How To Photograph Steam

Photography tutorial video will demonstrate how to capture the look of steaming coffee.

Showing steam in a photograph is a great way to emphasize hotness. Heat is not a an element of art but rather a feeling or sensation. Showing steam in your photograph of a hot substance will add a dimension to an image that can not be otherwise represented when using 2-dimensional media.

Photographing Steam

Steam is always in motion thus the appearance of the steam in the image can be controlled by the camera using the shutter speed. Similar rules apply to steam as to other subjects in motion. For example when photographing moving water or when photographing fire. Shutter speeds of 1/30 or below will produce a soft dreamy effect while speeds or 1/60 and above will freeze the motion of the steam to reveal more details. Please note that Robert chose 1/25 and his steam and it appears just slightly dreamy soft. Using the shutter speed to control the appearance of the smoke is only possible when using continuous light. When flash is used the motion of the steam will always appear frozen. (See image below) (Try different shutter speeds and see what effect you like most in your work)

Steam is a vapor of water, as oppose to smoke it does not consist solid particles like ash or other fire by-products, thus the steam is light in color, translucent and reflective. Because of these properties the steam will hardly ever show up on light-colored background.

Tip: When photographing Smoke Vs. Steam the the lighting technique for shooting smoke is the same as for steam the only difference is that smoke is more likely to show up against light colored or white backdrop while steam will only show up against the dark.


The point of creating this image was to emphasize steam so the choice for the background could only be in dark tones. That is why black backdrop was chosen.


A dark natural wood surface was chosen to compliment black background and to add a mood of the environment.

photo by Robert Grant f7.1, 1/25, iso 100 @11mm using canon 10-22 lens


When creating your own composition it is crucial to pay attention at every detail.Lets look closely at Roberts Image for a minute and analyze the elements.

All subjects in the photograph compliment each other. The round shape of coffee mug, the round parts of the 16mm camera and the winding crank. The yellow film box on the other hand creates a contrast not only because of it’s rectangular shape but also because it is the only element of color and breaks up the monochromatic consistency.Diagonal lines in the composition bring viewers’ eye through every element of the image until the eye leaves through the steam.The level of the coffee in the cup is simply perfect as it doesn’t look like anyone has already taken a sip nor does the coffee appear like it is about to overflow.

Focal Point

Incorporating a focal point in a composition provides a area of interest in a photograph. Often the focal point is emphasized by using a shallow depth of field and thus only having focal point in focus. However in Steaming Coffee image every object in the image is in sharp focus. So how did the cup became a focal point in this photograph?

The cup becomes the focal point because, it is the only light object that is double lit from two opposing angles and with the steam hovering over it. Color, Light and and element of interest (steam) can effectively create a focal point.




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