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Though the concept of photographing steam may be above the heads of many of the the advanced crowd of photographers, some folks may have never done it at all. The visual of steam coming from a cup of coffee elicits something within us all that draws us all in because it’s something so familiar and so good.
What you’ll need for starters: coffee/tea, a coffee mug, a dark toned background, a strong light-source (window light will do fine.)
For starters, make the java. When it’s boiling, you’ll want to get your camera prepped and ready. We recommend either a 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm lens for this tutorial. Set your camera to manual mode; you’ll need it. When the coffee or tea is boiling hot (yes, for the best results you’ll need to boil and get the water very hot even though they recommend never drinking either of these brews with boiling water) pour it into your mug. Then take the cup to a kitchen table or another surface with good, soft window light. Get yourself into an angle where the coffee is positioned against a dark background.
Position your focusing point over the mouth of the coffee cup and shoot either a perfectly balanced exposure according to your light meter or a little underexposed. We’re giving you these ideas because that you can shoot to whatever settings you’d really like to work with. But for the best results, we strongly recommend working with higher shutter speeds of 1/250th or higher. And to create the effect that we have above, you’ll want to shoot wide open. Slower shutter speeds will result in it possibly disappearing.
The key to capturing the smoke trail overall though has to do with contrast, and if the steam isn’t in front of a dark background contrasting with its light white color, it won’t work out so well.