Instagram Travel Tip: How to Master the Flat-Lay

Updated 07/09/18

While the selfie still reigns as the most popular image on Instagram, the most iconic would have to go to the humble flat-lay. If you need proof, just click through to Flatlays, a dedicated Insta account featuring more than 35,000 perfectly arranged squares. What started out as a great way to show off your #ootd has quickly turned into the perfect travel journal. From travel bloggers to holidaymakers, the fixed four-by-four format is a fun way to document your jet-setting essentials, passport stamps, new country's currency, snorkel style, glamping gear, and motel mementos, all while putting your creative skills to the test.

So just what is the difference between a travel flat-lay and a regular one? While the overall look remains the same, there are a few key differences. Scroll down to find out how you can take the perfect shot on your next trip.

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Use a Variety of Backdrops

When we did our flat-lay research, most of the advice steered toward shooting on plain backgrounds. While that is certainly the best approach for fashion and beauty, travel is different. You are on an adventure, whether that be backpacking through Eastern Europe, scaling the Egyptian pyramids, or simply sunbaking on a tropical island, so you should definitely share your location via your flat-lay. Shoot it on the sand surrounded by pebbles and seashells, use the cobblestone streets, the colourful tiles in Morocco—even the texture of your perfectly slept-in hotel bed sheets would really set the scene and depict your holiday mood.

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Select a Highlight Piece and Create a Theme

Before you even begin laying everything out, take the time to select your highlight piece. What is this flat-lay about? Are you showcasing your hiking gear for the next day’s mountain climb or your in-flight essentials for a smoother plane ride? Whatever the activity, make sure you select that one visual representation to really unify the overall theme, and then surround it strategically with the other pieces.

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Throw in Some Holiday Spirit

When selecting your items, don’t forget to add some fun holiday-only accessories. Put your passport in the corner of the shot, opened at the stamp of the country you’re in; mix in your hotel keys with the name facing up; add your room service menu to showcase the delicious meal selection; feature ticket stubs from the Eurostar; and place some seashells or stones collected from the local area. These simple tourist mementos really add charm, character, and humour to the shot.

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Don’t Overcomplicate It

This can be explained in one word: white space. OK so that’s two, but when you’re putting all your pieces together, arrange them with ample breathing room so they always look chic, not cluttered. Negative space keeps it light and easy on the eyes. You don’t have to include everything in the shot either. If you’re finding it too hard to fit all of the pieces neatly within the square frame, then the only choice is to cull. While this well-executed style appears casual, it can be a little fiddly to get the look just right, but the end result should always be effortless.

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Keep Colours Within the Same Tone

This will really help to avoid the tip above. Even if you have a lot crammed into your square space, if all the colours are within the same tonal family, it will still look neat and modern. Just think about what works in nature; if you would see these colours side by side in the real world, then it’s a sure bet they’ll look good in the digital one too. The best thing is to experiment and play around with your pieces until you find the right mix.

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Shoot From up High

This really applies to all flat-lays, travel or otherwise. If you’re shooting on location (at the beach or on a path), then you should really think about how you’re going to take the shot before you start laying everything out. It would be heartbreaking after all that fiddling and arranging to discover you have no way of getting high enough to capture it properly. Look around you for any chairs, steps, or higher ground that can act as the perfect (and safe) vantage point for you to snap the perfect shot.

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Invest in Photo Editing Apps

Let’s be honest: Unless you’re a pro on the SLR, most of us find them too bulky and cumbersome to carry around on holidays. With their improved quality and fast capture rate, nothing quite beats our beloved smartphones. Besides, it doesn’t matter how good your camera is or how much natural light you have available; your image will always need colour corrected and shadows brightened. With the convenience of photo-editing apps, you now have the power of this in your hands. Margaret Zhang of Shine by Three has become globally renowned for her flat-lay; she’s even coined her own #zhangflat hashtag.

Snapseed is usually the first app she puts any of her flat-lays through, her favourite feature being Selective Adjust, where you select particular points where you would like to change the brightness, saturation, and contrast in the image. You can brighten the whites and highlight the darks. Other popular favourites are Lightroom and VSCO Cam, or for the more advanced photo editors, you can even get the Adobe Photoshop Express App.

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Do you have any travel flat-lay tips? Share them in the comments below.

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