Smoke and Mirrors

ISO 100, f/3.5 @ 1/125 second

Canon Digital Rebel XTi
Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM
Calumet Genesis 200 strobe with rectangular softbox

Steam rising from a dish tells a powerful and immediately understood story: This food is hot, freshly prepared, and waiting for you to dig in right away. Few elements can elicit an appetite response as readily, even when the viewer is far removed from the scene itself. Let’s not forget what an elegant, dreamlike quality it can add to an image, thinking of it purely as an artistic element. No wonder why the above image garnered so many comments and questions! Capturing that natural steam, rather than Photoshopping it in after the fact, is so difficult that most professionals don’t even attempt it. It’s simply easier and yields more consistent results to hire a post-processing genius and paint in a smokey plume exactly as desired. However for the creative photographer up for a challenge, it’s completely possible and well worth experimenting with.

There are a few key elements for successfully photographing something as elusive as steam:

  • Use a dark background so that the smoke or steam stands out. Sadly, you will never be successful with this technique shooting on white. Think high contrast, high drama!
  • Arrange the set so that you have a bright back light or side light. Don’t use too much fill light, because you’ll flatten out all the detail, rather than show off the textures.
  • Most critical of all, have everything on the set arranged as you want it before you start cooking, so that you don’t have to fiddle around with the composition when the food is ready. That also means getting the right exposure (or at least, dialing it in as closely as possible) so you can just pick up the camera and start shooting. That is very important because…
  • You must shoot the food IMMEDIATELY! Don’t give it a chance to cool, don’t fuss around styling it for ages; just plate it and shoot it. A more casual approach works well for most steam shots, because they look like “a slice of life,” being served just as you might see it at home.
  • Don’t over-think it, and don’t psych yourself out. Yes, you must work quickly, but that’s no reason to freak out. If it doesn’t work, you’ll still get delicious images, just without the steam.

Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is that the food or drink doesn’t actually have to be hot or steaming. Yep, it’s true, I did cheat on the above photo. That coffee was about room temperature through and through. The trouble with faking it is the risk that your results won’t look as natural, but it’s a fun technique worth playing with at least once. Now, you’ll have to suspend your doubts for a moment and listen with an open mind, because that steam that seems to be rising from the coffee cup? … It came from a tampon, nuked in the microwave.

An unused, brand new tampon, of course! Soaked in water for a minute and then microwaved for 60 – 90 seconds until steaming, I hid it as well as possible just behind the mug and snapped away. As I circled in white above, you can see the tiny shadow that I couldn’t quite avoid, and then what it looked like on the set. (I placed the tampon in a jar lid so that it didn’t get the decorative paper wet.)

Adding steam separately like this gives you the advantage of working with food prepared in advance, and shooting multiple times without reheating and over-cooking the food itself. Plus, you won’t get any condensation on the rim of bowls or glasses. Just be sure to hide that tampon very well- It might be somewhat tricky to explain to the casual viewer.

Spelling out the setup here: I used a large softbox for the key light to the back-left of the set, a white board to bounce light back into the side, and then sunlight was the main light that came in through the window at the back-right corner. No mirrors were used to avoid strange circular highlights on the glass.

Trust me, it’s not nearly as tricky or complicated as it may seem at first!  Have you successfully photographed steam? Do you think you’d try it now?

26 thoughts on “Smoke and Mirrors

  1. How clever this is ! I am glad you took the time to post a “behind the scene” article about this picture.
    I would have never thought about it, and I definitely need to try some tampons, just in case I want to do this trick too !
    I guess you may have put the timer on in order to be able to pour the milk into the glass right ?
    The more I look at this picture and the more I am flabbergasted, colors are so intriguing, there is even some kind of greeny-blue …

    Thanks again for sharing your things about photography

  2. Heh. This will give a whole new meaning anytime I see something steaming in a photograph. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Now that one’s simple! I have the camera on a tripod, so all I have to do is hit the shutter with my left hand, while pouring with my right hand. I have the camera set to snap multiple frames as long as the shutter button is held down, so I have more chances of getting the winning shot as the steam unfurls and the creamer swirls in the glass. It just takes many tries, and a lot of coffee and creamer!

      1. Of course. That makes perfect sense, and I have done similar things with the tripod, but I didn’t think of using multiple shots. Thanks! I used to have a soft shutter release, which made this sort of thing easier. Love your photo.

  3. That is a great behind the scene look. Thank you for sharing!

    I am so tempted to sign up for a one-day food photography class taught by a magazine in March, but $450 is just too steep for me right now.

  4. Bahahaha! Best use of a tampon ever! Well, I guess, except for the actual intended use of a tampon. And I can’t really think of any other use either…

    But still… GENIUS.

  5. Thanks for all of the helpful hints. I really need to get some different colored cardboard pieces like you have for the background. I always wondered how people did that. Now I need to work on the lighting…

  6. Thank you so much hannah for this post and set up picture.. I was wondering about it too for so long..and i never can take pictures immediately after, so i gave up on the thought of figuring out how to capture steam!
    Can you also do a post about dark and moody pictures and the camera settings:) pretty please:)

  7. Hey, first time on your blog :)
    Nice post, especially how you switch from serious advice to revealing the secret :D

    I’ve read about cotton balls soaked in water & microwaved to give the similar steam effect in professional food photography, apart from using white glue to represent milk, or coat grease/oil over meat for the shine, etc … all the photography tricks, you know, some that we can’t use on the food we have to eat right after … haha! :)

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