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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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)
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.
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.
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.
TIP: You can also check out all the gear for this setup in my Amazon Store.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com.
Equipment Link Roundup
1. MANFROTTO LIGHT STANDS (2)
3. AVENGER GRIPS (2 or 3)
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.