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D.I.Y. Christmas Card

How to photograph flat lays for festive greeting cards.

Connect with your loved ones by sending a Christmas card.

Even if you can't see your friends and family face-to-face this year, you can still spread cheer.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how you how to use flat lay photography techniques to take a festive photo worthy of a greeting card. The example I'll be using is for a Christmas card. You can of course use these techniques to create other kinds of images too, like a birthday greeting or website banner.

What is a flat lay photo? Its exactly what it sounds like. Props are arranged on a flat surface, than photographed from above to create a dynamic image. Flat lays are very popular on Instagram and in product advertising. Not only are they eye catching, but they are a lot of fun to photograph!

Get Cozy

Grab your favorite mug and fill it with a toasty beverage. The best time of day to photograph is in the morning (more on that in the next step), so a coffee*** is in order.

***My nephew suggests making your coffee "New Years Eve" style, which is to say you should mix in hot cocoa and add a healthy serving of marshmallows.

If you have little ones who like to craft, this project is perfect to work on as a family. Invite them to help you arrange Christmas scenes and see what you can make together.

Let the Sunshine In

For flat lay photography, natural sunlight will be your best friend. Specifically, indirect sunlight. Indirect sunlight will give your composition a nice even cast. You'll be able to see everything clearly, without heavy shadows.

The best natural lighting conditions are in the morning. The light in the morning is softer and ideal for flat lay photography. An overcast day can also provide the even light you're looking for.

Find your ideal shooting location by experimenting. You can do this by placing a few items on a book. Then move the book to different locations throughout your living space. Look for a spot with plenty of light that doesn't cast harsh shadows. That's your shooting location!

Windows that face north generally get less direct sunlight and are preferable, however there are no hard and fast rules for what setting to choose. My favorite place to photograph is at the kitchen table, which faces west.

Keep Tools Nearby

For this project, you'll want the following tools nearby:

  • Scissors

  • Tape

  • White Paper

  • Small items to hold up your props (like a Lego)

The white paper will help you light your subject. Use a couple sheets to bounce light from the window back on to your flat lay arrangement. Try holding the paper at different angles to see which does the best job of lighting up your image.

Once you find the best placement, secure the paper in place. What works best for me is taping a pieces of paper to two cereal boxes, then placing those around my composition.

Pro tip: If you wear a white shirt, you'll act as a human light bounce.

Its handy to have a few small items, like a Legos to keep props in place. Sometimes props have a tendency to lean or roll. I find Lego pieces with their variety of shapes can make the perfect wedge to keep an item stationary.

Don't own Legos? You can also improvise with other small items like paper clips, tape, or coins.

Go on a Treasure Hunt

Now we're getting to the fun part! Its time to find items to go in your flat lay composition. Search your living space for any objects that strike your fancy. Pick out items that go with your Christmas theme, looking for items with a variety of shapes, sizes, color, and texture.

During this step I don't worry about editing the objects. I fill up a shoebox with items, which gives me lots of options when its time to compose the image. Look through each room of your living space with curious eyes. Here's what you might find:

  • Ribbon, tinsel, or yarn

  • ornaments

  • colorful light bulbs

  • bows

  • confetti

  • photographs

  • cookie cutters

  • marshmallows, candy canes, cinnamon sticks

  • cute mug or dish

  • miniatures, toys

  • holly, branches, pine cones, flowers

  • fabric, scarves, bows, jewelry

Gather backdrop materials

While you're looking for treasures, keep an eye out for backdrop materials. There are lots of options for backdrops, many you probably already own. Your composition will look very different depending on what background you choose, so I like to have a few options. Here are some of my go-to backdrop materials:

  • Wrapping paper

  • Kraft paper

  • Construction Paper

  • Foam core board

  • Tile or marble slab

  • Tabletop or floors

  • Rugs, fabric, or fuzzy blanket

Remember your ABCs

If you'd like to include a message in your picture, look for letters! Because I do a lot of crafting, I have a small collection of letters on hand; felt letters and plastic charms. If you don't happen to have a random stash of letters handy, you'll need to be a little resourceful.

Why not try one of these ideas?

  • Building blocks in the toy chest

  • Letter magnets on your fridge

  • Words clipped from magazines (be warned that this may give your image a hostage letter vibe)

  • Hand cut letters, or letters cut with a die-cut machine

Of course, including a message is totally optional. Another strategy is to add text after you photograph the image using a design app like Canva (which is free!).

Embrace Chaos

The creative process is messy. As you get all your materials spread out and start arranging them, your space is going to look chaotic. This seemingly random jumble of objects is about to become your subject.

By now you may be looking at these steps thinking "this looks like way to much work". Never fear! The process of searching for tools, backdrops, and props goes quickly.

As you search your living space, ideas will start to jump out at you. If you're making this project with your family, ask for their help. They may surprise you with their creativity.

Pro tip: If you're not a morning person (I'm not) gather the items up the day before you shoot the photographs. That way when you drowsily make your way to your work station, all of your props will be ready for you.

Arrange and Rearrange

This is the best part! Lay out your treasures and begin to arrange a scene. For guidance, keep in mind these basic art principles:

  • Crop Would you like the photograph to be cropped as a rectangle or square? If a rectangle what direction will it be in? Landscape or Portrait?

  • Color Are the colors in harmony? If not, think of adding more items of a particular color or removing a color.

  • Scale Does the scale of the items relate to one another? Its good to have a mixture of items, big little, and small.

  • Background and Foreground Did you choose a busy printed backdrop or simple solid color? Generally, if you choose a background with patterns, you'll want to balance it with simple, bold, shapes in the foreground.

  • Focal Point Where is your eye drawn to? Arrange the items so that your eyes follow a path through the composition. For example, a strand of ribbon can lead the viewer's eyes across the image. A concentric circle of leaves will focus a viewers eyes towards the center of the picture.

If this seems to complicated, just let your intuition be your guide. Look at the composition through your camera and make adjustments as you go. You'll begin to naturally nudge items here and there without even thinking about it. Soon your composition will click into place.

Though you can use a tripod and professional photography equipment, you don't need to! The camera on your phone will do the trick.

Hold the camera above your composition. Try to hold the camera parallel to the flat surface you are photographing. Tilting the camera will skew the perspective.

Pro tip: For a composition with large items, try standing on a chair to get a bigger area in your photograph. For small items, hold your camera closer to get a tight shot with more details.

Once you've taken a photo that you're happy with, its time to design a Christmas card.

To give your photo a little extra pop, try editing it in an editing app or software. I used Photoshop Express to add a little more light to my photo and remove a few creases in the backdrop.

When it comes to getting your card printed, there are so many companies to choose from. Zazzle (pictured above), Shutterfly, Minted, Postable, and Walgreens all offer custom cards.

You can easily upload your image to one of these sites and design your card in minutes. Most sites display an instant mock-up of what your cards will look like.

What will I be doing this year? I'll be sending my Christmas wishes via Zoom calls this year. Stay safe and healthy friends! XOXOXO

I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial. If you and your family make Christmas cards, please share your photo in the comments below, or tag @DogSweaterMoney on Instagram.

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