I often talk about seeing photo opportunities in everyday life, and looking for chances to take pictures where you might not find them. This shot is kind of a twist on that old chestnut because I’ve been looking for this particular photo opportunity for quite some time, but never really took the time to make it happen. Often have I watched steam rise my mug of morning tea in the early sunlight, and considered capturing it in a photograph, but never have I actually gone so far as to actually do it. Either I’m busy helping my kids get ready for school, or the light shifts before I can do anything, or I just get lazy and don’t act when I easily could. But on a chilly Sunday morning in early November as we were getting ready for church, I once again noticed the white wisps of steam escaping from my oversized mug of tea (I use two bags of green tea and two packets of stevia) and finally decided to, as they say, not throw away my shot.
I ran to get my tripod, mounted my D750 and 105mm macro lens on it, composed a shot with the mug close to the camera, and fired off a couple clicks of the shutter. And…nothing. I mean, I got a few shots but I was disappointed in what I was seeing. They just weren’t interesting at all. Turns out there’s a lot I don’t know about taking a picture of steam rising from a mug of tea.
First of all, the overall composition of the photograph: I needed to back up, way up, so as to get more in the frame. Initially I just got the mug with a few inches of space above it, but that wasn’t nearly enough to capture the beauty of the backlit steam. I scooted my tripod back, made room for a lot more verticality, and that took care of the first problem.* Also, I deliberately chose not to alter the scene in any way. I thought about moving around the mug, the strings on the tea bags, the spoon handle, even the papers on the counter top, but instead opted to leave everything as it was with no changes at all. I think it just felt a bit more authentic that way.
Next, the steam: how to capture it? I originally thought a long exposure would be best because I wanted to get a sense of the flowing, dynamic, almost ethereal scene in front of me and I thought a 1-2 second exposure would do that really well. Turns out…not so much. The longer I dragged the shutter, the less interesting my shots looked. Instead of neat puffs of steam, you could just see a mass of white cloud-like gas floating above the mug. It really wasn’t anything special at all. What I realized was that a fast, but not too fast, shutter gave me just what I was looking for. The image you see here is a 1/45 second shutter which was just enough time to freeze the motion of the steam, but also leave barely-perceptible trails, almost like echoes in time, of the steam as it moved about in that fraction of a second. If you click on the picture and go to the full-size version on Flickr, and then zoom way in, you’ll see what I mean. It’s an extremely subtle effect, but it’s there, and that’s what matters to me.
Finally, the editing: Contrary to my other recent images I did crop this just a bit to tighten things up on the bottom of the image. I also left the mug much darker than I would normally do, rather than bringing up the shadows to get more dynamic range in the image. Again, it’s kind of a subtle editing decision but one that I’m glad I made.
I don’t know if I’ll take this kind of shot again any time soon, but I would like to experiment some more and see what I can come up with. It was a really fun learning experience and one that I’m sure will come in handy down the line at some point.
*I did consider taking a vertical shot…for about 0.68 seconds. I just don’t like taking vertical shots. Don’t know why. Can’t explain why. But it is what it is.