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How To Photograph Steam Over Coffee

Before You Start

Make sure you have your composition set up how you want it to look and position your camera on a tripod for consistency (also for safety since you will be dealing with hot liquids!).  

The tripod will be useful because steam fades quickly, so having the camera ready to shoot and in position will give you the most time to take the shot. 

If you are shooting by yourself then use a remote shutter release.

This will be helpful since you can make the camera take a photo quickly and safely after you have poured any hot liquid, but if you are shooting with assistants then this is less important. 

What Background Should I Use For Photographing Steam? 

Before you do anything you need to choose your background. 

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

The most effective way to use a background for photographing steam is to make sure that it is dark. 

Since steam is so light in colour you don’t want a white background because there simply won’t be enough contrast between the steam and the background to show it off in any way. 

So make sure you go for a darker background which will contrast well with the steam. 

Black is best if you are thinking in terms of contrast but you can use dark tones of grey, brown, red etc. Just try not to use washed out colours.

One tip to go along with this is to keep an eye on lighting since even a dark colour background can seem bright if all of your light is on the background.

Lighting Set Up 

Backlight and Side Light

To show off steam effectively you want to shine light through it to make it more visible and the best way to do this will be to backlight or sidelight your subject.

If you have more than one light you can do a mixture of both where you focus one light solely on the steam while the other light illuminates the scene in general. 

If you do only have 1 light however you can still photograph steam well. Just position your lighting either behind (backlight) or to the side (side lighting).

Watch this video showing the use of just one light with a stripbox. 

Make sure the light is directed towards the steam enough and it should make it stand out more.  

Natural Light

If you are using natural light, place the item near a window where the sun is coming through.

Just be careful in your camera positioning so that you can create the right contrast with the background.

The image below is a good example of using back lighting paired with a dark background to show off the steam in the image.

What Camera Settings Shall I Use?

Shutter Speed

Keep it fast to capture the steam. Try around 1/200th to start.

If you want the steam to look more hazy use a slower shutter speed as this will capture more motion blur from the steam. 

If you want the steam to look more sharp and less hazy try a faster shutter speed. Just remember to make sure your photo is exposed correctly too.


This is up to you and depends on your full composition. If you just want the steam to be in focus, use a wide aperture giving a shallow depth of field – somewhere around f2-f4. 

But if you want to get more of the scene in focus including props etc, then use a higher f stop- start around f8-f11


Keep it as low as possible while making sure your exposure is correct. Use it to compensate for other elements of the exposure like the shutter speed and aperture.

You shouldn’t need too much ISO here especially if you are using artificial light since you will be in control.

Taking The Photograph: 

Now that you are all set up and ready, it is time to shoot. If you are using a model then freshly prepare the mug with the hot liquid and hand it over to them and take the image. 

If you are not using a model then pour the liquid and take the shot. Steam does not last long so you need to be quick. 

Remember to make use of a remote shutter release here so you can be quicker and more efficient.

How Do You Make Steam? 

Since steam will fade away pretty quick you want ways to bring it back especially since you may not have got the perfect shot the first time round. 

Here are 3 ways you can recreate the steam:

  1. Simply reheat the mug in a microwave till it starts to steam again . You then reset the positioning with the fresh steam and start shooting again. 
  2. Empty the cup. Make sure you have boiling liquid prepared to pour again and pour the freshly heated liquid into the cup. Having a kettle on set will be useful for this.
  3. Use a hand held steamer to recreate the steam.

The methods above will give you fresh steam, but as usual the steam will fade away quickly.

You might have to do it a few times for the perfect shot but just keep trying till you’ve got something that you are happy with.

If you prefer to add artificial steam through an editing software like photoshop you can also do this.

How To Create Fake Steam With Photoshop?

The benefit of creating fake steam through Photoshop or a similar software is that you don’t have to worry about how long the steam will last on set and you can control it to look exactly as you want.

We understand it is not for everybody and some people might find the learning curve for Photoshop quite hard, but the following video will be useful for those of you who are comfortable and would prefer to use editing software to add steam to your photo.

Now that you know how to photograph steam for coffee, get out there and try it out. We hope you found this helpful!