In our Food Styling 101 series, Lisa Bolton offers up food styling tips for conveying the stories you want your food to tell. Her advice will help you create food photography that entices readers to make your recipes and read your articles. Here's our best tips for food styling hot drinks.
Editor's note: this article contains affiliate links - full disclosure is at the end of the article.
Before we know it, you won’t be able to walk into a coffee shop without being hit over the head with every possible version of the PSL! It’s pumpkin spice latte season and time for all things warm and cosy. This is a great opportunity to work on capturing your best mugs of tea or overflowing whipped cream-topped hot chocolates.
Let's start with some of the most commonly asked questions about styling hot beverages.
Does the Drink Actually Need To Be Hot When You Style It?
One of the first things you need to decide on is if you want (or need) to capture the image actually hot. Most of the hot drinks I style are actually shot at room temperature or even cold. Unless I need to capture actual steam — more on that below — I find it much easier to manipulate a scene without the fear of scalding myself. Coffees, teas and hot chocolates all hold up well at room temp, not only making them easier to manipulate but also taking away the pressure of timing.
How Do You Capture Steam When Photographing Hot Drinks?
Some hot drinks require no steam to insinuate heat, but if you do have a desire to show off some steam, there are some ways to fake it without ruining the drink. (No food waste here — just reheat the beverage and enjoy!) Once you've styled your shot and are ready to capture it, try one of these methods.
Drench several cotton balls in water, wring out the excess and place in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for about 30 to 60 seconds. Once steaming, use tweezers to remove the cotton balls and place them directly behind the mug or cup. You should get enough steam for at least a minute or two
This is great because you get a longer continuous steam than the cotton ball method. Simply place a small portable steamer slightly below the subject matter. If you're getting too much steam with the steamer, a small fan to disperse some of it may help.
For a more distinct steam line, light an incense stick and place it behind the mug of tea or coffee. This will give you a heavier steam line with more defined lines.
How To Convey the Illusion of Heat When Styling Hot Drinks
If you've ever tried to shoot something hot from overhead, like soup or boiling water on the stove, you know one of the problems is the steam can often fog up your lens. Short of having a fan blow the steam away, it's possible to create the illusion of a hot drink without any actual steam.
Have you ever made a cup of tea when you were feeling the chills? What's the first thing you do with the hot mug? Wrap both hands around it.
Two palms placed up against a mug tell the mind it's a warm cup. It also adds a nice human element without the use of any other props. If those hands are partially covered in an oversize chunky sweater, that won’t hurt either.
The other way to create the illusion of a hot drink is with blankets, pillows or any sort of breakfast-in-bed feel. Lazy, slow mornings are a natural fit for a hot beverage, so by setting that scene no one needs to know that cup of tea was ice cold when you styled it.
Telling a Story with the Mug
Most of my mugs are solid colour. From a styling perspective, this means that there's very little surface area of the actual drink to be captured. Besides what can be seen around the mug, the top opening of the mug needs to tell a great story.
If you're styling a straight-on shot of something like hot chocolate or a latte, you'll want to create some height. The sky's the limit when it comes to an indulgent hot chocolate. To keep all the goodness from sinking, I turn to parchment paper.
The Parchment Paper Styling Trick
Trace a circle of parchment (or tin foil works as well) the size of the opening of the mug. Once you pour your beverage, place the parchment in the mug and then start adding your whipped cream, marshmallows, chocolate syrup or steamed milk. This gives you a lot more time to work with the subject matter before things start to melt together.
If you're shooting a cup of tea in a solid mug and need to style it straight on, having someone holding up the string of the tea bag is a great way to tell the story of a hot cup of tea without ever showing the tea.
Styling with Clear Mugs
Clear mugs are great for styling a straight-on shot as they really capture the layers of a drink. Whether it's the billowy foam perched on espresso, the stream of cream in an unstirred coffee, or the tea bag silhouette in a perfect mug of Earl Grey, a clear mug is going to tell a beautiful, transparent story.
Getting Artistic With It
And finally, if you're looking to really capture some beautiful latte art, there are always these kits available on Amazon. Short of that, there's nothing wrong with leaving it to the experts! Have your favourite barista pour you your favourite drink while you perch overhead to capture an action shot.
This site is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for the site to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites.
- Food Styling: Tips for Back To School Lunches
- Food Styling: Tips for Styling Picnics
- Food Styling: Tips for Styling Soups For The Camera
Lisa Bolton is a food stylist, recipe developer and creator of beautiful food boards. You can find her work at lisadawnbolton.com. She lives in the Lower Mainland of BC. Her first cookbook, On Boards, (affiliate link) is due to be released by Appetite by Penguin Random House in October 2018 and is available for pre-order. You can reach her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.