Updated on February 28th, 2017
Overhead food photography is a great way to make a very graphic image about your recipe. You see it all the time on food blogs. 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 is now all about shape, color, texture, and form.
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When I shoot overhead I always raise my set a little bit so it’s easier to work on. Below is a shot of what we call in film, 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.
The Overhead Set
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 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. 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 use for fabrics just to the right of my set.
Tripod For Overhead Shooting
Many bloggers tell me that when they try to shoot overhead they can see their tripod legs in the photo. Many tripods are not set up for overhead shooting without a special attachment. This attachment is called a side arm or lateral arm. 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.
Had this tripod existed when I bought my smaller one, I absolutely would have gotten this. The Manfrotto MT055XPRO 3. This one pictured comes with the tripod head and is a great set for the money. The prices change all the time but when I last updated this post it was $280. The center column can tilt 90 degrees so that you can do an overhead shot without buying another attachment.
If you are happy with your tripod and just want an extension arm, they are pricey. This one, the 131D Lateral Side Arm by Manfrotto is less expensive at B & H Photo than Amazon (which is unusual).
Below 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 extension arm. Also please notice that I have a sandbag on the other side of the arm 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.
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 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 wide angle lens. Ok, I’m stepping down from my soap box now.
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 25 years and it’s not made anymore. It’s a Gitzo tripod and the head extension is also not made anymore. However, I found this side arm extension on ebay for only $100. Brand new that was probably $300. Gitzo brand is like the Porsche of tripods. The closest thing they make now is over $800 and I’m sure you guys and gals aren’t interested in that.
To take “easy” one step further – see the cable hanging off my camera? 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!
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