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You may not know what a bird’s-eye shot is by name, but you probably know it when you see it. It’s not a #flatlay, per se, but these gorgeous images haunt your Instagram feed all the same—from shots of that avocado toast to a day at the beach—that look just a little better somehow, though you can’t quite place your finger on why.
To get to the bottom of the debate, we caught up with master stylist and photographer Shay Cochrane, whose own bird’s-eyes have appeared for clients like Los Angeles-based boutique candy shop Sugarfina and Emily Ley, creator of the Simplified Planner.
“These pretty overhead shots are made up of a simple and clean background and usually showcase a set of rigidly placed items,” she says. And don’t just think this is about how to best display your new pair of high-waisted jeans. But, she says, while the #flatlay is a bit played out, the bird’s-eye is more “classic” and can stand the test of time.
But what does that mean for your own social feed? First off, lighting is key. “If you do nothing else, find a well-lit spot to shoot your subject,” Cochrane says. That might mean moving closer to a window with some natural light or using a white poster board from a local craft store to reflect light onto your objects. And, to Cochrane, adding “living elements” to the shot—flowers, food, or really any carbon-based life form—to add dimension.
And easy does it on the posts. Cochrane recommends posting fewer more thoughtful images that have a clear vision. But the most important thing you should be doing is finding your own style. “Don’t just re-create what you see others doing (people are tired of that!) and instead press into what is truly interesting-looking to you—we want to see the world the way you see it.”
Now that you’ve mastered the basics, let’s move onto how to shoot the most breathtaking bird’s-eyes around your home and beyond.
When it comes to shooting makeup, the key is thinking about scale. “With smaller items like lipstick, it’s important to make sure that any other props don’t detract from your subject in color, detail, or scale,” she says. “If the best feature is the color, remove the cap and turn the tube so that the majority of the lipstick itself is exposed. If it’s an eyeshadow palette, open the lip and position it so the lid seems to disappear in the image.”
Or think of it this way: Just as you’re always trying to find your best feature in a #selfie, you should be looking to find the best assets of that kick-ass tube of lipstick.
For Cochrane, food is by far the hardest thing to shoot well, mostly because a delicious-looking salad can quickly turn into a less-than-appetizing-looking bowl of wilted lettuce. She recommends using natural light with the plate in front of you with a window to your left or right.
And hot tip: Stay away from bland-colored foods like pastas, soups, and rice, but if you must, make sure to photograph it in smaller portions.
Her rule of thumb: “If it lacks interesting color and texture in real life, it’s probably not going to look any more interesting on camera.”
When you’re photographing objects around your house, Cochrane notes that you’re slightly limited in terms of what you can shoot because as far as we know, people have not yet evolved the ability to levitate.
Which makes tabletops the de facto objects to shoot. “Consider making the image more interesting by including a bit of the floor or a slightly pulled-out chair for context clues and texture,” she advises.
Coffee tables, beds, kitchen counters, and floors can also work as overhead shots as long as you style it properly, using different textures and props. Or, like in this shoot, having the white sink contrasted by the pattern of the floor tiles, which is in turn contrasted by the pattern of the rug adds a lot of depth and dimension—and a little fashion flair, too.
Above all, you want to avoid the #FlatLayFail, or what Cochrane says is basically photographing what looks like a pile of folded laundry. “Clothing can be tricky to style because of its shapelessness when laid flat.”
How you can avoid it: Try rolling your clothes instead of folding them, turn your shoes on their sides for a different view, throwing in a piece of greenery, or adding a personal element—the quirkier the better (Cochrane recommends a cup of coffee or a half-eaten granola bar).
“Your followers want to see glimpses of the human behind the image, not just a pretty square,” she says.
Thinking beyond the now-cliché workspace of a laptop, manicured hand, and a steaming cup of coffee is tough, Cochrane admits. But with any bird’s-eye shot, texture and layers are key. “This is as simple as leaving your scarf in the corner of the image or shooting over the table edge to reveal the chair and floors below,” she says.
For advanced students, Cochrane recommends creating a color story by repeating a hue. If you have a red smoothie, try also including a red lipstick in the shot, plus a red gym bag, with a little glimpse of the book with the red cover you’re reading. “These elements make a scene feel lived in and give your viewer a sense of the person behind the image.”
And adding a few styled-but-not-styled elements like a few paper clips scattered across a desk or a handwritten note at an angle add more personality.
And now, for an easy bird’s-eye category. “Travel overheads are fun and easy to create because of the variety of items that can be styled in,” she says. For instance: Add palm leaf for vacation shots in tropical climes, or a well-designed European travel book with a few edited accessories for your jaunt to London.
And you can borrow a few items from a beauty shot to help you tell your story. “This could include sunblock, mouthwash, or beautifully packaged hand lotion that you keep in your purse,” she says.
Instead of inundating your feed with the usual travel selfies, Cochrane recommends challenging yourself to snap motifs or color patterns throughout your trip. Maybe you focus on photographing blue throughout your trip—a blue door, a blue bottle, or blue jeans. Says Cochrane: “You’ll want to have images that remind you of how the trip felt and not just what it looked like.”
Follow Shay Cochrane on Instagram, @shaycochrane.