In the summer of 2008, I knew nothing about coffee photography. Yet then I picked up my first DSLR.
Combining my love of coffee with my newfound love of photography was an easy choice, but learning how to be good at coffee photography… that was a bit more difficult. In fact, that was a long and slow journey full of mistakes.
Spanish Version: Fotografía de Café: De Principiante a Profesional en 3 Pasos
Yet despite how long it took me, there are several surprisingly small changes that can have a dramatic impact on the quality of your photos. So if you’re just starting out, or even just considering starting out, here’s the three biggest little things that you should learn.
Lighting is Everything
Whether it’s coffee or portraits, proper lighting is key.
I tend to shoot all my photos with natural lighting (i.e. the sun) during the day or during sunrise/sunset, a.k.a. the golden hour.
However, it’s not as simple as “sun equals good”. You need to make sure the lighting isn’t too harsh. This includes midday, as everything tends to get a little bit too bright for my tastes – especially if you like to shoot outdoors.
Ideally, you want an even lighting on your subject. There are two easy ways to achieve that. One: if you’re outdoors, shoot in the shade. Two: if you’re indoors, shoot next to a window.
These days, I shoot 90% of my coffee photos next to a window. It’s great in helping to give either a back light or good directional lighting (this works really well if you have blinds).
My current little setup. The window blinds allow for good backlighting and directional lighting.
Shoot in Manual Mode
The manual mode doesn’t need to be scary. It’s not designed to trip you up. And it’s not even just for those with DSLRs. With more and more photo apps appearing, this can be equally as important for those shooting on their phones.
I understand that when you’re just starting out, auto modes make it easier – but it really is best to switch on the manual mode as soon as possible. It allows for a greater flexibility when shooting and, as of such, helps in the creation of a more artistic shot. Mastering shutter speed, aperture and ISO and how they interact with each other will help you to develop as a photographer.
Take these two shots:
(ISO 100 | f/2.2 | 1/320 sec)
(ISO 100 | f/2 | 1/160 sec)
They’re an excellent example of how shutter speed interacts with movement. In the case of the Chemex shot, a faster shutter speed was more suited to capturing the ripple effect. As for the Kailta, the slightly slower shutter speed gave the steam a smokier feel.
One quick note, though: if you’re playing around with slower shutter speeds, a tripod will be useful.
Edit, Edit, Edit
While some photos just aren’t going to get any better, for others a good edit can make all the difference.
Apps such as Snapseed and VSCO have changed mobile photography, allowing for easy on-the-go edits, while programs such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop still remain an industry standard.
It’s here that I recommend shooting in your camera’s RAW mode instead of JPEG (or using a JPEG + RAW mode if your camera has it); editing with RAW files in programs like Lightroom gives you far greater freedom than with JPEG.
Also, don’t delete your photos unless you know that they’re beyond hope. If you’re just beginning, your first shots might not seem that great. However, when you’re a bit more experienced and you look back at those older photos, you might find that they have more potential than you realised.
I’m a firm believer that most photos, if shot decently, can be salvaged in post. If your photos are coming out a little bit too reddy-orange (warm) or blue-ish (cool), all you need to do is fix your white balance, whether on your camera or in post.
An easy fix: the right side (original) had the wrong white balance but the left side (edited) looks much better.
The initial shot (above) is underexposed and lackluster. The edited shot (below) just pops.
Yet as magical as editing may seem, less is more. If you’ve shot the photo well there won’t be much left to do, unless you plan to highly stylize it. However, it’s important that you don’t go overboard with it. Over-edited photos are easy to spot: they’re often overly sharpened or have way too much contrast. You want your edits to be subtle and highlight the image.
The extremes of over-editing
So there you have it: the three steps that are the bedrock of good coffee photography. Light the subject well, shoot it correctly, and edit the resulting photo subtly.
Of course, practice makes perfect. And always remember that a creative shot will be more appreciated than a technically brilliant but artistically boring one. Coffee photography is an art, and your techniques should support your artistic concept – not replace it.
So what are you waiting for? Go out and shoot those coffee photos.
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