5 tips for creating gorgeous ingredient flat lays

Hey, food photographers and food bloggers! Are you ready to take your ingredient flat lays to the next level? Read on for my 5 tips for creating jaw-dropping ingredient shots, perfect for ALL levels of photographers. And while these tips are geared towards ingredient photos, they can also be tweaked for any type of flat lay so for all you product photographers, these apply to you, too!

Aside from shopping for new props, I think my all-time favorite part of being a food photographer is shooting beautiful, raw ingredients. It brings me back to art school: looking at lines and shapes, how the light falls on my subject, playing with color, ALL OF IT. Composing a beautiful ingredient shot is like making a painting and, when it's well done, it's pretty magical.

When I am composing an ingredient flat lay, there are 5 things I always consider:

1. THINK ABOUT THE STORY YOU ARE TRYING TO TELL

I know, I know, you have heard about creating a story in your photography a kajillion times and you're probably over it. What the heck does that even mean anyway?? 
Story in a photograph can also be thought of as What Is Happening in this Photo. For example, in the first image below, I wanted to create a sense of abundance, like someone had just unloaded their haul from the local farmers market. I envisioned a farmhouse kitchen, so I picked a rustic wood-themed photo backdrop, and chose vintage or handmade props. I also wanted to showcase some of the produce sliced, to create a variety of shapes and colors, so I included the element of meal prep. 

In the second image, taken on the gray photo backdrop, I wanted to show the finished product, the salsa verde, but also show some of the ingredients that had been interacted with a bit; the garlic cloves with some skin peeled off, the can of anchovies open with some of the fish removed, etc. All of these things are meant to give the sense of process, while also showcasing the beauty of some of the ingredients that are in the recipe. 

Let me ask you this: have you ever looked at a food photo that was really beautiful but included a bunch of stuff that just didn't seem to "go" together? That's an example of not having a clear sense of story. Now think about some of your favorite food photographers and ask yourself what it is you like about their images. What do you FEEL when you look at them? Are you reminded of a memory? Do the images inspire you?  A clear story should elicit a feeling from the viewer and, in turn, make the photograph more successful.

 
2. CONSIDER HOW YOU WANT TO USE COLOR

Using color is so, soooo important, I wrote a whole post about it!
Color can be used:

•To set the emotional tone of a photo.
There is a reason we associate certain emotions with specific colors; colors elicit memories. For example, a warm golden shade may rekindle someone's happy memories of summer camp, or deep green could remind a person of the woods they ran through as a kid. In general, we often associate bright colors with joy and energy, soft colors with calm and quiet, darker colors with a more somber energy. 
Being thoughtful about how you use color in your photography is crucial to setting the mood of your image.

•For drawing the viewer's attention to the subject.
In my previous post about color, I talked about how the color wheel is a really valuable tool to help you learn about color theory. Complementary colors, which are opposite one another on the color wheel, make each other "pop". So, if you are photographing an ingredient flat lay that incorporates lots of green vegetables, you may want to consider a photo backdrop that has reddish tones, because red and green are opposites. 

In the image below, I didn't specifically choose complementary colors but I knew I wanted all that gorgeous red fruit to really stand out. I also wanted to create an energetic, lively image-- with hard light, in honor of Summer. By choosing the bright yellow photo backdrop, I was reinforcing the warm, sunny vibe while also allowing the contrasting color of the fruit to shine.

•To create a sense of time or place.
What colors do you associate with Winter? I think of cool grays, dark browns, deep greens and white. Why? Because we live in Vermont, where the darkness comes early and there are months and months of bare branches and a good amount of snow-- hence, my association with gray (dim light), brown (leafless branches) dark green (evergreen trees) and white (snow). So, when I see a photograph using that palette, I am immediately reminded of the long winters in New England. 

Similarly, when I am creating photographs that celebrate Fall, I bring in a warmer, richer color palette. When I am shooting ice cream and popsicles, I often incorporate the bright, warm tones of Summer. 
See where I am going here? By being strategic with your use of color-- from your photography surfaces to your props-- you can directly influence the viewer's response to your image.

 

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3. VARY YOUR SHAPES AND ANGLES 

When creating your ingredient flat lay, always make sure to mix up your shapes. You are allowed to think out of the box here! Instead of slicing your fruits and veggies in the "correct" shapes you are used to, try something different; shave your celery in strips instead of chopping it into sticks or little half circles, slice your cabbage into wedges instead of just cutting it in half, cut your apples through the middle horizontally instead of vertically, etc. You want your photo to include a variety of lines and shapes to keep your viewer's eye moving through the frame. So, mix it up! Use different types of dishes, selectively crop certain things out of the shot in order to create new shapes, keep some of your produce untouched while altering others....just go for it!


4. DON'T FORGET NEGATIVE SPACE

Photography flat lays are so fun to create but they often have a lot going on, visually. It's important to break up all that color and texture with some negative space, which gives the viewer's eyes a rest so they don't get overwhelmed. Also, negative space draws your eye to what is really important-- the food!


5. THINK ABOUT YOUR DEPTH OF FIELD (and use a tripod!)

The aperture you use and the depth of field you create in a photo is up to you because, really, the final result is totally subjective. That said, if you want all the items in your flat lay to stand out, you need to shoot with enough depth of field. And this means that you need to set your camera to a higher F-Stop, which leads to more depth of field (ie: more will be in focus.) And THAT means that you will most likely need to shoot on a tripod. 

Here's a scenario: 
You set up an ingredient flay lay that includes everything from pretty bottles of olive oil and a variety of cheeses and fruits to teeny, tiny spices scattered on your food photography surface. These things all have varying heights and therefore varying focal distance from your camera. If you shoot at a lower F-Stop (F2.8, F4, F5.6) you'll have certain items in focus and others completely blurry. Maybe you want this effect and, if that's the case, great! You do you. But if you want to showcase all of the things in your image equally, you'll want to crank that F-Stop up to F9 or higher. A higher F-Stop means a slower shutter speed, which is why you'll want to put that camera on a tripod. Otherwise, you are risking camera shake and nobody wants that. 😉

I hope you found these tips helpful! If you like some of the photo surfaces you've seen here, make sure to sign up for our mailing list! We don't offer sales to the public-- they are EXCLUSIVELY for our subscribers, so it's definitely worth it!

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