We’ve all seen flat lays on our Instagram feed. You’ve probably even liked them. But you may not recognize the name. A “flat lay” refers to an image with carefully arranged items shot directly from above. Food flat lays are particularly popular for two reasons: we love food and we love order. There’s something about the combination that stimulates the brain and satiates our soul. Elevate all your meals to like-worthy works of art with our flat lay photography tips.

1 EMBRACE NATURAL LIGHTING

Food looks best in soft, diffuse light. Place your subject near a window to leverage the light from outside. Natural, overhead light is especially important in flat lay photography because you don’t want any shadows in your shot. Artificial lights tend to cast the shape of your hand and camera over the scene.

Pro Tip: A cloudy day is ideal for food flat lays because the light is more balanced..

2 OPT FOR A SIMPLE SURFACE

Backgrounds are a big part of flat lay composition. Clean white and wood offer the most versatility, but marble, tile, or linen can add something special. And don’t feel limited by a table. Sometimes it’s easier to get a better angle on your subject if it’s on the ground. Just make sure your background doesn’t overpower the food.

Image shot by Olympus User Gallery Contributor Jia Guo with an Olympus OM-D Camera | M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO Lens | 1/200 sec | F2.8 | ISO640

3 SET THE SCENE

Flat lays are most effective when they tell a story. Pick a few star items to anchor your image, like a main dish and its ingredients. Then add a supporting cast of elements, like sides and drinks. Lastly gather some props, like cutting boards, utensils, and cloth napkins. Plants, books, and other decorative details can also add a nice touch. Include your hand to create some emotional depth, as @joythebaker often does.

Pro Tip: Uneven numbers are naturally pleasing to the eye.

4 LIMIT THE COLOR SCHEME

The more shapes and sizes you integrate into your image, the more dynamic it will be. But when it comes to colors, less is more. Nothing ruins a flat lay like a clashing color scheme. Try choosing two or three harmonious, complementary colors.

Image shot by Olympus User Gallery Contributor Jia Guo with an Olympus OM-D Camera | M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO Lens | 1/250 sec | F2.0 | ISO200

5 PLAY WITH PLACEMENT

Start with your main components lined up according to the Rule of Thirds. Experiment with positions and angles to see what’s working and what’s not. Symmetrical and grid-like shots look neat and orderly, while messy designs appear natural and effortless. Rearrange, add, and remove until you’re happy with the composition. Pay special attention to the overall flow, using leading lines and empty space to guide viewers through the image.

6 GET HIGH

A bird’s eye view is crucial to flat lay photography, so you’ll need to get some height. A step stool or ladder can help you get directly above your spread. If you’re in public, don’t be afraid to stand on a chair or bench. It may feel a bit awkward but plenty of diners do it nowadays. A camera with a tilting screen and silent shutter will help you stay more discreet while shooting.

Pro Tip: A tripod with an articulating arm enables you to orient the camera directly downward.

7 SQUARE UP

Your camera needs to be parallel to the floor for a completely flat shot. No angles allowed. To ensure proper alignment, turn your camera’s grid feature on. The horizontal lines work like a level, showing you how to adjust if necessary.

8 FILL THE FRAME

When scattering items in your scene, feel free to go outside the frame. Place large items right at the edge. This technique adds interest and makes viewers think about what’s going on out of view.

Image shot by Olympus User Gallery Contributor Jia Guo with an Olympus OM-D Camera | M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO Lens | 1/1000 sec | F2.0 | ISO640

9 EXPERIMENT WITH APERTURE

Most flat lays have deep Depth of Field, which keeps the whole shot in focus. To achieve this classic flat lay look, set your camera to aperture priority or manual mode and choose narrower apertures like F5.6 - F11. If you want to emphasize items of different heights or focus in on one item, shoot with wider apertures, like F1.8 - F2.8, to create artistically defocused backgrounds.

10 EDIT MINIMALLY

When it comes to food flat lays, authenticity reigns. Slightly adjusting the brightness and sharpness can turn a mediocre flat lay to a mouthwatering masterpiece, but don’t get carried away. This isn’t the time for saturation or special effects. To keep your feed more polished, edit all your photos uniformly.

Pro Tip: Increasing the contrast and bumping up the shadows will eliminate any unwanted dark spots.

A great flat lay can garner likes and followers on social media but be sure you enjoy the food while it’s fresh. Shoot for too long and you’ll miss out on the meal! If you need more inspiration, scroll through the curated @flatlays account as you eat.