How to Style Overhead Still Life Photos (Flat Lays)

still life

It took me a long time to admit that photography is part of my job. UGH! I’m a decorator, a blogger, a writer–but every step of the way it was the photos that helped communicate my message.

In a visual business with an online presence, photography makes or breaks you.

Often, photos are the deciding factor when it comes to someone actually stopping and reading what you have to say.

We start the story with the photos and finish the story with our words–if we are lucky enough to get people to stick around long enough actually read our words.

You really cannot overestimate the power of a great photo.

still life close

Is photography part of your message?

If you have a blog, a shop, a product, a service, a book, a belief, a public Instagram account where you hope to reach followers beyond your personal friends and family–pretty much if you have ANYTHING you hope to share on any medium where photos are included, then photography is part of your message too.

One of the types of photos that has high visual impact but also takes the most amount of skill to master is the still life photo– a styled photo from above, also referred to as a “flat lay” “table top” or simply “overhead”.

Still life photos taken from above are such a nice addition to any photography style and they look great on Instagram. They are styled with intention to allow us to focus on a certain object, create curiosity and to begin to tell part of a story–all for the sake of connecting and serving our audience.

You would think it would be easy to create these images–it’s actual still life, nothing is moving. But if you are being intentional you know it’s about much more than taking a non-blurry photo.

It took me YEARS to figure out why my still life photos looked bad, or ‘off’ and today, I’m sharing three tips I incorporate into every still life photo that I take.

For your viewing pleasure, I’ll also share examples of how I used to take photos that went against these tips and it always drove me crazy because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

I did it all wrong so you don’t have to.   Here’s my first tip…



I used to think lighting could be fixed with a filter, now I know that you can never filter away poor lighting.

poor lighting why, WHY didn’t I wait for better lighting? please forgive me?

Lighting is your everything. I’d rather take a photo of toilet paper in great light, than flowers in horrible light.

So many times in the past I did you, the reader, a disservice because I was impatient.  I believed the lie that lighting wasn’t important, and thought I could filter myself out of poor lighting.

You can never filter away poor lighting.

Now, I wait on the light, it is my number ONE tip when it comes to photography of all kinds. And many of us are taking photos with our phone and posting them on Instagram and our websites.

We think because it’s called Instagram, that we must take every photo in the moment and post it instantly. Wrong.

Some photos should be taken in the moment–a child blowing out birthday candles, a bee on a sunflower–but if we are taking time to style a photo to tell an intentional story (like I was trying to do in those three poorly lit photos above) then it’s worth it to take the time to wait on the right light.

style a photo how to

For me, waiting on the light means setting up near filtered sunlight on a sunny day (where I’m near a window but without direct sun) or even a cloudy day that’s not too dark. Natural light will change your photo’s lives. I promise.


Negative Space (white space)


I used to think that I needed to pack every inch of my photos full of stuff, now I realize I need to provide a place for the eye (or eyes if you have two) to rest.

all wrongthese three photos don’t have enough negative space, please, give my eyes a place to rest, they are exhausted!

I get it, we only have a small space to start with when it comes to creating a photo, better make it count and pack everything in, right? Not quite.


 White space is the most valuable thing on the internet today.


White space is the most valuable, noticeable thing in a room, in our schedule and even on the internet.

White space in a photo (or in our lives) is what allows us to see and appreciate everything else. Never underestimate it.

It takes a lot of maturity to allow some white space in your photos, it seems easy, but it’s kind of scary and takes practice to balance white space with filled up space. It’s especially meaningful in these still life photos.

styling secrets

White space is one of the most powerful players in an image to draw attention to the focal point.




I used to think if something were pretty I could just snap a photo and everyone would see it the way I saw it, now I realize it’s worth it to consider how I frame the story I’m hoping to tell.

how not to style a photoclearly lighting is still an issue in these photos, but even if that were better…well, just read below

It took me years to get comfortable going closer to what I was photographing. I’d try to give the big picture, when really, telling just a part of the story would have resulted in a better, more interesting photo and probably made people more curious to read the words that went with the photos.

I’ve learned I don’t have to try to tell the entire story in one image.

Don’t be afraid to allow things to run off the edge of the photo. It’s visually interesting, hints that the photo doesn’t tell the whole story and builds curiosity.

run off the page // styling photos closer


These three tips are my starting point every time to getting a great flat lay.

When you create your flat lays, consider each of the ingredients above.



  1. What a timely post for me! I have to admit that my photo styling could use some work and I’m just working on a blog post today. Definitely going to incorporate these tips and I’m sure I’ll see some good results!!

  2. I love to take pictures and I love the “from overhead” shots that are often used on Instagram. I have a lot of fun playing around with them.

    YES!!!! Lighting is key. I like your other tips and tricks too. Thank-you!

  3. Your 3 tips are easy to remember; they all rhyme: light, tight, and white (space). Got it :) Off to download the checklist now. Thanks for a super informative post.

  4. Great tips!!! Thanks for sharing them! Shared on my Blog FB Page! :) ~Rhonda

  5. as a non-blogger, thanks for the reminder that EVERYTHING is styled! It’s so freeing to remember that for the photo of the drink and straw (fun perspective by the way), you arranged that and waited for good lighting… you didn’t just glance down and notice that once again your life happened to be beautiful and perfectly lit, so why not show the world?

    • absolutely! Both types of photos are important and part of the story! It’s really easy to fall into one camp –either everything is styled always, or nothing is styled ever, but truly, I enjoy seeing both types of photos!

  6. These are wonderful tips. And I so appreciate you being willing to show your earlier mistakes. That takes courage, I know, but helps so much.

  7. I am so excited to use your tips! I got back into instagram after hearing you talk so much about it recently. I hadn’t realized the gift of it before. As a busy mom of littles who still has a message to share I love having the ability to share on instagram when some weeks it’s all I have time for. Thank you for sharing these tips and showing us the gift of using photos on instagram to communicate the message we were made to share.

  8. What a great article! Photography is something I struggle with, I’m definitely going to keep these tips in mind and I signed up for the checklist too!

    Thank you!

  9. I am a fairly new blogger and terrified of photography…

    I love your tips! And the examples clearly showed what you meant. Thanks!

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  11. I m always struggling with this so this post is a big help.

  12. Oh, this 3 tips are so true! Thanks for sharing. I was using the first two, but the 3th ‘tighter’ is a great addition! It’s nice you also show the ‘mistakes’ from before what is quit helpful. Thank you so much. Sharing :-)

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this! As a new blogger with zero experience with photography, the overhead shots are definitely my favorites, but they are way harder than they look. Thanks again!

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