MY OVERHEAD SETUP FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

When it comes to food photography, overhead shots are very popular and can be absolutely gorgeous when they’re shot correctly. There are some common ways to shoot overhead, but they weren’t always successful for me. In this post, I am sharing two different tripod setups as well as my overhead setup for food photography that results in beautiful images every time.

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My Overhead Setup for Food Photography

MY OVERHEAD SETUP FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

HOLD 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 gear needed! You know how it goes: you look, you lean and you hope you got the shot. But, this isn’t a very successful way of shooting food overhead, especially if you tend to shoot overhead a lot. Several images and a sore back later, this method was too much of a guessing game for me. It’s a quick solution, but it doesn’t always result in the best looking images.

MY OVERHEAD SETUP FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

USE A TRIPOD

After realizing that holding the camera just wasn’t working, I made the decision to invest in a tripod. I wanted one that was lightweight and could pack up and travel easily. So, I got started with the Oben CT-3581.

Check out my simple overhead setup for food photography that results in beautiful flatlay images of food, props and ingredients everytime. Click to read more.

The CT-3561 Oben

PROS: This tripod was exactly what I was looking for in the beginning. It’s super lightweight and packs up small which is really convenient for travel. The legs flip upside down so I can position my camera for overhead shots without needing an extension arm. This tripod is great for smaller spaces too.

NOTE: If the CT-3561 Oben is unavailable, this one is similar.

CONS: The issues I ended up having with this tripod and overhead shots was that sometimes the legs would get in the way of the image, resulting in extra editing during post production. I would also have to setup my shots on the floor, which wasn’t efficient if I wanted to shoot at an angle too. To shoot other angles, I would have to move the board from the floor to a table and then readjust my tripod to shoot at an angle. It just felt unnecessarily time consuming. I also eventually felt like I wanted something sturdier to ensure that my camera was more stabilized. Soooo, I stepped up to the Manfrotto 055 Tripod with Ball Head.

Check out my simple overhead setup for food photography that results in beautiful flatlay images of food, props and ingredients everytime. Click to read more.

The Manfrotto 055 Tripod with Ball Head

PROS: I decided to get the Manfrotto, because the brand is well known and I had been reading about how great the quality is. This tripod is a more heavy-duty tripod than the Oben, which I like because it feels more secure for stabilizing my camera. That being said, it also travels well for on location shoots and doesn’t take up too much space. If the 055 isn’t available, this is a similar tripod: Manfrotto 190 XPro with Ball Head.

CONS: What didn’t work for me when it came to shooting overhead shots with this tripod was that the arm wasn’t very long AT ALL. It basically wouldn’t reach far enough over the table to capture the food. So, after doing some research, I decided to get an extension arm to attach to the Manfrotto. I ordered the Photek Tripod Extension Arm which definitely solved the problem so my camera could reach far enough across the table. Another good extension arm option is the Manfrotto 131DB.

The extension arm did the trick, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I really don’t like adjusting the tripod legs for overhead shots. This is a matter of preference. I think it can be challenging to make sure each of the legs are positioned correctly. I absolutely love using this tripod for angled and straight on shots, but for overhead, I was once again on the prowl for a better solution.

Check out my simple overhead setup for food photography that results in beautiful flatlay images of food, props and ingredients everytime. Click to read more.

MY NEW OVERHEAD SETUP FOR FOOD 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. No more holding the camera and “hoping” I got the shot. No more tripod legs interfering with the shot. No more shooting on the floor. No more annoying tripod adjustments. And, no more sore back!

Check out my simple overhead setup for food photography that results in beautiful flatlay images of food, props and ingredients everytime. Click to read more.

The Pros

The pros of this overhead set up include:

  • 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 angle shots
  • Lightweight enough to pack up and take on location, if needed
  • Easy to setup and take down
  • Expandable for different surface widths

The Cons

The cons of this overhead setup could include:

  • Making sure you have the space for the extra equipment
  • The cost could potentially add up depending what you need (for me it has been worth it for the ease, stability and consistently level overhead images)

My simple overhead setup for food photography that results in beautiful flatlay images of food, props and ingredients every time. Click to read more.

THE GEAR YOU’LL NEED

Getting excited about this setup yet? 😉 Let’s talk about the gear you’ll need.

I’m going to walk you through the setup and include pictures and links to everything you’ll need below. You can also stop by my Amazon Store and check out the Overhead Setup Equipment and there’s a quick summary of the links listed at the end of the post as well.

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.

Manfrotto Light Stand

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.

Extension Arm

3. TWO OR THREE AVENGER GRIPS

The 40″ Extension Grip Arm will come with one Avenger Grip attached on one end, so you’ll need two more avenger grips for this setup.

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.

Avenger Grips for Photography

4. NEEWER 1/4 TO 3/8 SPIGOT

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.

neewer 1/4 to 3/8 spigot

5. MANFROTTO 055 TRIPOD WITH BALL HEAD

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.

manfrotto-055-tripod-ball-head

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.

manfrotto ball head

7. NEW GEAR RECO! MANFROTTO 410 PAN-TILT HEAD

Updated in October 2020:

Ok, so the ball head works great for this setup and is what I used when I first got set up. The one issue I started having was any small adjustments I needed to make with the camera positioning weren’t super precise because the ball head is round and it was hard to control the movement.

I decided to purchase the Manfrotto 410 Pan-Tilt Head which allows for more controlled, smooth, accurate adjustments to the camera’s position. I pretty much fell in love with it immediately, so I wanted to list it here as another option to replace the ball head. It’s a little more pricey than the ball head, but the precision makes it worth it.  The pan-tilt head connects to the Manfrotto tripod perfectly and has a very convenient quick-release plate. It works great if I’m using it on my tripod for angled shots and works great on the overhead setup as well.

manfrotto-410-pan-tilt-head

TIP: You can also check out all the gear for this setup in my Amazon Store.

Shooting Tethered

It’s important to note that this overhead setup 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. 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.

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.

Nikon Users & Live View

If you’re a Nikon shooter like me, it’s also important to note that Lightroom does not support Live View with Nikon cameras. If you’re a Canon shooter, you don’t need to worry about this.

Rather than try to eyeball the setup by standing on a step stool, I shoot an image and review it on my computer to see where I need to make adjustments. Yes, Live View would be great to have, but I really haven’t found it to be too inconvenient.

LIVE VIEW OPTIONS FOR NIKON

If you’d like to explore Live View options for Nikon, a couple of work arounds are:

1) Use another application such as Camera Control Pro.

2) Consider switching from Lightroom to Capture One. You can try it for free for 30-days.

My Overhead Setup for Food Photography

The Cost

This setup will vary in cost depending on what you need. For me, it cost under $500 for what I needed and it has been absolutely worth it. I love having a solid overhead setup that will last forever.

Summary

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!

If you run into any questions, feel free to comment below or shoot me an email: regan@reganbaroni.com

Happy Shooting!

Equipment Link Roundup

1. MANFROTTO LIGHT STANDS (2)

2. IMPACT 40 INCH EXTENSION ARM

3. AVENGER GRIPS (2 or 3)

4. NEEWER 1/4 TO 3/8 SPIGOT

5. MANFROTTO 055 TRIPOD WITH BALL HEAD

6. BUY THE BALL HEAD SEPARATELY

7. NEW TRIPOD HEAD RECOMMENDATION: MANFROTTO 410 PAN-TILT HEAD

* 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. 

  1. Janelle F. says:

    Love this – super helpful! Adding all of these to my amazon cart now. Thank you!!!

    • REGAN says:

      Awesome, Janelle! This setup has been a game changer. Let me know if you run into any questions!

    • James says:

      Super detailed, amazingly helpful post. Thank you for sharing – I’ll be doing my best to replicate it at my home studio!

    • Zubida says:

      Hi,
      Great setup! Thanks for sharing.
      I have not utilized a tripod previously and I am acknowledging it would be decidedly effective. I didn’t see before that I generally have a slight shake when I take photographs. Scarcely perceptible, however present in any case. I preferred the Manfrotto tripod ( Manfrotto 058B Triaut Camera Tripod – Replaces 3251) that you connected to in your post. It was around $500. Do I need anything else to go with it? I mean to shoot both calculated and overhead photos and in the end possibly video. Do I need an extra ball head (?) and the arm to empower me to do as such? Much obliged ahead of time!

      • reganbaroni00 says:

        Hi there!
        I am not familiar with that tripod or the type of camera you’re shooting with. But, for overhead shooting, you may need an extra extension arm such as the Manfrotto 131D Lateral Side Arm. The tripod you listed is also for medium format or 4×5 cameras, so be sure to check with Manfrotto if you will need a separate ball head or not. So glad you enjoyed the post! Cheers!

  2. Jas says:

    This is so informative!! Thank you so much! On another note…I noticed on your setup that it looks like you have an umbrella light and a reflector…do you shoot with natural light? Would I be able to attain the beautiful soft lighting you get without the natural light? It’s a challenge finding time to shoot while the sun is still out and without my 5 year old running around during the day lol.

    • REGAN says:

      Hi Jas!
      Thanks for commenting! I shot with natural light for years, but I actually shoot with studio lights now – for the same reason you mentioned – control and not always being able to shoot at that “perfect time of day.” My home studio is setup in our entryway where there is a decent amount of natural light from that large window, however it doesn’t affect my working with studio lights. My camera settings and the power of the lights allow me to control the look I’m going for completely – without relying on natural light at all. I hope this helps and good luck with your photography!

  3. Barbara says:

    It’s an interesting set up and thank you so much for your post and for sharing. But I’m having a hard time understanding how the set up allows you to raise and lower your camera with ease. Wouldn’t you have to raise or lower one side and then go around to the other side to rasie and/or lower that side and then use a level to make sure everything is level and if not repeat the process? I’d really be interested in hearing how you address this potential problem. I think maybe using a 24-70 would save substantial time but I love my primes.

    • REGAN says:

      Hi Barbara!
      Thank you so much for this question! You are correct – I typically raise one light stand at a time and make sure it’s level. It doesn’t take much time at all. Adjusting the light stands height is much easier (and faster) than adjusting the three legs of my tripod. The 24-70 lens is a GREAT idea for this overhead setup if you’d rather just adjust the light stands once and then zoom in or out with the lens throughout the shoot. Everyone’s workflow is a little different, but I’ve definitely found this setup to be way easier to work with for overhead shots. Hope this helps!

  4. Barbara says:

    Hello again! Apologies for the second reply here but I was reading your post again and Lightroom doesn’t support Nikon tethered in live view. You mentioned that “tethering allows you to view the images on your computer screen instead of on the camera back.” So my question is what software are you using to view the images while tethered? Can’t be LR. Thank you!!!

    • REGAN says:

      Hello again! Yes, you are correct. Lightroom doesn’t support live view for Nikon cameras while tethered for the initial setup. During my workflow, I don’t mind taking a couple of extra pictures during the initial setup so I can see if the camera, props and food are positioned correctly. I can easily review the images shot on my computer and make adjustments to the composition as I get started. While having the live view would be so nice, this workflow has worked out really well for me. I’m debating trying Capture One, though, in order to have LiveView capabilities. I added links to Camera Control Pro 2 (a separate Nikon application) and Capture One (offering a free 30 day trial) in the post. I’ll list these under the “Shooting Tethered” section. Hope this helps and thanks so much for the great question!

  5. Hi Regan! Great post, I’ve been looking for a solution for top view images since my tripod isn’t tall enough, and I’ve encountered all the problems you mentioned. So I generally get on a chair and shoot without a tripod at all, but this limits me because I can’t get any shots with my hands in the photo, and it can get exhausting going up and down the chair 100 times, lol. So thanks for this post. Also, I see you’re using a white reflector, but your shots generally look light to dark with nice depth, do you block light on the sides or opposite of the light source?

    • REGAN says:

      Hi Mary! I’m so glad you found this overhead setup helpful! I absolutely love it. As far as my light setup in the pictures – it can vary depending on what I’m trying to accomplish with the look of the image. I shoot with studio lights and my entry way also lets in a fair amount of natural light. I will diffuse the natural light with a modifier and use one or two strobes with modifiers during my shoots. My camera settings and the power settings of the studio lights help me get that light to dark look that you mentioned. I hope this helps! Cheers!

  6. Girish says:

    I’ve recently been following your work on Instagram! I’m loving what I see. Very inspiring work (just left a comment on instagram as well :P) Thanks for sharing this set up. I’m presently using a tripod, a small ladder to do overhead shots but I’ll definitely try to get this set-up in the future.

    • REGAN says:

      Oh, thank you so much!!! I used a ladder and a couple different tripods in the past too. This setup is a little more involved at first glance, but once you get it set up, it’s so much easier to get perfectly shot overhead images. It’s easy to setup and easy to take down and can pack up and travel on location, if needed. There’s nothing wrong with using a great tripod, but I got annoyed with having to adjust the legs for overhead shots. Hope this helps!

  7. Carrie Ann says:

    This is a game changer – thank you for sharing!

    Cheers!

    • REGAN says:

      Awesome! You’re very welcome, Carrie! Cheers!

  8. Cacey says:

    Such a well organized post! I’ve had all the same frustrations, and I think I already have most of the gear you mentioned for this. Eager to try it out!

    • reganbaroni00 says:

      Awesome, Cacey! I’m so excited for you to try it! Glad the post was helpful.

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