Still life for rainy days: How to photograph steaming coffee

Cloudy day tea

Hot steaming cup of coffee is one of the most reoccurring motifs in tabletop photography, which still remains tricky not only for beginners. So, let’s see how it’s done step by step.

The essential gear you will need includes two light sources and a tripod. You can use speedlights, LED or even natural light. It’s the position that matters: one light source should be placed behind the scene to lit the steam (which is most visible and beautiful in backlight), and another — on the side to lit the whole scene and add some volume.

Basically you can use any gear you already have. In my case it’s two speedlights (one with a snoot and other inside a stripbox), two black flags and one small reflector. As for the props, all you need is a coffee cup, some hot water and a couple of additional items to make your still life more interesting (from obvious ones like cookies and chocolates to something related to steam and clouds like steampunk drawings or cloud formation schemes). Let’s get started!

1. Composition.

Arrange all the items of your still life into a simple composition, leaving some place for a rising steam.

1 Composition

2. First light.

Set the first light source behind the scene in a way that it affects mainly the spot above the cup (so it will light the rising steam, but won’t interfere much with other items). If you’re using natural light (like window), you can use it as a background as well and let this backlight be your main light source. If you’re using speedlights (as I do), you may want to use a snoot to make the light flow narrower and emphasise the steam without getting unattractive highlights on the cup.

Since there’s no steam yet, put an aroma stick on the edge of the cup and make a couple of shots with a smoke (it lasts longer than steam, so it’s much more convenient for the test).

2 First light

3. Second light.

To add some volume and make shadows softer, set the second light source on the side. In my case it’s a speedlight inside stripbox, set on the left side and slightly behind the cups (to make coffee “glowing”). If you’re working with natural light, just use a big reflector for this.

After that you can make adjustments with flags: I used one between stripbox and background to make the latter darker, and another between stripbox and wooden boxes to darken distracting light spot. That’s all, you’re ready to shoot.

3 Light

4 Light_process

5 Set

4. Shooting.

If your cups are transparent and you’re working with speedlights, set them in a low power, so you can catch some bubbles and drops as well (low power — from 1/16 up to 1/128 — provides a very short pulse that will freeze bubbles and steam in motion). Also in that case your shutter speed would depend only on speedlights you use, so set synchronization shutter speed and adjust the aperture to get a well-exposed image.

If you’re using natural light, longer stutter speed (about 1/60 or even 1\10) would give you blurry, but still beautiful look, and faster (about 1\400) would make swirls more prominent. Choose that you like best.

Set your camera on continuous mode, pour some hot water into a cup and take a sequence of shots with rising clouds of steam.

6 Shooting

7 Best shot

5. Post-process.

Now you can choose the best shot and use it as it is, or you can choose several shots and combine them together (I combined two clouds of steam for two cups and added some swirls on the top). Adjust colours and contrast and remember not to oversharp your image: particles of water vapour much larger than smoke particles, so with excessive sharpening they start looking very noisy and unattractive. That’s all! It’s time to tell your own stories with clouds, rainy days, tea and coffee.

8 Post-process

9 Final

10 WIP

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