How To Capture Steam and Smoke in Food Photography

One of the things that can drive someone new to food photography mad is capturing steam or smoke. It doesn't have to be complicated. And it is easy to do without any special equipment to create the steam or smoke.

It can also be easily accomplished with a one-light setup. Joanie Simon walks through how she captures steams and smoke. She goes through the entire process from choosing the backdrops, the camera settings, lighting, the quality of the steam, editing, and how to really get that steam going with a microwave and cotton balls.

A thing I want to emphasize from this video is the use of strobe or flash to really freeze that steam. It doesn’t have to be anything really expensive either. If it is high-powered and the color temperature is 5500 – plus or minus one hundred or two – you are good to go. Simon talks about eliminating extra light if using continuous light. However, when using a flash or a strobe, if it is at least 300 watts, it will cancel out environmental light. I also strongly recommend putting a black card opposite of the light source to help to knock back any spill.

I know it has been said many times, but I want to re-emphasize, don’t get bogged down in gear. By that, I mean ignore gear snobs. Especially when it comes to food photography. Start off with the flash or strobe that you can afford that has a color temperature close to daylight and some diffusion material. Get really good at using that. If you can master that, you will be able to take consistent photos in any situation.

Jules Sherred's picture

Based in Duncan, BC, Jules Sherred works as a food photographer, writer, journalist, and outspoken advocate for disability and trans rights. He is also an instructor, has his work featured in art shows, and is an accredited food photographer. His cookbook CRIP UP THE KITCHEN is due to be published by TouchWood Editions in Spring 2023.

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TLDR: backlight it on a dark background...

for a good long steam, soak compressed cotton balls, or better yet (think they are called OB) tampons . . . they hold a vast amount of water . . . short visit to the microwave, place behind cup/plate/bowl, and you have a steam producer for a short bit