When it comes to food photography, overhead shots are very popular and absolutely gorgeous if they’re shot correctly. This post shares my favorite overhead setup for food photography that results in beautiful images every time.
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A Simple Overhead Setup For Food Photography
There are two very common ways to shoot overhead. These include holding the camera and using a tripod. But, these two options weren’t always successful for me and my overhead shots. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of these two popular overhead setups.
HOLDING THE CAMERA
A lot of food photographers (including myself) start shooting overhead shots by standing over the food and holding the camera. It doesn’t get much easier than that, right? No extra gear needed! You look, you lean and you hope you got the shot… and, sometimes you get it! But, sometimes wasn’t enough for me or my clients.
When I would hold the camera, a lot of my overhead shots looked off balance when I’d review them later. They looked like I was tilted a little too far in one direction or the other and it would vary per image. This caused a lot of inconsistencies in my overhead shots. When shooting overhead, it’s really nice when a shot can work both vertically and horizontally. Holding the camera made this very difficult to achieve. Several images and a sore back later, holding the camera was too much of a guessing game for me. So, I decided to get a tripod.
USING A TRIPOD (Oben CT-3581)
The Oben was exactly what I was looking for in the beginning. It’s super lightweight (only 3 lbs!) and packs up small, which is really convenient for travel. One of my favorite features was that the legs flip upside down so I could position my camera for overhead shots without needing a separate extension arm. It also doesn’t take up a lot of room if you work in a smaller space for shooting your food photography.
The issues discovered with using this tripod for overhead shots was that the legs would sometimes get in the way of the image. This resulted in extra editing for me after the shoot. It was a bummer that my favorite feature ended up being more of an inconvenience in the end.
I would also have to set up on the floor for overhead shots, which wasn’t efficient if I wanted to shoot at an angle too. To shoot other angles, I would have to physically move the board from the floor to a table. Then, I would readjust my tripod to shoot at an angle. It was unnecessarily time consuming.
Tip: If the Oben I listed is unavailable, the Oben CT-3535 is similar.
USING A TRIPOD (Manfrotto 055)
I decided to get another tripod and got the Manfrotto 055. Manfrotto is a popular brand in the photography industry because the quality is really sturdy and reliable. This tripod weighs a little more than the Oben (around 7 lbs). I didn’t mind the extra weight, because it felt more secure for stabilizing my camera. It also travels well for on location shoots and doesn’t take up too much space.
The Manfrotto tripod comes with a center column arm for shooting food overhead. The issue was that the arm wasn’t very long at all. It wouldn’t reach far enough over the table to capture the food.
After doing some research, I decided to get an extension arm to attach to the Manfrotto. I ordered the Photek Tripod Extension Arm which allowed my camera to reach far enough across the table for the shot. Another good extension arm option is the Manfrotto 131DB.
The Manfrotto with the extension arm worked great for overhead shots. But, I came to the conclusion that I really don’t like adjusting the tripod legs for overhead shots. I think it can be time consuming to make sure each of the legs are positioned correctly. And, when I wanted to shoot angled or straight on shots, I would have to remove the extension arm and completely reposition my tripod. This also felt too time consuming when photo shoots can be so fast paced. I love using this tripod for angled and straight on shots, but for overhead shots, I wasn’t satisfied with the extra effort and time it required.
Tip: If the Manfrotto I listed isn’t available, the Manfrotto 190 XPro with Ball Head is similar.
The Best Setup for Overhead Photography
Thanks to Skyler over at We Eat Together, I FINALLY discovered a reliable (and pretty badass) setup that works perfectly for overhead food photography.
Let’s dive into the pros and cons of this setup.
- Perfectly level shots that work both horizontally and vertically
- Ability to raise and lower my camera using the light stands
- Allows me to use my Tripod separately for the angled and straight on shots
- Easy to pack up and take on location
- Easy to set up and take down
- Expandable for different surface widths
- No more holding the camera and “hoping” I got the shot
- No more tripod legs interfering with the image
- No more shooting on the floor
- No more annoying tripod leg adjustments
- Extension arm not required
- The extra equipment may take up a little more space
- The cost of equipment could add up depending what you actually need
- You will need to shoot tethered using this setup (this isn’t necessarily a con, but it depends on your workflow)
OVERHEAD PHOTOGRAPHY: EQUIPMENT
I’m going to walk you through the setup and include pictures and links to the equipment that you’ll need. There will also be a summary of equipment listed at the end of the post. You can also stop by my Amazon Store to check out all of the Overhead Setup Equipment.
1. TWO MANFROTTO LIGHT STANDS
You’ll set up the light stands first and space them out far enough to support the width of your extension arm or pipe (listed next). The stands will allow you to raise and lower the camera with ease. I find adjusting the stands to be a lot easier than adjusting the length of the three tripod legs. I recommend purchasing a level to be sure that your camera is positioned correctly.
2. ONE IMPACT EXTENSION GRIP ARM – 40″ OR A CONDUIT PIPE CUT TO THE LENGTH OF YOUR CHOOSING
The two light stands will hold the extension grip arm 40 inches apart. This grip arm comes with one Avenger Grip (listed next) already attached on one end. If you get this extension arm, you’ll need to purchase two more Avenger Grips for the setup.
Be sure that 40″ is wide enough for your table or surfaces that you use. For me, some of my surfaces are wider than 40″, so I decided to get a conduit pipe cut to 80″ from Ace Hardware so I could adjust for different widths. I brought an avenger grip with me to the store to be sure the diameter of the pipe would fit securely into the grip. If you decide to get a conduit pipe, you will need to buy three Avenger Grips for the setup.
3. TWO OR THREE AVENGER GRIPS
If you decide to get a longer conduit pipe, you will need to purchase three Avenger Grips.
One grip attaches to one light stand. The other attaches in the middle of the extension arm or pipe to support your camera. The other grip attaches to the other light stand.
The spigot will attach to the grip in the middle of your extension arm or pipe. The other end will connect to the ball head from your tripod (listed next). You’ll get two per order, but you’ll only need to use one. You can save the extra in case you lose the other one.
I mentioned the Manfrotto 055 earlier in this post. I still use this tripod for straight on and angled shots, and decided to buy an extra ball head to support my overhead setup. You can either buy the tripod and ball head together or buy the ball head separately.
6. BUY THE BALL HEAD SEPARATELY
If you’d rather not invest in the tripod, you can buy the ball head separately. I bought an extra ball head, because I wanted to have my tripod and my overhead setup ready to go without having to switch the ball head from one setup to another.
OVERHEAD PHOTOGRAPHY: SHOOT TETHERED
It’s important to note that this overhead setup for food photography requires you to shoot tethered. This means your camera has a cable connecting it directly to your computer. It allows you to review your images on your computer as you shoot, rather than reviewing them on the back of your camera. Seeing your images displayed larger on your computer is a great way to improve your images during the shoot, because you can catch things that may need adjusting before you get to the editing stage.
TETHER CABLES VARY PER CAMERA
Make sure that the tethering cable you get is compatible with your camera model before purchasing. You can find this information in the description of the product. I use this tethering cable because it’s compatible with the Nikon D750 and long enough to let me setup my computer in a convenient location that’s out of the way.
TETHERING: LIVE VIEW OPTIONS FOR NIKON CAMERAS
OVERHEAD SETUP COST
This overhead setup for food photography will vary in cost depending on what materials you actually need. For me, it cost under $500 and it has been absolutely worth it for as often as I shoot overhead. I love having a solid overhead setup that allows me to use my tripods for angled and straight on shots separately. It keeps things efficient on shoot days and I’m more confident in the images I’m producing.
In conclusion, there is no right or wrong way to shoot food photography. It’s important to do what works best for you, your space and your budget. I found this setup to be the best solution for consistently beautiful overhead images and I hope it works out for you! Reach out with questions anytime!
Summary of Equipment
- MANFROTTO LIGHT STANDS (2)
- IMPACT 40 INCH EXTENSION ARM
- AVENGER GRIPS (2 or 3)
- NEEWER 1/4 TO 3/8 SPIGOT
- MANFROTTO 055 TRIPOD WITH BALL HEAD
- BUY THE BALL HEAD SEPARATELY
- SMALL LEVEL
Find all the gear for this overhead setup in my Amazon Store.
This post contains affiliate links which means if you click or make a purchase through my site, I might make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). I only promote products and equipment that I actually use and support.
All images ©Regan Baroni 2021.