Introduction: How to Take a Picture of the Steam From Your Meals

Picture of How to Take a Picture of the Steam From Your Meals

Many of you saw my scrambled eggs Instructable and commented on the main picture. You might be wondering how I did that. So here is my Instructable to teach you one way to take a picture similar to it. This is just my method, if anybody else has their own, please comment!

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials
Here is what you will need:

  • Window/door where the light shines through
  • Hot food/beverage
  • Spot to place your food where it is in direct range of the sunlight
  • Camera
  • Morning/Evening time slot.

Step 2: Find a Window

Picture of Find a Window

Find a window in your house that lets the light in well. I have a door near my kitchen table, so the light flows in nicely. Find a time when it is either morning, or evening. This way, you can catch the sun's direct rays as it is rising or setting.

Step 3: Grab Your Camera

Picture of Grab Your Camera

Once you have a good window of light shining through to where your food it, walk to the opposite side of the food from where it is getting the direct light.

So if the window is shining on the right side of the plate, move to the left side to take the picture: and vice versa.

Take your picture with a decent camera that can focus pretty well. If you can see the steam rising from the hot platter of food; you are in the right spot.

Take the snapshot, and there you go.


guiry (author)2008-06-03

what shutter speed?

jlindh2 (author)guiry2011-09-30

its the time it takes for the camera to close the shutter... if the shutter is open for a long time, you let more light in, and the other way around.

santy22 (author)jlindh22012-03-11

Pretty sure he meant what shutter speed to shoot at.
I'd say any under 1/50 is okay since the steam is slow, with the lower the better.

Sunny124613 (author)2008-07-11

WOW! I can not believe it! I have taken pics of my moms hot foods but even though they were steamy hot,no steam showed up but now I know why! THANKS!

bardon08 (author)Sunny1246132010-03-04

 there are so many ways this could be twisted into a dirty joke, it's not even funny.

Brennn10 (author)bardon082010-07-01


nrlucre (author)2008-04-03

It helps also to have a background that contrasts to the steam ("vapor", fine). I'd also heard a trick for really getting the steamy look - take a tampon soaked in boiling water and hide it behind the food - supposedly a trade secret of pro food photogs.

shortone (author)nrlucre2008-04-03

I've heard of that trick too! If the idea of a tampon kinda grosses you out, a cotton ball soaked in water and microwaved is supposed to work just as well. :P

That's the one I've heard of as well. What can really get gross is how a lot of the meat you see photos of is actually 100% raw, and just painted to look freshly cooked. Sometimes they'll use a blow torch and just cook the outside edges to give it a nice grilled look. And white glue for milk...ew

yes, the world of food photography is...umm...interesting. One time I looked up how much the special glass/plastic ice cubes they use in their drink shots cost and some of them are $50 or more! I've also heard that they put eyeliner on "grilled" veggies, lipstick on strawberries, waterproofing spray or hairspray on cake, spray-on deodorant for the frost on grapes or cold glasses, frosting mixed with more powdered sugar for ice cream, dish soap in milk to make it bubbly...the list goes on and on! you definately do NOT want to eat the food from a big photo shoot.

Ribs (author)shortone2008-04-11

I know a food photographer and the ice cubes that he uses are liki small blcks of puttey that when placed in water expand into a ice-cube-like lump of jelly

shortone (author)Ribs2008-04-12

yeah...i think i've heard of somthing similar (maybe the same?) where the material is similar to gelatin. Oh, and here's another odd trick: in shots with chicken or other poultry, not only the the photographers photograph the meat raw, they also use a syringe to inject mashed potatoes under the skin to make the chicken look fatter and healthier....i think that's a bit gross, personally.

I went on a job shadow with a food photographer recently, and the food stylist there was talking to me about how most of those tricks online aren't true. Nearly 100% of the food is real, and just cooked/plated with precision. She's been doing it for 15+ years.

Actually photographers use whatever means necessary to accomplish whatever effect desired. They have a responsibility to provide an effect which appears better than reality.

The stylist that I talked to specifically told me that at none of the seminars, classes and other meetings she had been to had she ever heard of people actually using those outlandish ideas that they've been talking about. (Professional food photographers rarely prep their own food. There's simply not enough time) Besides that, there are laws guiding what food can and cannot be faked per the picture's use. Think of it like this: A restaurant can't tell someone that if you order their wings you'll get 50 if it only comes with 25. Similarly, you can't show them meat with mascara grill marks if the meat you sell doesn't come with mascara grill marks.

I have worked as a professional photographer in a commercial art studio. Everything you see is an illusion. Every blue sky is created with a polarizing filter. Sunsets don't always look so orange. Sparkling water doesn't glisten that much. Pizza cheese doesn't really stretch that much. Reality is exaggerated. Rough complexions are made soft with filters and soft reflected lighting. Fast food hamburgers aren't really that thick. The illusion is created with a wide angle lense at a low angle. Everything is enhanced. There are no laws controling such illusions. If you see it in print or on TV chances are that it's not real...

There are laws guiding advertising, you can't take a picture of one thing and sell one thing and claim it's something else. It may be a lighting trick, but it's still real food.

Please tell us which laws you are referring to. In the Netherlands the situation is:
-On a tin can is a picture of beautiful fresh herrings surrounded by not too much tomato sauce with a bit of fresh green herbs on top, a fresh leaf of lattice on the side, on a dish, with very small print "serving suggestion". All this is real food but there is actually a lot of sauce, no fresh herbs or lattice in the can and the herrings actually look nothing like those in the picture. Legal.
-in a TV commercial a room full of people holding glasses that have fake "dew" on one side, a layer of gold on the other side, the fluid and foam inside the glasses looks for the camera just like what beer should look like in our minds but actually is totally not related to beer. The few words of text spoken in this commercial do advice the viewer to buy a certain brand of beer but not a word that tells us the lie that these people are actually drinking beer. Legal.
-In food magazines in pictures how to prepare the perfect food they actually use dry ice and hot tampons to create the steam, play dow for the ice cream, wall paint for the sauce and so on. They are selling glossies, not food. Legal.
-In movies food has to look great, shot after shot. Who cares if it's actually edible? Legal
Indeed it's not legal to tell customers that they can expect fresh fish, fresh herbs, fresh lettice and a dish inside a can. Who would believe such a claim?

I agree totally. It is real food only better looking.

Exactly. The photographer was telling me about a job he did for a chain of BBQ restaurants. They brought about two dozen slabs of ribs, cooked them all up, and then he and his stylist picked the best of the batch.

I work as a photo-retoucher. A lot of food is made, the food stylist picks the best of the best. He or she arranges it to look nice. Glue may be used to position sesame seeds and the like, but I've never seen them use lip stick, mascara or paint. Any fixes are made in Photoshop after the fact.

i think that different companies do things differently...maybe the company she works at has a different policy than other companies. i don't pretend to be an expert at this though, so i could always be wrong. i just don't get why so many sites on the internet have the same information if someone doesn't use it.

She's a free lancer, but went to culinary school and such. I think that the things online may have used to be used. But also remember the power of the internet. What they say on one site can easily spread to many other sites. The thing is that now that digital photography is so high quality, it's a lot easier to tell when something doesn't look real.

quite true about maybe they were used in the past, but not so much the present. i wonder if you'd learn more by job shadowing a different food photographer...

fwjs28 (author)shortone2008-04-24

why...its an unused tampon and isnt it the same as a cotton ball cept for the shape

shortone (author)fwjs282008-04-24

yeah...but it might maybe still gross ppl out. i mean, it's kinda like using a condom for a balloon or something...*shudders* and personally, I just find that gross.

RFilyaw (author)shortone2008-04-03

Thank God you had an alternative solution. Haha.

Sadnap (author)2009-10-11

One technique that works well is soaking a tampon in water then nuking it.  Hide it somewhere in the shot and back/side light the steam.  (technique actually used by pro photographers and food stylists.)  Darker backrounds also help highlight the steam.

DuctTapeRules! (author)2009-05-09

Green tea+lemon+sugar= PURE JEANIUSS

ogorir (author)2008-04-10

something that hasn't been mentioned yet: you have to play with the exposure time to get really nice thick steam. put the camera on a tripod and adjust the exposure until you can't see any detail in the steam, then speed it back up a hair.

Weissensteinburg (author)ogorir2009-05-03

That's a really good point. It's like using long exposures for shooting water.

michaelchapala (author)2009-05-03

The water vapor you see is condensation. Temperature differences make the difference. If you place something hot in a cold environment, you'll see tremendous amounts of steam. Trick - Place the item you want to photograph on top of a bowl of ice or piece of metal which was cooled in a freezer. Example - Red Lobster Restaurant Commercials

codongolev (author)2008-10-13

I wonder if you could tape a silhouette of something onto the window and make a little picture in the steam.

sendez (author)2008-05-18

There is another kind of smoke I used to do this. I don´t know the technical name for it in English, but it´s the paste (actually it looks like a soap) that you use to clean the electrical soldier gun, (well in my country we said pistola de soldadura electrica). Do you realize that smoke that´s produce when clean the soldier gun?... i know it´s kind of toxic, but it´s a smoke you can control it and it´s more dense than cigarrete´s smoke and i´m sure that the majority of the readers have some kind of electrical soldier gun in their homes. Althought I apreciate the sense of honesty in this way of capturing the image of steam...sometimes you have feel the pressure of making things happens anyway.....Very nice tip Brenn10, i will used it soon. Sorry for my writting, it´s not my natural language.

codongolev (author)sendez2008-10-13

that would be flux.

codykage (author)2008-05-17

wow, the 1st photo in step 3 looks great! almost professional. thanks heaps

Labot2001 (author)2008-05-07

Congrats on the victory!

Brennn10 (author)Labot20012008-05-07

Thanks dude! I appreciate it!

Cartuner55 (author)2008-04-10

I've also heard of sprinkling a bit of water on a cotton ball and microwave

Creamaster (author)2008-04-10

Steam and smoke make food look hot and appetizing, and can be created in a variety of ways. Cotton balls soaked in water and micro waved will give you up to one minute of steam. Dry ice placed behind the food item works well, but gives off more vapors if you place the dry ice in water. A cigarette or piece of incense is another option, but you must blow on the smoke to make it look natural like steam and not smoke. Some photographers have an assistant blow cigarette smoke through a straw placed behind the food. Movie prop and special effects supply houses sell smoke pellets that some food stylists use, but once again you must blow on it so that it is not so strongly directional. I have used all of these options, but have found dry ice and smoke pellets the most useful.

From this guy's page:

andrew_29 (author)2008-04-09

just use any light put it at an angle (out of the picture) and there you go

Magmma (author)2008-04-07

I heard that some companies use very hot paper towels soaked in water behind the bowl. It makes extra steam rise up.

Obsessive (author)Magmma2008-04-08

I don't know. I doubt it. They probably have the lighting equipment to simply make the steam show more brightly. Or maybe they just photoshop the steam ; )

Wraith (author)Obsessive2008-04-09

Actually, food photographers use A/B Smoke Solution for steaming food. When you're working in a studio, perfecting light for hours, food is not going to stay hot. But the basic principle is the same, just backlight the steam and it shows up perfectly.

Wraith (author)Wraith2008-04-09

Oh yeah, they've used hot paper towels as well, just not as practical when you can't hide them.

flippingflipper (author)2008-04-09

good instructable, though i find it odd that food steam is winning by an incredibly high margin though lolol. i did this and its sweet, ty.

technick29 (author)2008-04-08


GorillazMiko (author)2008-04-06

You live in Latrobe?

Brennn10 (author)GorillazMiko2008-04-06

I was born there, I don't live there anymore.

rockhoppermedia (author)2008-04-05

When I do food shoots a couple of cotton wall balls soaked and microwaved (becareful coz they catch fire if unattended) placed behind the bowl adds to the effect. and you can compose the balls to have steam coming from one area like a hot fish next to salad. great instructable by the way.

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