Whether you’re making a cooking video, a product review or just want to film your subject from an interesting perspective, understanding how to get that perfect overhead shot is indispensable knowledge for your creative toolkit.
Why use an overhead angle?
Speaking as a YouTuber who blends superheroes, education and personal life stories into my own videos, top-down shots are invaluable to my work. They help me showcase the specific books and comics I’m discussing, incorporate fun props, and provide visually interesting backdrops for audio clips and interviews. Overhead shots also allow me to relate more personally to my viewers. Nothing says, “this is going to be a personal video,” like defeatedly laying on the floor while discussing heavy topics. Fun stuff!
Top-down views are also immeasurably helpful for many tutorial videos. It puts the viewer in the perfect spot — right above the action, seeing what you, as the creator, see. When your videos have a clear visual perspective, it’s easier for the viewer to follow along. That leads to a better experience for everyone.
Start with the right camera and lens
So how do you film overhead shots? Aiming the camera down at your subject is a good start, but there is a lot to consider when crafting a shot that stands out. First, let’s talk about your camera.
A massive thing to keep in mind when trying to set up your top-down shot is your camera setup, especially your lens. If you want a close-up angle, but only have a wide-angle lens, you’re going to have to move your camera really close to your subject. However, this might impact how much you have to work and manipulate whatever it is you’re filming.
In a cooking video, for example, you probably don’t want to have a camera right up against a mixing bowl. Things could spill, you’ll feel cramped, and it’s just a bad time. Having a telephoto lens is ideal for most circumstances. This will let you place the camera further above the subject but still capture the scene from a close perspective. As always, this decision will depend on the subject matter and your creative vision.
A tripod might be all you need to get the overhead shot you want
There’s a number of ways to get the correct camera position for an overhead angle. If you already have a tripod, simply position it over your subject and tilt the camera to face downward. You will most likely need a ball head mount between your camera and tripod to dial in the exact position you want. In fact, it’s safe to pick up a ball head mount for almost all of these solutions; they’re great and pretty cheap!
Obviously, having a big tripod hovering over your subject can be cumbersome, and the legs of the tripod might get in the shot accidentally. So, play around with the angles to see what you can get. But if you’re not quite getting what you want, here are a few other solutions that will help keep your camera out of the way while getting that perfect shot!
Get creative with mic stands
If you need more room to work and don’t want a camera or stand to get in the way, a tripod boom microphone stand is a great solution for capturing overhead angles. It consists of a vertical pole that’s used to get the right height and sits comfortably to the side of the subject while a horizontal pole extends outward, hovering over your subject. It creates plenty of space to work and maneuver in without getting in the way of you or the shot. Make sure to anchor the base of the stand with something like sandbags so it’s more stable. The last thing you want is for your expensive camera to come toppling to the ground.
If you want to get more creative, you can get what’s referred to as a suspension stand or scissor arm stand. They’ve got a bunch of names. It’s confusing. But they’re basically one of those adjustable clamping microphone stands that people use a lot for podcasting or streaming. Much like the boom stand we just went over, these are mostly used for microphones. However, you can also attach a lightweight camera to them.
Moreover, the great thing about these is that they are highly adjustable. You can clamp them to a table or workbench permanently to have a turnkey top-down filming solution. Just attach your camera, swing out the arm to find that perfect angle, and start filming. When you’re done, you can tuck it away without needing to disassemble your apparatus.
A word of caution–this a smart solution, but may not work if your camera is too heavy for the arm to hold up. These InnoGear and Rode stands can hold up to 4.4 pounds (2 kg), which should be plenty for most DSLR cameras. Double-check the weight capacity on the model you buy.
Budget solutions for overhead angles
Another clamping solution you could try is friction magic arms. These are a lot smaller, but also a lot cheaper. You can clamp them onto something you already have that’s high up above your subject (a floor lamp, a shelf, etc.) and adjust nearly infinite angles to find the perfect shot.
This can be another turnkey solution that can be permanently clamped somewhere, or you can move it around. You can even use these to turn your tripod into a boom arm stand by using the magic arm as the horizontal pole that helps keep the tripod out of the way. Honestly, these have been invaluable to me because of how versatile and portable they are. They definitely live up to the term “magic.”
Another simple solution in the same vein is to use a wrapping tripod, like the Gorillapod. Its adjustable legs can be wrapped around anything high above your subject that you already have in place.
Beyond the camera
These solutions should help you get the perfect overhead shot for your video! But knowing how to shoot a bird’s eye angle is only the beginning. Once you’ve got it all framed up, it’s time to be creative and make your shot stand out with lighting and background design!
You can use any one of these solutions to mount lights above or to the side of your subject as well. For most general purposes, getting bright, soft lights will help you out the most. I love these small, simple LED panels. They are affordable and produce beautiful soft light without the need for added diffusion. These flexible LED lights by Neewer are also bright and lightweight — perfect for illuminating a scene while not weighing down any stands you place them on. Experiment with gels or color LEDs to add more character and visual intrigue to your image.
And remember to keep the background of your shot interesting and appropriate, as well. Want to keep the backdrop clean so the subject stands out? White or black foam boards add a simple yet professional tone to the shot. Colorful poster board, on the other hand, creates a vibrant, whimsical feel. For a rustic DIY vibe, you can use some scrap wood, and old cutting board, or even some graph paper.
Think about what tone you’re trying to capture and consider what colors, patterns, textures, and lighting styles will help highlight the subject matter and deliver the exact vibe you want.
Time to record
Okay. You’ve got your camera hovering above your subject. The lighting is dialed into the perfect setting. And the background is amplifying the visual style you’re aiming for. You’re ready to capture an overhead shot that viewers will look down on… but in a good way!