Explore the intricacies of shooting top-down still life photos with tips and insight from five professional photographers.
We love a good top-down still life image here at Shutterstock. Whether it’s a stunning flat lay illustration that leaves the perfect amount of copy space for our customers or a beautiful image of food, there’s something about the top-down perspective that just works.
Creating a top-down still life image doesn’t need to be complicated. Sometimes it just takes the right gear and a brilliant, yet simple idea. Top-down images are great for stock. They allow customers to picture the image in a wide variety of circumstances, especially if you allow for empty copy space.
We wanted to know what goes into making a great top-down still life image. Is it the gear our photographers use? A great concept and careful planning? That’s why we asked 5 pro photographers from around the world how they create beautiful top-down imagery. Here’s what they had to say.
Oregon-based photographer Natasha Hirtzel: “Have fun with it”
Natasha is an incredibly talented photographer from Portland, Oregon. She originally went to school as an animator before switching to becoming a photographer and illustrator. So let’s just say she knows how to design a good image. Natasha shared the following pro tips on how she creates beautifully designed top-down still life images.
Play around with different lighting setups
“Don’t be afraid to play around with different lighting setups,” says Natasha. “I started out using a picnic table outside in the shade, then moved inside near a window that had soft, indirect light, before finally playing with studio lights.” Your picture will dictate what type of lighting you will use to create the best image.
Move your objects around in the scene
Have fun moving around your objects within the scene. “Sometimes more is fun, and sometimes less is more!” says Natasha. Move your objects around depending on where you want your focus to be within the image, and try adding elements and taking away objects along the way. “Sometimes I’ll find that I’ll like the image before, and added way too many elements after.”
Pennsylvania-based food photographer Vrinda Mahesh: “A steady tripod is the most important gear”
Vrinda specializes in creating delectable food imagery, so it’s no wonder this talented photographer was a top choice for providing tips in this article. If food photography is your specialty, learn from Vrinda how gear makes a difference in top-down photography.
Use a tripod that can orientate overhead
“I’m a food photographer, so flat lay is something that I do every day,” says Vrinda. The most important gear in overhead flat lay photography is a steady tripod, one that allows the center column to orientate overhead. “I use a budget-friendly multifunctional Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB tripod,” says Vrinda. “It allows me to switch to an overhead orientation, which is a must.”
If you want to be professional, use a full-frame camera
“In my photography, I use a Sony A7III mirrorless, full-frame for all my overhead shots.” A full-frame camera allows photographers to cover a larger area, and captures more detailed imagery with full resolution. That’s key if you want to sell images to customers.
Composition is key
In flat lay photography, composition plays a major role in the final success of an image. “Make sure you’re using the right background linens and utensils, and try not to overcrowd the frame. Keep it simple and realistic,” says Vrinda.
Serbia-based photo studio Zamurovic Photography: “Have a space set-up for flat lays”
Ivan Zamurovic of Zamurovic Photography has long been a favorite here at Shutterstock. They specialize in “art photography” – which essentially means they are pros at designing stunning images that look straight out of a magazine. We love the simplicity of the flat lay imagery they create.
Create a space set-up for top-down images
“As we do a lot of flat-lay photography, our studio is always set for those kinds of shots,” says Ivan. A great camera is a starting point, but it also comes down to having the right backdrops in a variety of textures and colors, and as mentioned, a great tripod that has a moveable center column. Having a space set-up for top-down means you can create a wide variety of images easily, without needing to move your gear.
Images by Zamurovic Photography
Connect your camera to a computer
“A very useful tip we have is to connect your camera to a computer, so you can see what it looks like while you set up your shot before shooting,” says Ivan. In this Artist Series video featuring Joanie Simon, you can see exactly what that looks like. It’s a great way to preview your images before you start shooting and arrange a variety of compositions.
Collect a variety of great props
Props are perhaps the most important element in creating great top-down images. “For us, looking for new props is an everyday job,” says Ivan. “And as you search for them in unique shops or markets, new ideas will come along naturally.”
Poland-based food photographer Grzegorz Krysmalski: “Create a top-down go-to photography kit”
Grzegorz is an accomplished food photographer based in Poland who specializes in creating top-down food imagery on Shutterstock. On his portfolio, expect to see carefully curated images of a wide variety of holiday setups, international cuisine, and well-thought out placement of props.
Use a wide aperture
“The majority of my top-down images are created using a 50mm lens, at an aperture of f/8,” says Grzegorz. A wide aperture allows photographers to capture the most detail in their image possible and ensures that everything is in focus.
Create a go-to flat-lay photography kit
Having a kit that’s your go-to for flat-lay photography is great if you plan on specializing in this field. Here’s a list of the basic equipment that Grzegorz always has on hand for flat-lay photographs.
- Full-frame camera
- 50mm lens
- Solid column stand
- 1 flash with add-ons
Australia-based still life photographer Natalie Board: “I use a lot of natural light, so big windows are key”
One look at Natalie’s portfolio and you’ll be transported to a carefully curated, minimally-designed collection of images that will take your breath away. Sometimes, less is more, and Natalie’s work is a perfect example of that. Learn from this talented natural-light photographer how she creates simple top-down still life images.
Make your own backgrounds
White backgrounds are where Natalie tends to start with her photographs. “I’ve used all kinds of white tables, or a whiteboard from your local hardware store,” says Natalie.
Once you’ve mastered white, you can start to paint your own colors. Natalie’s go-to favorite? Pink. “Sample paint pots from the hardware stores can be great for that,” says Natalie. The most important thing is to be creative and remember that you can use anything for backgrounds. Natalie’s trick? Make sure the background doesn’t overwhelm the subject.
Find a big window
“I use natural light for all of my top-down images, so I’m always keen to find big windows,” says Natalie. She also likes to experiment with shadows and suggests using different angles when shooting top-down still life images. Play with where the light hits your subject to find what works for you.
Use Lightroom to clean-up your images
“I try to make sure my backgrounds are as clean as possible, but inevitably, blemishes will show on the big screen,” says Natalie. The talented still life photographer suggests using spot removal in Lightroom to clean up any dust that may appear. The Visualize Spots tool can also be very handy for that. “To make my white backgrounds brighter, I also usually lift the exposure while being careful not to blow out the highlights.”
Featured Image by Zamurovic Photography
We hope these tips from five talented photographers on Shutterstock help you create stunning top-down still life images. Not a contributor yet? Click here to sign up and get started.
Looking for more inspiration? Check out these articles:
- How Neutral Tones in Photography Creates Natural and Simplistic Images
- Why It’s Important to Create a Visual Aesthetic for your Photography
- Tips for Capturing Instagram-Worthy Photos in Cafes
- 10 Photographers on Taking Fresh and Modern Still Life Photos
- Why Taking Images That Tell Stories is Important for Photographers