Selfie-sticks and other secrets of overhead photography

Overhead shots of tables, mostly of family meals, are some of my favourite pictures. I just love capturing the excitement of a family get-together, the quiet relaxation of coffee on a Saturday morning, the joy of decorating a cake, or the studious zeal of my husband doing a crossword or my son doing his homework. All of these things happen on the same table, the piece of furniture at the heart of our domestic life. But I also like doing overhead shots in pubs and restaurants too! Here are some of my tips.

1. Use a selfie-stick
Here’s how it happened. We were in one of our favourite gastro-pubs a couple of years ago, when a waitress told me off for standing on my chair to take an overhead shot. I was mortified. I love taking overhead shots, and have even been known to use a step-ladder to take them at home. Fortunately, my husband had the answer: why not use a telescopic selfie-stick, and take the picture while staying seated at the table? And I’ve been doing it that way ever since. It lets you hoist the camera up above the table without incurring the wrath of waitresses, or spoiling the dinner-party vibe with a collapsible ladder, and pretty much any selfie-stick will do. And, this way I can remain seated at the table while one of my hands still appears in the picture! Hurrah!

2. Hands-on photography
Speaking of hands, here’s a tip I got from my friend Luisa Brimble (who is also a huge fan of overhead shots). Get everyone to decide what they are going to do with their hands in the picture (serving food, pouring wine, reaching for the salt). Then have them all put their hands in their lap, before putting their hands back in position just as you take the picture. This way they look much more natural, rather than having them frozen in position like statues!

3. Cortex Camera and other camera apps
Although you can use your smartphone’s standard camera, you may want to give some specialist apps a try for this kind of shooting. I often use Cortex Camera (available for iOS and Android) in low-light situations as it lets you get a sharper image with much less grain than otherwise by taking several pictures and then combining them into a single picture. Everyone does have to stay very still, but it can be a lifesaver in winter, especially in the evenings. The hardest part about overhead shooting with a selfie-stick is getting the image straight, so I’ve also been experimenting with LVL CAM, a camera app with a built-in spirit level. You can set it to shoot only when it’s perfectly horizontal. But it’s a fiddle (you can’t tell when it’s straight, and have to wave it around), so this is still a work in progress. My husband is threatening to make me a camera app with audio feedback that plays two notes, whose pitch varies depending on the angle of the camera, which goes to show just how obsessed we are with perfecting overhead photography in this family.

4. Correct the perspective and colour
Most of the time your overhead shot will not be perfectly straight, so you’ll need to adjust the perspective and rotation afterwards. You can use a dedicated app for this, such as SKRWT, or you can use the perspective-correction features in VSCO Cam. Figuring out how to combine horizontal and vertical perspective shifts with slight rotations in order to get everything straight takes a bit of practice, but you’ll soon figure it out, and there’s nothing wrong with doing it in multiple steps. Another tweak you’ll often need to apply is to the colour: we have a white table, which is great, but its colour changes depending on the light source. If there is enough natural light coming through the windows, I’ll turn off any artificial lights to avoid having mixed lighting with different colour temperatures, as it can make the shadows look odd. If there’s not enough natural light, I’ll make sure the blinds are closed and we’re only using one light source (often, candles). Either way, you may need to adjust the temperature of the image to make the whites look right. But watch out for skin tones when doing this, because they will be affected too, and can easily start to look unnatural.

5. Anticrop
Sometimes you want to give the impression of a much larger space, as I did in this shot. One option would be to buy a bigger table and a bigger house. A much cheaper alternative is to use Anticrop, a brilliant app which, as its name suggests, makes pictures bigger rather than smaller by intelligently extending them. This lets you add more sky to a landscape photo, for example, or more table to a table. It works best for flat colours, and used judiciously, it can add a sense of greater space to an overhead shot.

Whether or not you decide to use a selfie-stick, I hope you’ll find these tips a useful overview (ha) of my approach to overhead photography. Next time you have a special meal, whether at home or in a restaurant, give it a try!

This post was originally made for viewfinders.io. You can find more from me on Instagram. And you can see more of my photography on Stocksy United.