The easy way to do an overhead food shot

Title Image For Easy Overhead Shooting
Title Image For Easy Overhead Shooting

Overhead food photography is a great way to make a very graphic food image.

Food bloggers coined the phrase, “flatlay” for this technique but traditionally we’ve always called it an overhead shot, just to clear up any confusion there.

Overhead food images are used in all sorts of content these days. It’s actually a very easy way to create a nice looking food photo because you are totally eliminating dimension in your shot so you don’t have to worry about background props.

Your images are now more two dimensional instead of three. Your shot becomes all about shape, color, texture, and form.

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There are two options for shooting overhead. You can lower your set to make it easier to rig your camera, or you can shoot on a table top and then work on getting your camera much higher above you.

Lowered Overhead Setup

When I shoot overhead, I always try to work on a lower set so it’s easier to work on. Below is a shot of what’s called, apple boxes. They have nothing to do with apples as you can see below. 

They are made for the film industry and come in standard sizes. These are called “full apples”. No idea where the name came from. The film industry tends to do that.

Image showing two photos, on left there are 4 apple boxes on the ground. On the right there is a piece of wood that has been placed on the 4 apple boxes.

After the full apples are down, I then put a wood surface on top, even if I’m going to put another wood surface (like fence planks) on top. It’s just easier this way if I have to move the entire set around to get things lined up.

When I shoot with fabric as my background, I have a great trick for you. I always use a dining table felt (AKA silence cloth) that goes on the wood and under the fabric. The original use for this was to protect your dining room table. I use it to iron directly on set.

When you iron right on wood, there isn’t anywhere for the steam to go and your fabric gets wet real fast and can get stained from the wood surface.

When you iron on felt, the felt really helps get the fabric wrinkle-free very quickly. The table felt CANNOT have vinyl on it. You can get felt at a fabric store – get the thickest felt they have. If the felt is thin, double it up so that it’s a thick base.

You can see the pressure steamer I am about to use to the right of my set. Pressure steamers have a constant source of steam for fast ironing.

Image showing 2 photos. On the left you can see a piece of felt has been placed on the wood surface. On the right a purple fabric has been placed on top of the felt.

Tripods For Overhead Shooting With A Lowered Set

Many bloggers and starting photographers tell me that when they try to shoot overhead they can see their tripod legs in the photo. Many tripods are not made for overhead shooting without a special attachment (see next section).

When you are choosing a tripod to shoot with, and you want to do overhead shots, you need to test the tripod to make sure it can handle this. Some tripods have an adjustable center column to help do overheads without having to buy an extra attachment.

Picture of the Manfrotto tripod on a white background.

I have a version of this tripod from Manfrotto and it works very well for doing a normal overhead shot. By normal, I mean the type of shot where you are not showing an entire huge spread of food on a table.

This is the Manfrotto 190XPRO. This one pictured comes with the tripod head as well, and works great.

The prices change all the time, but when I last updated this post it was around $350. The center column can tilt 90 degrees so that you can do an overhead shot without buying another attachment.

If you want a cheaper version of this kind of tripod that has a center column that can go 90 degrees, then look at this one below.

I have NOT used this tripod, but it appears to be highly rated, so as long as you make sure you can return this easily, it might be worth a shot to try it.

Image of Neewer Overhead Tripod on a white background.

This is made by the Neewer company out of Korea. They are notorious for knocking off all sorts of photography gear.

Please note that this one has a very small ball head on the the tripod. I am not a fan of those at all for the bigger full frame cameras, but if you have a smaller cropped sensor camera, you might be able to get away with it.

If I were using this, I would prefer to use my 3-way tripod head instead of the ball head.

For a lot more information on tripods – check out my Tripod Buying Guide post.

Lateral Extension Arms

If you are happy with your current tripod and just want an extension arm to add on top, you have a few options.

This attachment arm is called a side lateral arm. If you are using a 50mm lens or wider, you will most likely need to get your camera out over your set farther than what your tripod alone can do.

Image showing the Manfrotto extension arm on white background.

This is a very sturdy extension arm made by Manfrotto. It’s pricey at $125 but will last forever.

You can also try this other extension arm pictured below that is a lot less, but make sure you can return it if you have issues with it. I have not tried this one.

This one is made by a company called Tarion, who I have never heard of but it has a lot of good ratings so it might we worth trying for the price at only $40.

Image showing the Tarion extension arm on a white background.

What I really like about this one is that it has a hook to hang sand bags off it it to make your rig more stable.

Keep in mind that with any lateral arm extension, it will NOT come with a tripod head so you will have to buy one in order for your camera to have something to attach to and to point down on your set.

Also, when setting up your camera and tripod in this way, you need to make sure that you have sand bags to put on the opposite end of the lateral arm AND on the bottom of the tripod legs as well to secure them.

If you’re like me, you are definitely going to kick your tripod, so the more stable you make your rig, the better off you are.

Image showing a lateral arm extension on a tripod with a sand bag hanging off the back for a counter weight.
This is showing you my lateral arm extension with a sand bag attached as well.

Above you can see my camera set up. This is absolutely the easiest way to do an overhead food shot. My 90 degree arm extension is on the tripod. This attaches where your tripod head would have gone. You now have to take your tripod head and attach it to the end of the extension arm.

These are the sandbags that I use as a counter weight. My side arm has a hook for counter weights so if you have a pro camera (they are heavier) you will have to do this as well.

My side arm is a Gitzo, same brand as my tripod, very heavy duty. They don’t make it anymore but I found it used on ebay for only $50.

Side note:  I have to cringe every time I see a snap shot of a blogger balancing on a step stool or chair, and bending over to do an overhead shot!

People! Breaking your back is not worth the price of a side extension arm! Don’t be cheap! Get a side extension arm or overhead rig asap, please! Before you fall off a chair or step stool.

Also, if you need to be way up on a ladder – this means your lens is too long! and you need a wider angle lens or a zoom lens.

Several folks have asked where they can get the tripod you see below with the side arm extension. Unfortunately, that tripod I’ve had for more than 30 years and it’s not made anymore. It’s a Gitzo tripod. Gitzo, Bogen and Manfrotto are all now the same company called Manfrotto.

Image showing a Canon camera mounted onto a lateral arm extension mounted to a tripod.

Use Those Legs!

Manfrotto Tripod rigged for overhead shooting.

Many photographers don’t actually know how to use their tripod properly for a lot of positions.

Most tripods have little buttons and levers to help you maneuver the tripod to make it do what you want.

The best way to set up an overhead tripod rig when shooting off the floor or on risers is to extend the legs way out so that your setup is more stable.

In this image with my Manfrotto tripod I’ve made the legs much longer and used the levers for each leg at the top of the tripod to extend their reach.

I’m not using any sand bags and this tripod isn’t going anywhere. It’s extremely stable.

Table Height Overhead Setup

There will be times when you cannot lower your setup and you’ll have to shoot on a table. I usually have to do this in restaurants.

Overhead Image with text titled Overhead Rigs

You have to keep in mind that rigging your camera overhead is all about making sure it does NOT coming crashing down. You need to protect your camera AND your set.

With the rig below, if my camera were to get loose and actually fall, it’s protected because I’ve made my camera strap become a safety strap. My camera strap can be shortened and has an opening so that I can strap it around the pole I have the camera rigged to.

Image of an camera in an overhead rig over a table of dishes

This is what I did for years before the product below existed. I now have the rig below and it works great. It’s a lot easier to set up. The point here is you have TWO stands to make this rig really stable.

The Glide Gear overhead camera rig shown on a white background.

So if anyone knocks into it in a restaurant it won’t go crashing over.

This comes with the the 6 foot pole, the camera plate and the two grip heads that attach to the pole. You need to put the two grip heads onto two stands.

It does not come with stands, so you have to get two light stands or two C-stands, which is what I do.

This is made by Glide Gear and this is the OH 75 Overhead Camera Pole Mount System. Again, I have this and it works great. Super solid. Your camera isn’t going anywhere.

Ok for all of you that are saying this is too much money, you’re going to remember this post when you break your camera AND lens when your cheap overhead rigs fails you and falls over.

I have this argument all the time in my Facebook group. You just spent a lot of money on your camera and for some reason you want the thing holding your camera to be cheaper than a hot dog.

Makes no sense! You’ll learn the hard way I guess if you’re in that camp.

Image of a cooked chicken with side dishes on a dark background shot from ovehread

Anyway, what’s great about this rig is that it’s extremely stable and won’t come crashing down.

Please know that I ALWAYS shoot with a 24-105mm zoom lens on my full frame canon camera when doing overhead shots so I can control my framing with my zoom lens and I don’t have to move the camera up and down with the rig.

I can really lock my camera down tight on the rig so I don’t get any motion blur at all during long exposures.

Below is an other option for an overhead rig if you are always shooting overhead and need to put the rig right on your surface.

Glide gear overhead rig setup on a white background.

This is also made by Glide Gear where you put it right on your table. I do not have this rig so I cannot tell if you can adjust the height of this rig or not.

Either way, you do need to use a zoom lens when shooting overhead to make it easier for you to frame your shot without having to move your rig up and down.

To take “easy” one step further – see the cable hanging off my camera in my behind the scenes shot above? I’m shooting tethered so once I do the initial set up with the camera and focus it, I no longer have to lean over to take the shot – I can take the picture from my computer. It’s awesome.

So take it easy on your back and look into some equipment alternatives that can make your overhead shooting so much easier!

What About Using A C-Stand?

Before I finish this post I know I have to address this. A lot of food bloggers and big Youtubers are saying to do overhead shots with a C-stand.

I am NOT a fan of this! I’ve been shooting for several decades and the first time a saw a camera rigged on a C-stand a few years ago I couldn’t believe it.

C-stands were made for rigging gear, NOT for mounting cameras. This is NOT a stable way of setting up your expensive camera. This is not the same thing as a tripod!

With rigging your camera extended out on a C-stand arm over your set, it get more precarious the farther out your camera gets.

Even when you set up your C-stand correctly IT WILL NEVER BE AS STABLE AS TWO STANDS!!! Or a properly rigged tripod. Come on! Do the math!!!

You also have no way of adjusting your camera angle because you can’t use a tripod head or any other device that allows for you to tilt your camera.

Then the other issue is if the device you are using to attach your camera to the C-stand arm fails you, you have no way of strapping your camera onto the arm for safety and your camera will fall on your set and break.

This has become the cheap way of rigging a camera overhead. Don’t fall for it. It looks unprofessional and could break your camera and lens.

Alright, so those are all my suggestions for shooting overhead – what to do, and what NOT to do.

What Professionals Use For Commercial Jobs

Behind the scenes showing a large Foba studio stand
This is my Fuji 680 medium format camera with a P45+ Phase One Digital back on a Foba studio stand.

Here’s the deal. Just so you know, the absolute best way to rig a camera overhead in a studio environment is with a Studio Stand. See that huge black stand? That’s a Foba stand. It’s a little over $12,000. This was my setup for over 20 years.

These are extremely expensive, weigh several hundred pounds, and are not used for shooting on location. You can get studio stands starting at $1000. The Foba is the Ferrari of stands.

When your camera is rigged on this – it will NEVER move. They are awesome. You do need to know this level of equipment exists, so that way down the road when you get your own studio, this is on your equipment dream list.

Overhead Image of a lobster boil with dappled light
This image is what I was photographing above on the Foba stand

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The post The easy way to do an overhead food shot was written by Christina Peters and appeared first on Food Photography Blog - Food Photography Tips & Tricks from a Pro Food Shooter.