Photo by © Reka Csulak

Let’s Talk About Flatlay In Food Photography

The next camera angle we will talk about in this post will be the overhead angle, you probably heard the more common name of these types of image: flatlay. In this episode of the ‘Let’s Talk About…‘ post series, you will learn more about how to make the best out of the angle that became the star of Instagram.

If you are interested in learning more about other perspectives, you can visit the related posts that help you discover the 3/4 angle or the head-on angle by clicking on the links.

Are you ready to improve your photography and styling skills? Let’s do this together!

Joulutorttu - Photo by © Reka Csulak
Joulutorttu – Photo by © Reka Csulak

Food in order

The overhead angle quickly became the star of Instagram as we love to see our table packed with all the goods from above, the elements well organized in a way that is an instant pleasure for the eyes created by the harmony of the shapes, colours and textures…

Flatlay is a great choice if you have a hero that is flat, has an interesting element on the top or has no important layers to show. It can be a great combination with other angles to create an editorial series for a story or recipe.

As a photographer, it’s your job to choose the most complimenting perspective for the food or drink you are capturing, so it is always worth playing around with the position of the camera. If you are having a hard time finding the hero angle, read some handy tips in this blog post.

When you position your camera above the scene, make sure to level it, because the easiest way to ruin your flatlay, wonderful food and beautiful styling efforts is a fully distorted photo. Once the camera is leveled, your photo can be used in any rotation without looking wonky.

The surface is a crucial element of a flatlay. Choose a non-distractive pattern to make sure the food stays in focus. If your surface contains straight lines, make sure to keep them parallel with the frame -unless you plan to use these main leading lines other ways on purpose-.

Choose the props wisely, because you don’t want them to steal the show, but they can provide you the option of layering on the photo, which helps flatlays look natural and 3-dimensional. Select them in a way that suits the recipe’s unique character, the cooking method, the specific tools to be used for the preparation or serving. Show how many people are eating by multiple the number of plates, glasses, cutlery and servings

Try to capture your scenes from a good distance to show the entire tabletop and also try a close-up, to show some unique details or textures.

Salame Di Ciocciolato Photo by © Reka Csulak
Salame di Cioccolato – Photo by © Reka Csulak
Carrot Cake Spring © Reka Csulak
Carrot Cake- Photo by © Reka Csulak
Citrus © Reka Csulak
Citrus – Photo by © Reka Csulak

When creating a composition, pay attention to visual weight, and create a composition with the most popular arrangements such as the rule of thirds, diagonals, golden triangle, s-curve or golden ratio. Don’t underestimate the power of leading lines and framing!

Do you plan some text overlay or logo on the image? Leave some negative space!

Include a human element to make your photo look lively and create a relatable story. Hands that are preparing, serving, or touching food or sprinkle, drizzle, tear apart and break in half… makes all setups look more natural. If you have no model, just mount your camera on a tripod or c-stand and use your own hands! If you need some nifty tips on how to add a human touch to your photos, make sure you read this post!

Eryngo Cake- Photo by © Reka Csulak
Cinnamon-Cardamom Cake – Photo by © Reka Csulak
Spicy Plum Galette Photo by © Reka Csulak
Spicy Plum Galette – Photo by © Reka Csulak
Easter Egg Pastry Photo by © Reka Csulak
Easter Egg Pastry – Photo by © Reka Csulak

Exercise: Repetition vs One hero

Practice the capturing of overhead angle with the following exercise:

  • build the scene around one hero
  • use repetition

Use repetition to show how many people are sitting around the table: multiple plates (see the Cinnamon bun cake below on the left), servings, cutleries. Make sure that each plate has something unique, but they create a cohesive scene and it is clear that the diners are eating the same dish for example, but the garnishes can be sightly different regarding quantity, arrangement, and angle.

When there is a lot going on in a bowl (like in the other picture with the Pho soup on the right), you can keep it simple and show the dish, its elements, and the pouring action without adding more props or multiple the bowls.

Cinnamon Bun Cake © Reka Csulak
Cinnamon Bun Cake – Photo by © Reka Csulak
Vietnamese Pho Soup © Reka Csulak
Pho Soup – Photo by © Reka Csulak

The beauty and details of the Avocado-lime-coconut ice lolly (on the left below) plated as a more luxurious dessert that you can eat with a fork can be highlighted with simplistic styling.

The framing the cooling rack provides for these Hot Cross Bun cookies (on the right below) together with the repetition of the round shapes and the white chocolate crosses draws attention to their deliciousness. Each cookies are different individually, but this way they stand as a visually strong group of heroes.

Avocado lime coconut ice lolly © Reka Csulak
Avocado-lime and coconut ice lolly – Photo by © Reka Csulak
Hot Cross Bun Cookies © Reka Csulak
Hot Cross Bun Cookies – Photo by © Reka Csulak

I invited a professional photographer friend to process this topic by digging deeper into the stylistic and technical considerations about creating amazing compositions by using the overhead angle on our photos. Welcome Nathaniel Crawford on board, who is a real master of flatlays!

Who are you and what is your photography specialty?

My name is Nathaniel Crawford and I am a Chicago-based commercial food, portrait, and lifestyle photographer/videographer. As the owner of Captures By TK Photo & Film, I have been creating photo and video content for over 6 years now. I have also been recognized as one of the “13 Best Chicago Food Photographers” and one of the “11 Best Lifestyle Photographers in Chicago” by Peerspace.com.

Portrait © Nathaniel Crawford
Portrait © Nathaniel Crawford
Portrait © Nathaniel Crawford
Portrait © Nathaniel Crawford

Why we are so obsessed with the overhead angle when it comes to food photos?

My love for flatlay photography started when I was getting into photography. I was so inspired by the tablescapes photographers like Beth Kirby (@bethkirby), Eva Kosmas Flores (@evakosmasflores), and Linda Lomelino (@linda_lomelino) were crafting and I knew I wanted to take photos similar to theirs. The way you could tell such a rich and immersive narrative from an overhead photo truly inspired me as I was picking up the camera, and I’ve wanted to emulate those feelings of togetherness and gathering in my flatlay work ever since. The table naturally gives us the space to see things from a birds-eye view and tell those communal stories.

Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford

Lighting overhead scenes could be tricky. What do you consider as the most challenging part of lighting flatlays, and what technical and post-processing solutions do you use to overcome these challenges?

The challenge when lighting any scene, regardless of its type or subject, is asking yourself “where is the light coming from?” Directionality is something I find is largely overlooked when crafting a flatlay photo. Understanding the type of lighting you want in your scene (i.e. a harsh light with more defined shadows or a softer light one) and the direction that light is coming from will take your flatlay photos to the next level.

Lighting is an incredible tool in leading your viewers eyes to where you want them to follow. A harsher, warmer light cascading across an apple pie can evoke thoughts of golden hour on a warm summer evening, while a more diffused, softer light cast over a plate of cookies can tell a different story entirely. 

When I started photography back in 2014, I was shooting solely with natural light. It’s free and easily accessible! Nowadays, I solely use artificial lighting to illuminate my scenes. This is because I want total control over the type of light and intensity of light I am looking for in my scenes. Additionally, with natural light, you are at the mercy of the sun, which is ever-changing depending on cloudy the day is. With artificial light, you are given far more control over the final look of your image.

If you looking for some lighting inspiration, I have a full blog post with all my camera and lighting gear here.

Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford

I often spend time discovering all meaningful elements of your overhead shots. Is there any special method or exercise that helps you figure out what elements will you use on these complex scenes?

This is a great question! I’m embarrassed to admit but, when I first started out photographing, I would just add and add and add props to a scene without a care or thought. This would leave my scenes feeling more like a yard sale than a tablescape. Today, I’ve learned how to really think deeply when it comes to narrative and how each plate, spoon, napkin, backdrop, etc. is there to tell that scene’s story. I ask myself questions like “Does this prop go with the dish I’m photographing? Does it elevate the narrative in any way? Does it help create or does it distract?”.

I also think a lot about the movement of a scene. For example, is the scene of repetition or is flowing in a ‘S’ pattern (see examples below). Like a great piece of music, it’s about the building blocks and layering to make a scene that feels “lived in”. You’re not just taking a photo; you’re building a world. 

Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford

We often see your own hands perfectly placed on the photos. How do you manage not to cover any important element of the scene?

The short answer is, lots of practice! The long answer: Incorporating hands into a flatlay is another skill entirely. When I’m styling my overhead images, I am building out the scene and spacing the items knowing that my hands will be going somewhere in frame. This helps me contextualize the scene. If you have a friend or family member with nice hands nearby, have them join the scene! If it’s just yourself, you’ll get very good at firing the shutter, readjusting, firing the shutter, readjusting, into infinity.

Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford

You are telling the whole story of a dish in one photo. What is the best way to prepare for a photo-shoot when the ready-to-eat food and the previous stages of its preparation need to be presented on the same scene?

This is definitely a trickier aspect of flatlay photography! In order to have a full dish with all its stages in one photo, it requires a bit of planning. For my photo capturing gingerbread cookies, I knew I wanted to have some raw dough with cooked and styled cookies. I baked one batch of dough the day prior, giving a chance for the cookies to cool before decorating them. For this scene, I wanted to show the process of making gingerbread cookies, from cutting out the cookies to baking and decorating.

Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford
Photo by © Nathaniel Crawford

Make sure you check the website and other beautiful images of Nate, by visiting his

Show me your food photos by tagging @rekacsulak
on your social media posts.

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