Prop Talk – Steam

Hello hello and welcome to another prop talk! (Quick explanation for my new readers: once a month I write a post about some of my favorite food photography props. You can see all previous prop talk installments by clicking the Behind the Scenes tab in the menu at the top).

Today I’ll tell you how I produce steam in food photos. Steam is a great prop that makes the food look hot and appetizing and suggests that someone must have just served it and is probably about to eat it. There are many different ways to get steam into a photo and I’m going to show you how I do it but that certainly doesn’t mean that you have to do it this way.

So, from my experience it is difficult to get food hot enough to produce enough steam on its own to be seen by a camera and that’s why I use an espresso machine instead. This is the one:

Food photography – how to produce steam.

Note that this machine lets me gradually adjust the steam output; you can see that the knob goes continuously from “off” to “steam” and I can stop it anywhere in between. That’s absolutely essential, you can’t use a machine that just has a “steam on” or “steam off” setting, that will never work because the steam flow will be much too strong.

All right, so I fill my machine with distilled water and then attach tubing to the steam wand like this:

Food photography – how to produce steam.

I got the tubing from a hardware store years ago and I just asked for the most heat-resistant kind they had. It works well but still degrades a bit over time at the point where it is touching the metal of the steam wand so every now and then I cut a bit of the end piece off.

Next, I put on a glove so that I’m able to hold the (very hot) tubing in my hand (I actually use Microplane’s cut-resistant glove, which turns out to be nicely heat-resistant too). Then it’s time for steam. The camera has to be on a tripod, of course, and I also like to attach a remote shutter release. I make sure to have everything – absolutely everything – in the photo perfectly ready and the way I want it before I start. Then I turn on the steam, wait until the water is heated up and make sure that I shake out any water drops that may be in the tube. (That’s important, it’s very annoying to have water droplets spill all over the set). I adjust the steam to a medium level, not too strong and not too faint, lock the focus with my remote, then let a bit of steam blow around the food, quickly move the tubing out of the frame and immediately take a shot. I usually have to adjust the steam output a few times until it’s just right and it definitely takes some time to get the right shot but I find it to be a lot of fun.

I used to put tons of steam in my photos (as in the beef stew shot below) but I have lately started to take a more measured approach because I think just a hint of steam looks more natural but, of course, it’s all personal preference, so do what you like!

Below are a few examples of how I’ve used steam in food photos. Do you add steam to your food photos? If so, how do you like to do it?

Beef Stew

Chicken Noodle Soup

Chunky Chili

From post Chunky Chili.

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  1. Nagi@RecipeTin Eats says:

    Oh my god!! This is legendary! I never in a zillion years thought about this, but then I just googled to see what other ideas there are out there and the FUNNIEST but most practical is placing a steamed tampon (no typo there!!) behind the food! Ha ha ha! It would work though!

    And the other funny thing is that I have the opposite problem! My workflow is to set up the shot first (or while the food is cooking) so I can plonk the finished dish and shoot quickly (because I hate all the extra work that comes with freshening up dishes). So quite often there is TOO much steam so I have to use a remote shutter because I’m standing there fanning steam away from the food!!

    This is another awesome tip Nicole, thank you SO MUCH!!

    • Nicole B. says:

      Wow, you get too much steam!?! Just from cooking the food? That is mind-boggling! That has never ever happened to me; by the time I’ve moved the food from the stovetop to the set any steam there may have been is gone. That is really, really interesting. How funny how different everything is for everybody.

      Yeah, the tampon method is hilarious, I tried it once a few years ago but it really didn’t work for me, it was totally obvious that the steam was coming from behind the food and I thought it just looked weird. :)

  2. Huy @ Hungry Huy says:

    Very interesting idea to make steam! I’ve encountered the issue of steam about twice while shooting this week.

    Looks like this method could feed my coffee addiction and get needed steam in 1 shot, hah :)

    Loving this prop talk stuff Nicole, keep it coming! Hoping I could put out some of these posts in the future as well.

    What’s your favorite kinda coffee? Or is purely a prop for you?

    • Nicole B. says:

      So glad to hear that you like these posts, Bryan! I drink just about any espresso drink (and straight espresso as well). Actual drip coffee, on the other hand, is not my thing. :)

      • Huy @ Hungry Huy says:

        Drip/pourover is my faaaavorite, soooooo I’m so sorry to hear you say that…. haha kidding.

        I grew up with pops always running the espresso machine so it was what I was used to, but had a world perspective change after trying drip. Espresso can still be fun too :)

        Speaking of coffee, it’s my first day back to work after the break, so time for a refill!

  3. Kristen @ The Endless Meal says:

    You are a genius!! I almost never take pics with steam as I find it’s difficult to keep the food hot enough and most often it can be a bit overwhelming in the pics. I love that you can have total control over the steam and decide how much you want and where you want it. So perfect!

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