Working with a high-end stylist for the first time was an interesting experience as I watched her build flat lays for us to photograph. My introduction into the fine art photo world came in the form of a workshop in New York where I realized upon arrival that I was very much the smallest fish in a very large pond (half the people in the room published in Martha Stewart? Okay, okay, okay).
One of the most memorable things though was how the workshop designer/stylist introduced me to the notion of play. While there was some semblance of structure she worked within, when she would style flat lays or items on a table, there was also a lot of her throwing stuff onto a table just to see where it would land. And then she would do it over and over again not really attached to the outcome.
It turns out that if you want to make something look effortlessly styled like someone just threw a sweater over a chair and it looks perfectly styled? You just gotta throw the sweater over the chair again and again and again.
Here are 3 tips I have for you to encourage play when it comes to styling:
1. Block off time to experiment and take the pressure off
When you start playing and trying to style products or a flat lay for a photo, keep an open mind! When we begin to style, we sometimes have a picture of the finished product in our minds eye; I challenge you to scrap that and take a good look at the products you have to work with, and then begin to play.
Move things around, take everything off the working surface and try again, take a quick snap of every iteration so you can compare and contrast what you did and didn’t like between each composition, and don’t beat yourself up if it’s not perfect!
When I look at some of my product work from 3 years ago I now balk, but at the time that was as good as it got and I’m proud of how far I’ve come — and how did I grow you may ask? By playing around and most certainly by not telling myself I sucked if certain photos didn’t work out.
2. Stick to a theme
For the purpose of practice, stick with a theme. Can you pull all your tea or coffee supplies to play with? The ingredients from your dinner, the art supplies in the closet?
One way to get your brain thinking differently is to work with products outside of what you sell when you’re playing around with styling because you have to look at things differently. Dare I say that how you usually would take your standard photo may not work here? It also takes the pressure off of making things perfect, something we tend to cling to when creating photos of products that we plan to sell.
3. Have a growth mindset and give yourself a bit of grace
While I have a loose idea of how things will play out, half of the time when I show up to a shoot I come with no expectations. When you show up with certain expectations and try to fit your work in that imaginary box, you’re never going to have as good of a time than if you showed up ready to create and let them creative juices flow. Some of my best work has come out of having no expectations on how I’ll perform because I was open to play without pressuring myself.
How do I even show up with that mindset when it comes to paid gigs you may wonder? Think of it this way, you’ve already come this far with your small business or creative endeavours, and it wasn’t by accident.
And because I can’t help myself and everything needs a sports metaphor…it’s kinda like the Olympics — one shot, one kill. But I don’t mean that in a scary way, I think of it like this: you’ve already trained as much as you can up to this point, so all you can do is trust yourself and lay it all on the line.
Deep down I think you know what you’re capable of, but are you scared to unleash that full potential? Give yourself some grace and some more credit while you’re at it.
On my good days I’m really good, and on my so-so days I’m still really good. I’m not trying to be cocky here, I say it as the reminder that I didn’t stumble to this point in my career due to blind luck, and neither did you. At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is play is just that: play.
Think out of the box and make it fun by putting zero pressure on yourself. Perfectionism happens when we’re trying to earn the approval and acceptance of others. When you’re playing, don’t worry about the outcome; enjoy the process and have a little faith in yourself.