How to Photograph Steam

Have you ever tried photographing steam, smoke, or vapor and been really disappointed with the lackluster results? The steam just isn’t showing up like you imagined it—all billowy and thick; instead, it’s barely visible. Well, the trick to capturing great looking smokey shots is in the lighting. Daniel Norton of Adorama shows us how to capture the steam from a hot cup of coffee to produce a moody, morning feel:

To get steam to be visible in your shot, it needs to be lit and the best way to do that is to back light it and have a relatively dark background. In this tutorial, Norton uses a medium grey background and a softbox with a grid to direct the light away from the backdrop to make it appear black. The setup is simple: just the background, softbox, and a fill card to add nice shadows, but with a soft light wrapping around.

photographing steam lighting setup

When the light comes through the steam from the coffee, it lights it up and provides great contrast between the white vapor and the dark background.

steamy coffee photo

Advantage of the Black Background

Not only does the black background provide a nice contrast, it makes it easier to edit the image in Photoshop later. Say you like the model’s expression in one shot, but there’s not enough steam showing up, you can always copy some of the steam from other images and add it into the one you like.

backlighting steam photo

Tip: Heat up the coffee in the microwave right before shooting so you can capture the most steam possible. The steam will peter out as you go, so you want to shoot it while it’s piping hot to get the best puffs of steam.

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