“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass
Closing the Gap
I feel this sentiment so deeply and so often. Rare is the day where I’m able to actually produce what I see in my head. In particular, I have much to learn about the art of styling stationery, and there are a handful of folks I look up to for all-things-flatlay.
And so I practice. I hone. I observe, and I do it again with the hope of closing that gap. Since my early days of printing (nearly 10 years ago now), I have picked up a few basic tips that have helped me to do some simple composing when I want to capture more interesting set-ups of my work for my portfolio or social media accounts. These tips can be helpful for wedding day details shots or just for personally capturing photos of your stationery pieces.
1. Plan ahead and batch.
My little mini shoots always go much better when they’re premeditated and I have time to think more strategically about what and how I want to shoot. If I have a stack of recent work, I might spend some time thinking through what kind of images I’ll need and where I’ll be using them so that I can be sure to create the right sorts of images.
2. Gather visual inspiration.
Next, I like to spend some time on pinterest, with magazines, design books, etc really getting a sense of the general vibe an aesthetic I want for my images. Do you like straight lines or thoughtfully messy ones where items are more askew. I’m often inspired by food photography and I like really richly saturated colors. Don’t be limited by the wedding industry; seek inspiration wherever you can and create a digital or physical inspiration board to sum it up.
3. Pull your props.
Be thoughtful about curating a collection of embellishments that make sense for what you’re photographing. A good base of things to own include:
Small and/or rIng dishes
Ornate writing utensils (calligraphy pens, ink pens, etc)
Desk supplies (clips, rulers, pencils, erasers)
I keep my prop collection together in a certain corner of my office so that I can grab a handful of things and put together a little mini-shoot on a moment’s notice, if needed.
4. Think about your color story.
It was a little revolutionary for me to start thinking of my portfolio photography in terms of my brand color palette, but I’m so glad that I know have a lens to run my visual imagery through. The guidelines are loose, but I generally know I like to use photographs incorporating sage, dark teal, navy, blush, and ivory. Creating a cohesive color story really helps for maintaining visual consistency from my website to my social media—helping me use the same messages with my brand across platforms.
5. Back it up.
Bring color into the process of deciding what kind of back-drop you want for your pieces. Are you a loose and flowy type, textured, or clean? Invest in a couple of linen styling boards or take a trip to Home Depot to get some marble tiles or rustic wood to use in shoots.
6. Find the light.
It really helps to find a spot to shoot in your home or studio that allows for some consistency with your images. I always use the natural light from my house’s big front bay window in the early afternoon. This means that I get the same kind of light and at similar angles. I also always edit my photos with the same saved presets so that any small differences in lighting can be ironed out in post-production.
7. Add dimension.
A flat lay doesn’t have to look...so flat. Bump up some of the paper pieces with coins, books, or styling blocks like these. This just adds a little shadow and 3D-ness to your images.
8. Find balance.
Start by placing your larger items down (ie: if you’re using a tray as a base), then build your paper pieces in from biggest to smallest. When you’re happy with the angles and placement, begin adding in your props. Just like in a painting, you’ll want to strive for visual balance. If you add a stemmed flower onto the right side of your image, think of using something like a ribbon in the opposing area to make your little scene feels properly weighted.
A few other miscellaneous tips:
"Break the necks" of some of your envelopes by bending them over backwards so that you can photograph them flat.
Leave a few of your envelope liners unfolded for the same reason so that you can photograph them inserted into an envelope without a crease.
Photograph each set-up in a few different ways (up close, zoomed out, at an angle). You may find uses for different parts of the same whole.