find an online tutorial that works for you. I personally recommend this playlist from Joanie Simon. Her focus is Food Photography, but the editing can be applied to other genres of photography.
Using your smartphone? Then I recommend Snapseed. It’s one of my favorites even though I now only use Lightroom Classic.
here are a few editing in Lightroom tutorials.
haven't had enough of the subject yet?! here's another one from Joanie!
success with your next project!
There’s a lot to learn, and it’s a fun adventure so don’t be put off from all the methods! Thank you for following me on my journey to taking better photos. I hope that by sharing as I learn we can learn together and share our experiences.
Stayed tune for more information on the Photo Club announcement. I’m curious if you’ve got an idea of what platform it will be on! Ideas?!