Flat Lay Styling: Materials
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 styling and photographing 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, I’m covering the basics supplies and materials!
value of good material
Just like good lighting to photography and quality paper to stationery, materials are essential to a good flat lay. Don’t think you have to go out and spend beaucoup bucks, though! All you really need is a clean backdrop, your subject matter, decent lighting, and strong composition skills. That being said, everyone has their own style and aesthetic, and that should influence your material choices. What I use may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but should give you a good idea of where to start!
Fun fact: I use half a sheet of plain, white mat board for 99% of my flat lays. While I have experimented with different options—I even used MDF, spackle, and paint to make a really cool textural piece—I keep coming back to that cheap piece of white mat board. It’s lightweight, a good color, plays with light really well, and fits my branding. To be honest, that MDF sheet has been sitting out in my garage for six months, and I haven’t really missed it.
My point is, you don’t need to go all out and invest in a fancy backdrop right away. There are some great options out there, but don’t feel like you need those things in order to take a good shot. As long as it doesn’t distract from your subject matter, you can make it work.
Keep in mind that your backdrop should be practical for your setup, too. I shoot all my photos in my studio, so it doesn’t need to travel. There also isn’t much risk of it getting wet or dirty. If you want a compact, washable option, you may want to consider investing in a rollable or collapsable fabric piece. While I haven’t used them personally, I’ve heard good things about The Styling Mat, Olive and Oak, and the Locust Collection. But, if you’re not in a place where you can invest in something like that, mat board is easily replaceable if it does get damaged. If you’re shooting on site for a wedding, maybe just keep a backup or two in the back seat of your car on the day of.
Every flat lay needs a subject! I’m a stationer and calligrapher, so the majority the flat lays I style are of paper goods. When taking photos, I want my work to be the thing that shines. But, stationery might not be the priority for photographers in every flat lay, and that’s okay! There are tons of details to be captured on the day of a wedding, and they all need their time in the spotlight.
With that in mind, it’s important to make sure that you style each photo with your main subject at the heart. Figure out what your priority is for that particular shot, and let that be the focus. If you're shooting stationery, don’t just throw in shoes, rings, or perfume bottles to fill space—those can be their own photos. Instead, add in appropriate details with intention and purpose, considering how they compliment and emphasize your priority.
I’ll be getting into this topic more in part two of our flat lay series, coming next Saturday, so stay tuned!
As long as they compliment the main subject matter and further the story you’re trying to tell, props are a great thing to add to flat lays. Everyone will have their own preference when it comes to prop use, but personally, I tend to style things a little more sparingly (most of the time). There should always be a little variance, though—when looking at a collection of images, some should be a little busier, and others should be more minimalistic. Having variation will help the eye flow easier from one image to the next.
I believe that the best props for paper goods are the ones related to the product or process, or overall aesthetic. Some of my favorite go-to choices for stationery photographs include:
You may also want to include some theme related items: seashells for a beach wedding, squash or fall foliage for an autumn affair—all that’s great. Just make sure they’re appropriate for the setting, and remember to place any items with intention. You don’t need to squeeze in everything!
It’s also important to note that because props are supposed to build up the main subject, it helps if they are not larger or more visually domineering. There’s always exceptions to the rule, but in general this is a good thing to keep in mind.
Finding props can be both exciting and a little frustrating. I love shopping at local thrift and vintage shops for more delicate details like antique scissors and trays. Then, I use my own tools, or support my favorite artisans for most of the other props, like ribbon and ceramic dishes. If you aren’t a stationer/calligrapher, but want to use our tools as props, Paper Ink Arts and John Neal Bookseller are two retailers that sell a wide variety of nibs, pens, and inks. Artisaire and Nostalgic Impressions are my go to suppliers for wax seals, and collections of vintage postage can be found on Etsy (Verde Studio is who I use if I don’t source items myself). Feel free to reach out or comment below if you have any questions about sourcing props!
other useful tools
items to lift paper
Like I said before, flat items can photograph flat! To add dimension to your photographs, have some items that you can use to lift pieces of paper. Post-it notes, acrylic blocks, legos, stamp pads, and other small items can be laid underneath the paper to give some depth to the photo. Personally, I use post-it notes. They’re cheap, practical to have on hand anyway, and the height can be shortened easily by taking off multiple sheets. Whatever you use, keep in mind that lift items should be between 1/8” and 1/2” high—anything too tall will throw off the composition.
When using these items, use them sparingly and with intention. They will lose their desired effect if every single item is lifted, so keep some cards flat on the backdrop, and lift a few others at varying heights. I typically will raise the main invitation suite the highest, and with smaller cards lower or resting flat.
Multiple Copies of the Invitation Suite
Invitations have so many details worth showing off! For example, envelopes may have calligraphy addressing and vintage postage on the outside, but a custom illustrated envelope liner inside. Having two envelopes on hand means you can feature all the details in one shot, if you choose.
small paint brush
While it may seem a little ~extra~, having a small paint brush on hand will be so useful for moments when you just get the composition perfect, and then you see a few bits of dirt on the board. Swiping it off with the brush will get the job done without disrupting the layout too much.
Good lighting is never guaranteed. While there’s a lot that can be done in editing, you want to make sure the photograph is clean raw image too, because that will make your life so much easier down the line. Having a small reflector with you will help make sure lighting is at least even across the shot.
If you don’t have a reflector, you can use a piece of white poster board, or a white t-shirt in a pinch—just something that will bounce light back on your board!
If video is more your speed, check out my Instagram story highlight on styling (@caitlinobryantdesign) or watch part one here!
As I mentioned before, what I’ve listed is based off my own experience and what works best for me. Everyone’s style will be a little different, and your material choice should reflect that. There are tons of options and possibilities out there, which is one of the things that makes flat lay photography so interesting!
At the end of the day, it’s about capturing the style and story of the details themselves, so once you determine what your priority is for each shot, the rest will follow.
Part two and three of our flat lay series are coming up next, so stay tuned!