Before worrying about where to get props and how to style them in a way that attracts your ideal audience, it is important to make sure that the technical aspects of your photo are just as amazing as the creative concept you’re executing. Let’s take focus, for example.
When I see an image, certain things quickly draw my attention…and sometimes for the wrong reasons. One of those things is an image that is unintentionally out of focus. It is distracting, particularly when the object has a lot of texture that is begging to be seen in all its glory.
There are times when you make a creative choice to have some objects out of focus because you are trying to bring attention to a particular part of the image. But, there are many times when you want everything to be tack sharp. This is more often the case when you are photographing the scene overhead (a.k.a. flat lays) vs. straight-on or at an angle. With flat lay photography, all the items often appear to be sitting on the same plane, so our eye expects them to be equally in focus. Even if they are not on the same surface, the items typically aren’t so noticeably distant from each other that you would expect some to be blurry and others in focus.
Nailing focus is often an easy thing to accomplish once you have a sense of what factors might be at play. Below are four ways to achieve sharp focus in your flat lay images.
1. Choose a Higher Aperture
When I first started photography and learned how to blur the background, I sought to incorporate that effect into all of my images and achieve the perfect bokeh. All. of. Them. Can anyone relate? Granted, that is often what is most pleasing for portraits because you want the person to be the highlight of the photo and not the surrounding (unless, of course, it is an environmental portrait). For portraits, my go-to aperture was always F2.8. For me, that was the setting where I could comfortably nail the focus on the person and typically have enough of the background in focus to provide context.
For flat lays, you often want the opposite effect. The background (or an item laying directly on it) may be a prop itself and lend to the story, so you want to make sure that it is in focus. Further, there is often more than one object that is essential to the story. Rather than isolate particular objects by having them appear to jump off the page through separation from the background via a shallow depth of field, you can seek to highlight them via composition techniques.
People are often surprised when I tell them my camera settings for my flat lay photos. When I shoot flat lays, 99% of the time I am at a minimum of F16. (When I am using my 100mm macro, I may go even higher.) That is because I want everything to be sharply in focus, including writing on bottles and textures in items (e.g., napkin folds) that are sitting directly on the surface.
So, in a nutshell: Your camera settings are often the culprit if some objects appear sharply in focus and others do not.
2. Use a Tripod or a C-Stand
When the entire image looks blurry and there is a direction to the blur as if it is in motion, then it is likely “camera shake.” Camera shake is simply the inability to hold the camera steady enough to ensure a sharp image. This can occur when you have to drop your shutter speed in order to let more light in to create a properly exposed image.
As you may know, getting a properly exposed image is a combination of the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Let’s assume you are shooting in natural light or with a continuous light (e.g., LED). If you want to keep your ISO low (say ISO 100) in order to minimize grain and your aperture high (say F16) in order to keep everything in focus, then you will need a relatively slow shutter speed depending on how much light you have available. You may need to drop your shutter speed to 1/30 or even lower in order to properly expose your scene without increasing your ISO or changing your aperture. For most people, this will be too low to hand hold your camera and get a sharp image. (For context, things usually get shaky for me below shutter speed 1/100).
For this reason (and several others), I consider a tripod or c-stand to be one of the most essential pieces of equipment for flat lay photography. In addition to decreasing back pain and maintaining a consistent vantage point while tweaking your styling, mounting your camera to your tripod or c-stand will keep it steady enough to almost guarantee a sharp image…assuming all of the other culprits are tackled.
3. Use Single-Point Focus
But, what if the entire image looks…well…soft? There doesn’t seem to be any motion blur; it just looks out of focus. Then, the problem might be a case of missed focus. Perhaps you didn’t have your focus point set in the best area to lock focus with your auto focus. Maybe your lens was on manual focus and you thought it was on autofocus. There are various reasons why your camera won’t lock focus, from user error to the technical specifications of the lens.
To lock focus, I always use single-point focus, set my camera to back button focus, and focus on the part of the object that has the most contrast and is closest to the lens. These steps help me to minimize user error. Single-point focus puts all of the control in my hands when it comes to choosing which object is most important to be in focus. There needs to be contrast in the object so the lens isn’t “searching” for the object, which will be evident when your lens keeps moving in and out without locking onto the item. So, I often aim to focus on the edge of an object (e.g., the rim of a coffee cup vs. the smooth coffee inside the cup). Back button focus ensures that I remove the autofocus setting from the capture function so that I don’t accidentally change the focus point prior to capturing the image. Focusing on the object that is closest to the lens mirrors the way our eyes see the world so that even if some objects are a bit soft, they are the ones that are farthest away, which is natural.
4. Switch Your Lens
Finally, it is important to check the specifications of your lens. You need to make sure that the focusing distance of your lens is appropriate for the distance between your camera and your scene. If it is not (i.e., it is closer than the minimum focusing distance of your lens), then your camera can’t lock focus no matter how hard you try. You will discover that when you press the shutter halfway or the button you set up to back focus does not move your lens at all. It may appear that your lens is broken. The fix would be to try to get your camera higher above the scene. Can’t get up higher? Then choose a lens that can get you closer…although this may compromise your framing and you may need to adjust your composition, accordingly, to make sure important elements are still visible. A macro lens will allow you to get very close to the scene and zero in on even the tiniest details.
Which do you prioritize during your shoots…the technical aspects or the creative aspects? What technical aspects (e.g., focus, exposure, lighting, etc..) do you find most challenging?