5 Tips for Flat Lay Food Photography
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Food photography is, in my opinion, one of the easiest forms of photography to learn. With food, you can cook something up, grab a few props, set things up and tinker away with your composition for hours. There are no models to keep motivated. You just need a little tabletop. You don’t need a ton of lights. You can make magic happen with a single light and a reflector. It just takes a tiny bit of patience and a bunch of practice but you can definitely do it!
Recently, I’ve been mentally sorting different styles of food photography and creating little self assigned projects for each style. Most food photos fall into one of three angle categories. They’re either shot from the top down for a flat lay, shot from an angle or shot straight on. Each angle has it’s pros and cons. The flat lay is the best angle for anything served in a bowl or anything with lots of elements coming together like an intricate salad. When you’re ready to get started with flat lay food photography here are a few tips to get you going:
Study flay lay photography.
In my opinion, the most difficult aspect of flat lay food photography is composition. Good flat lay composition skills aren’t an innate thing for most of us. It takes a while to see how things fit together in an appealing way. Often, I think about Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. It appears very simple but often takes years of study. It combines seasonality, natural elements and carful arrangements. My flat lays are definitely no where near as purposeful but I’m working on it.
Beautiful compositions require some thought and practice. The best place to start in my opinion is to search out inspiration and to really study why certain compositions work. I am a big fan of Pinterest and enjoy sorting beautiful food photographs as a way to tease apart what it is that resonates with me in a composition.
One of the best aspects of studying and practicing compositions is that you have the enjoyment of progress. Comparing my photographs from this year to last year is deeply satisfying. Thinking about the years of practice ahead is fun and inspiring.
Think about texture, negative space and ingredients
It’s easy to focus on the food but a lot of really great flat lay photos also make strong use of textures from linens and the background. It's a nice way to create a more captivating image that doesn’t look unnecessarily too busy.
I personally dislike when photographs depend on scattered herbs all over the negative space to add texture. For me, I want all of my photos to look almost believable. They’re staged but I don’t want the viewer to ever feel a jarring sense of being led to a conclusion. I want the scene to evoke not scream whatever it is that I’m trying to convey. All that said, my suggestion here is to think about it not to follow my preferences. There are plenty of food photographers that put out work that feels incredibly stylized and it works because it reflects them so well.
Get a tripod with a 90 degree arm
Okay, I’m done with all of my artistic suggestions and have purely practical things to say from here on out. If you do a lot of flat lay photography, get some sort of equipment set up that will allow you to shoot without hunching over a table. It will make it easier to get a crisper image, especially at lower shutter speeds. It will also save your back from feeling crackly and burning from bending over a table for long periods of time.
bowls and large plate arrangements
I have a few rules of thumb for what angles work best for what foods. Bowls should almost always be photographed from directly above or from an angle. I think this is sort of obvious because you can’t see what’s in a bowl when it’s photographed directly straight on. Every time
Consider adding a bit of height difference
While I think the most common flat lay food photograph is shot with an aperture set so there is no bokeh in the photo, I actually really enjoy when there’s a tiny bit of height variety in the elements to create just a bit of bokeh. Using a thick cutting board or shooting at the edge of table is a nice way add a bit of depth.
In some ways, I feel that I’ve had an unfair advantage in piecing together my flat lay photography skills. For the past 3 years, I’ve been in and out of restaurants multiple times a week, photographing food. I’m given beautiful dishes to work with all the time but even I use free weekends to practice at home. Fruit and cheese are lovely to work with because they hold up for a long time and won’t break the bank. Practicing without pressure is a really nice way to solidify skills. It takes time and effort but it’s a fun process. Best of luck with your practice.