Colder months mean images of steamy hot cocoa and toasty mulled beverages. Discover how these photographers evoke the cozy warmth of beloved winter favorites in their work.

Fall is in full swing, and that means three things: apple cider, hot cocoa, and pumpkin spice lattes. Food photographers know better than anyone how to capture the romance and spirit of the season. Whether they’re creating that perfect steam detail over a mug of hot coffee or evoking the flavors of mulled wine through meticulous prop styling, the best of the bunch understand that photography needs to appeal to more than just our eyes.

Great beverage photography taps into our sense of smell and taste as well as our memories of changing leaves and cold nights spent by the fire. We spoke to eight pros about staging and photographing the perfect seasonal drink. Read on to hear some of their behind-the-scenes stories and the secrets they’ve learned along the way.

1. “One of the best ways to showcase the steam on your hot beverages is to shoot them against a dark background.”

viennetta (Lauren King)

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Shoot Against a Dark Background

Image by viennetta (Lauren King). Gear: Sony A65 camera, Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I live in Portugal, and fruit trees grow everywhere — most people have at least one in their yard. Neighbors are very friendly, and when they have a surplus from their orchard or garden, they’ll often give it away to people nearby. During the winter, my neighbor kindly gifted me with a couple bags full of beautiful lemons, some with the leaves still attached—which you can never find in the store — and I knew they had to be part of my next photo shoot. Since it was a chilly day and I’d been keeping the cold away with layers of fleece and herbal tea, I was inspired to create something that would make people feel warm and cozy.

Pictured: [1] viennetta (Lauren King) [2] viennetta (Lauren King) [3] viennetta (Lauren King)

Pro Tip

One of the best ways to showcase the steam on your hot beverages is to shoot them against a dark background. The contrast really makes the steam pop.

Another tip is to become skilled at using studio lights to either augment or substitute for natural light. While natural light seems to be preferred for modern food photography, relying on the sun doesn’t always work out. Since many drinks are transparent or translucent, they tend to look best when the light is shining through them, making them almost glow.

For those times when the natural light isn’t cooperating, or your shoot ran four hours longer than anticipated and the sun is setting, using studio lights with full spectrum emitters in a way that mimics sunlight can save your photo shoot. I will also use small reflectors, usually mirrors from old makeup compacts, to create highlights on the glass. Even with gorgeous props and professional styling, a hot drink can look cold and unappetizing if it isn’t lit properly.

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2. “To create a cozy atmosphere, add cool colors so that the warm color is only an accent.”

Shaiith

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Play with Color Temperature

Image by Shaiith. Gear: Canon 5D MK III camera, Canon 100mm f/2.8 L EF Macro IS USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo was taken in the studio on a warm, sunny day. I used two flash lights. Behind the window, I had one with a blue filter and a honeycomb. The window itself was covered with artificial frost. The second flash was under the glass with the tea. Because there was a small hole in the table, I was able to put the flash under there. No additional filter on the flash lamp was needed because the tea had a warm color. The steam on the tea is real because it was brewed fresh.

Pro Tip:

The most important thing is to create the right climate and atmosphere using light. Use a combination of cold and warm light. To create a cozy atmosphere, add cool colors so that the warm color is only an accent.

There are several methods you can use to create a steaming dish, ranging from incense to dry ice to an e-cigarette. Because steam and smoke are white, it will be most visible against a dark background and must be highlighted from the back. In the case of this image below, the steam was created using an e-cigarette. It was then blown onto the surface of the beverage using a drinking straw. It was not an easy task and required several attempts:

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Create an Atmosphere with Light

Image by Shaiith. Gear: Canon 5D MK III camera, Canon 70-200 mm f/4.0 L EF IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 120mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.

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3. “When using smoke as a replacement for steam, less is more.”

Mona Makela

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Capitalize on Natural Light

Image by Mona Makela. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L USM lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; exposure 1/5 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is a hot honey and apple cider vinegar photographed on a cold Seattle day in January with ample backlight from the window and a reflector between the camera and the table. I set the heater very low and let the temperature fall in the house a couple of hours before shooting. The water was boiling rapidly when I mixed it with the ingredients in the cup.

Sometimes, I am not so lucky with the steam rising from the cup. This other image below, for example, was photographed in June in Northern New Mexico, and the steam in this photo is really smoke. I have a fairly good size library of photos of smoke from incense and other sources photographed on both black and white backgrounds.

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Use Replacements for Steam

Image by Mona Makela. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF 24-70 mm f2.8L USM lens. Settings: Focal length 48mm; exposure 2.5 sec; f8; ISO 100.

Pro Tip

When using smoke as a replacement for steam, less is more. It is easy to go overboard when you have all that “steam” available to you. Using multiple layers of the steam and adding noise will help make it look like it belongs there.

Natural light is my favorite. I use reflectors, mirrors, and black or white foam board and cloth to direct and control it. The main part of this kind of work is probably the prep work. I set everything up on the table first, changing props and moving things around until I like the composition.

Looking at other photographers’ work and reading about their techniques is always eye-opening, of course. Higher-end food magazines, where a lot of time and effort has been applied to the photography, are a great source of inspiration.

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4. “…do not forget about the overall atmosphere of the shot and its coziness.”

Goskova Tatiana

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Build a Cozy Atmosphere

Image by Goskova Tatiana. Gear: Canon EOS 70D camera, Canon EF 16-35mm F/2.8 L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f7.1; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I love this shot because it makes autumn—my least favorite time of the year—feel very sweet. It helps me to imagine the season as golden and warm rather than gray and dull. And most importantly, the drink really seems very hot, due to a skillful stunt with the hands.

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Convey the Feeling of Warmth

Image by Goskova Tatiana.

Pro Tip

With hot drinks, the main task of the photographer is to convey the heat. I usually use steam, drops of condensation on a transparent dish, or a suitable atmosphere for this purpose. I create steam in several ways: I use steam directly from the drink, I use smoke from cigarettes and other smoking objects, or I draw it directly into the program while editing. Natural steam is always more difficult and takes more time to shoot, but it looks much more interesting. Often, you have to take hundreds of shots to choose one that’s suitable.

And, of course, do not forget about the overall atmosphere of the shot and its coziness. Warm knitted things, fire, and suitable props and backgrounds in warm colors help me to create this atmosphere. I like to use a wood background for this purpose too.

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5. “If you use a glass mug, then misted glass and condensation will also evoke memories and a sense of coziness.”

Iudina Ekaterina

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Use Glass Mugs

Image by Iudina Ekaterina. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, Nikon 50mm 1.4 g lens. Settings: Exposure 1/30 sec; f16; ISO 600.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I often try to think about adding foodstuffs that are usually coupled with hot drinks and the seasons we associate with them. For example, I might use honey, berries, spices (cinnamon sticks, star anise), or citrus. In this case, it was fruits (apples, grapes). I used a large, plain mug because you can hold these kinds of mugs tight in your hands to convey the heat and warming qualities of a drink.

Pictured: [1] Iudina Ekaterina [2] Iudina Ekaterina

Pro Tip

The most obvious way to show that the drink is hot is by using the steam that curls above the mug. The steam from a hot drink is clearly visible with backlighting, and I also advise you to use a dark background to make your photos more impressive.

In my photos of hot beverages, I prefer to use wooden backgrounds. I love warm, yellowish shades of wood. Wood creates a feeling of well-being, and I associate it with nature or a forest where I could drink hot tea or coffee. If you use a glass mug, then misted glass and condensation will also evoke memories and a sense of coziness.

When a drink has already cooled down but I still need to show the steam, I take advantage of a small trick. I use smoke from incense sticks or vaping. But mainly, I enjoy shooting real steam from the beverage itself.

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6. “To convey the feeling of comfort and warmth in my photos, I often use steam over the cup, which I add in a photo editor.”

yanadjana (Yana Tatevosyan)

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — It's Okay to Edit the Steam

Image by yanadjana (Yana Tatevosyan). Gear: Canon EOS 600D, camera Canon EF-S 18-55mm; F 3.5-5.6 lens. Settings: Focal length 30mm; exposure 1/125 sec; F/8: ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This was one of my very first successful photos of a hot drink. I thought for a long time about how I would add that warm steam above the cup. I wanted to do it in a way that was interesting and not like the other photos I’d seen. And then, at one point, I came up with an idea: maybe I could try to incorporate the shape of a heart.

Opening the photo editor, I began to experiment. And it was such a tender heart that I managed to create. Now, I often add the heart to my pictures of hot drinks, thus making my photos special, full of love and warmth.

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Use Your Imagination

Image by yanadjana (Yana Tatevosyan).

Pro Tip

To convey the feeling of comfort and warmth in my photos, I often use steam over the cup, which I add in a photo editor. To create your own images that are unique and not like the works of others, you need to use your imagination and generate special ideas.

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7. “I like to include ingredients and different props to provoke associations.”

Maxim Khytra

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Showcase Your Ingredients

Image by Maxim Khytra. Gear: Canon 5d Mk II camera, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I took this shot in front of a window and a white background. Using Photoshop, I added some steam and the landscape of a winter’s night. As a result, we can see the homemade mulled wine in the context of a rustic mountain cabin. The ingredients, the cozy rustic atmosphere, and the cold environment all cause our brains to see and imagine something more than just a glass with red liquid inside.

Pictured: [1] Maxim Khytra [2] Maxim Khytra

Pro Tip

One of the secrets of food photography is your imagination. You may not know all the details of your composition in advance, but you should at least have imagined the atmosphere and the story behind the shot. I like to include ingredients and different props to provoke associations. That way, you can tell the story of how the product was cooked. Sometimes, I also try to create a sense of the environment by using landscapes in the background.

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8. “With hot drinks, using backlight brings out the steam…”

Kati Finell

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Try Using Backlight

Image by Kati Finell. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1/60 sec; f2.5; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I shot this in winter while staying in Lapland, Finland. In the cabin, there was this beautiful open fireplace, which was perfect to use as a background for cozy images. In this photo, I also used some light from the right side to bring out the details of the beautiful glass holders.

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets for Perfect Photos of Hot Beverages — Bring out the Drink's Color

Image by Kati Finell.

Pro Tip

I prefer shooting most drinks in glasses rather than mugs or cups. This way, you can really see the drink and its color, and you can play with different glasses to get a different atmosphere to your images. With hot drinks, using backlight brings out the steam, but you can also use other tricks to get the feeling of a hot drink; for example, you can incorporate mug warmers or melting marshmallows.

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Top Image by Iudina Ekaterina.