Flat Lay Styling: Composition and Layout
While they may look effortless, the gorgeous photos you see on social media and in all your favorite wedding blogs and magazines aren’t so easy to put together! Flat items can photograph…well, flat! Bringing them to life takes skills and strategy. It may take some work to get there, but it’s totally worth it to be able to creatively and accurately capture the beauty of your clients’ wedding details.
In this three part series, I’m going to be covering my entire flat lay process, from materials to composition, photographing, and editing. If becoming a flat lay master is on your to-do list, stay tuned, and these tips will help you get there. Today, is part two: composition and layout!
importance of a strong composition
Truth time: how you compose the photograph will make or break your flat lay. You can have the most gorgeous, expensive materials in the world, and strong editing skills too, but if you don’t know how to actually style the subject matter, nothing will be able to make up for that. Even if you’re shooting on a cheap, plain piece of white mat board (cough cough…that’s me!) or have zero props to add, a strong composition will speak for itself, and tell viewers that you’ve invested time and care into the photo.
That being said, good materials and lighting will go a long way in making a beautiful photograph. Keep in mind that “good” materials don’t necessarily mean expensive. You can read more about my favorite materials and where to find them in part one of our flat lay series.
Normally, I just take advantage of the natural light in my studio space. My studio window faces east, so for me, the best lighting happens between 11:00 and 12:30. Everyone’s prime lighting will happen at different times, so experiment with your space and what works best for you. If you’re going for natural light, it may be a good idea to have a reflector on hand to bounce light at the opposite end.
Alternatively, you can use artificial lighting. You want to make sure that whatever lighting you’re using is high quality and even. Studio lights are a great option, but can be quite the investment, depending on which kit you use. I have a hand-me-down lighting kit, but honestly don’t get much use out of it because the natural lighting in my studio is good (and doesn’t require the lengthy setup).
Before you take any photos, the first step is to gather whatever materials and props best enhance the suite you’re shooting. Choose ribbon, vintage postage, a ring dish, scissors, a calligraphy pen, wax seals, etc. that live in the same color palette and aesthetic as the suite. Of course, the most important thing to have is your subject matter, whatever it is! Remember that you may want to have a couple copies (or at least two envelopes) on hand, so you can feature all the details at once if you choose. Make a little pile off to the side with all the possibilities, and set up the backdrop in the light.
straight vs. organic styling
There are a few different methods to styling stationery—the most practiced being straight and organic styling. Each brings something different to the table, and the method you choose should depend on your personal aesthetic and the feel of the stationery, wedding, and/or shoot.
The names are fairly self-explanatory, but straight styling places items at right angles in a kind of grid fashion. Organic, on the other hand, turns pieces at different angles, creating a lived in, natural feel. Both can (and should) utilize layering and the other composition tips mentioned below.
composing the photograph
When photographing stationery, there are always a million different ways to go about things, but it may help you create a balanced and effective photograph if you follow these general rules:
start with the main subject
Like I said in last week’s post, every decision you make when styling should revolve around your main subject. Backdrops and props should only be used to enhance and further the story, so it make sense that you should always start composing your photo with your main subject. There will be some back and forth as you add things in, but it’s important to keep your subject at the focal point.
When photographing stationery, place the largest elements first (e.g. the main invitation card and envelope). These pieces will likely call the most attention, so start there and build around with other pieces of the suite.
use items to lift pieces off the backdrop
Whether it’s sticky notes, acrylic blocks, ink pads, legos, or other similar items, placing small pieces underneath the suite to lift it off the backdrop will go a long way in adding some dimension to your photo. In order for this to work, you have to utilize different levels. Some cards (like the main invitation card) should be lifted higher, while others can be left flat on the backdrop.
compose with visual weight in mind
When adding elements to your composition, you want to arrange them in a way that feels balanced. Visual weight should be evenly distributed across the photo. For example, if the cards in the suite are white and clean, but the envelopes are bold pops of color, you’ll want to lay things out so the color is evenly balanced across the photo. Props can help with this, too—maybe vintage postage helps fill a gap in the layout, or adds a bit of color where you need.
Nothing creates a boring flat lay photo like a stiff composition. If cards are simply laid next to each other in a line, flat on the background, the image is going to look like you put zero effort in.
Don’t be afraid to layer pieces together! While the layering shouldn’t cut off major parts of the design, it will create a more natural layout, and help the viewer’s eye flow through the photo, rather than be static. It also reinforces the idea that the stationery was designed as a whole suite—the pieces are meant to go together and interact with one another.
pair items that belong together
Some cards in a suite have matching envelopes. Pairing these together—or at least keeping them near each other—is an easy and natural way to build the flow of the composition. Not only that, but it tells the viewer how the suite functions in the real world.
Add props with intention
I cannot stress this enough: props should only be used to build up the main subject of your photo. Whether they speak to the process that is used to create them, or tells the story of the aesthetic, they need to be related and feel cohesive. If you’re photographing stationery, this could mean vintage postage, ribbons, scissors, calligraphy pens, nibs, wax seals, etc. Throwing in a small ring dish to hold related items or some cut florals is fine too.
But don’t feel the need to add in unrelated items just to fill space. Whatever props you choose to add to your photo, add them for a reason. Remember that negative space can be just as (if not more) powerful and beautiful than filled space.
If video is more your speed, check out my Instagram story highlight on styling (@caitlinobryantdesign) or watch part two here!
remember the “Why”
When styling, keep in mind the goal of the photo. If you’re photographing stationery, make sure you’re showing off all it has to offer. Whether you’re doing a styled shoot or a real wedding, stationers (and couples) invest a lot of time and money into their invitations, and you want to do them justice.
Next week, we’re talking all about actually taking and editing photos of stationery (hint: it’s different than portraiture or landscapes!), so stay tuned!