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In this article, I’ll take you through all the fantastic ways you can use coffee photography in your still life photos.

An overhead creative coffee photography shot of the game tic tac toe created with coffee cups, cinnamon sticks and spoons

Whether you’re shooting for a coffee shop or your own food blog, coffee is an incredibly versatile subject matter. I won’t get into gear and technicalities here, but check out our articles on photography splashes and fast action photography. You can definitely apply those tips to coffee photography.

I’d rather focus on creative tips, which you can use no matter what gear and props you already have. Let’s get started!

1. Start Out Using Only One Drink

This is the minimalist approach I recommend to try first. How do you like your coffee? Is it a shot of espresso, hot and strong? Or is it a huge mug of latte, milky and tender?

Look at it closer. What do you like about it?

Study the Details

Maybe you like the tiny details.

Swirls and curls of coffee and milk merging together. A pinch of cinnamon on a weightless cappuccino foam. Or the way strong coffee absorbs light looking almost non-transparent.

If that’s you, then get your macro lens and shoot a series of close-ups. There’s not much room for an elaborate narrative here, but you can capture the beauty of little details.

And that’s plenty.

An overhead creative coffee photography still live of a coffee cup, coffee beans, cinnamon sticks and foliage on a wooden board

Showcase the Ingredients

You can also concentrate on differences in the making of, say, flat white and cappuccino.

Compare two ways of enjoying coffee: with or without milk, hot or iced, with steamed milk or milk foam.

You can take it up to eleven and shoot plain, but elegant espresso next to something fancy. Maybe even too fancy to be considered coffee and not a coffee-containing cocktail.

Keep the scene as minimalist as possible, bringing in only the objects that tell your story clearly.

An overhead creative coffee photography shot of the game hopscotch created with coffee cups, cinnamon sticks and spoons

Sure, this is about Coffee vs Tea, but it could be easily about Black Coffee vs Half-and-Half

Another way to approach this is to photograph recipes for some rare varieties of coffee drinks.

I once tasted Vietnamese coffee with a raw egg in it. Looking at the brewing process was just as interesting as testing the result (delicious, by the way).

I wished I could photograph the making of process. Or at least take a final shot with a drink and the ingredients we used to make it.

You can also do it for something less exotic. Capture a coffee mug with cardamon, anise or cinnamon around. If you drink your coffee with syrup, coconut milk, chocolate or a pinch of salt, let your viewer know how to make it and why it’s tasty.

Or look for a way to disintegrate your macchiato. A way to make the ingredients visible and proportions clear.

2. Bring in Props

Vintage coffee grinders, porcelain cups, glass coffee pots, a wide spoon for cupping, and a tiny cezve can also be a source of inspiration. Don’t even get me started on a fantastic Chemex design! Or the wonderful look of every single pour-over dripper.

These things are so beautiful, that photos of them would make a nice addition to an interior of basically any coffee shop or cafe. Take a look at some props you already have and use them as your main heroes.

A fun food photography shot of a coffee cup with a teaspoon on top balancing nine sugarcubes

Simple Cups

First of all, don’t ignore simple porcelain coffee cups. They may seem boring, but they can fit in any story you’re telling. Being boring is the perfect disguise.

Cups with patterns or elaborate designs can be hard to match with saucers, spoons, napkins or other additional details. But plain white porcelain is your best friend.

A playful food photography shot of a coffee cup with splashes balancing on a pile of white saucers against a blue background

Bright Colours

You shouldn’t dismiss simple props. But you shouldn’t miss your chance to work with something a bit bolder and more vibrant either.

The colour itself can be the main hero of your image. If you’ve got some brightly coloured dishware, why not play artist and photograph your treasures on vibrant backgrounds of plain colour?

Add a couple of contrasting details to make your shots more lively, but keep everything simple. Geometrical shapes and colour blocking work great together.

Fun coffee photography brewing equipment triptych on bright blue and yellow background

Overhead still life of nine coffee cups, balls of paper and pencils on sky blue background

Brewing Equipment

Showcase coffee brewing equipment. A portafilter may not seem interesting, but add some ground coffee and arabica leaves, and it shines!

Overhead still life of coffee brewing equipment on dark background

And yes, I know, not everyone has access to arabica leaves. But you can actually buy a small coffee plant in a local flower store and grow it on your windowsill.

French press looks marvellous in backlight. An old coffee grinder would work great in a dark setting. A moka pot is fantastic for modern scenes with a minimalist and clean look.

And if you can lay your hands on a siphon coffee maker, know that I envy you enormously.

Magical coffee photography brewing equipment triptych on dark background

3. Pick Your Palette

Your starting point doesn’t have to be a specific variety of coffee or a type of props. It can be colours you’re going to use. Personally, I’m strongly inclined to shoot my coffee in the tradition of dark food photography. Black and brown colour palette, backlighting, impressive shadows.

I love the way coffee splashes look on a dark background, they are so radiant!

What I usually do is start with a dark background and gather some props. Coffee grinders, wooden spoons, coasters, and boxes come in handy here. Their brown colour matches the colour of the coffee but looks darker.

A still life of coffee brewing equipment a shelf with a fall coffee cup

When I pick a cup, it’s usually a glass one. It’s easy to match glass texture with practically everything. Or I can take a ceramic cup if I want to go for a more vintage and magical feeling.

After that, it’s nice to add splashes of contrasting colours: bright cinnamon and anise, blue napkins or coasters, and maybe some green leaves.

We need some colder colours like blue and green. These colours will add spots of contrast to our warm palette and make it look more balanced.

Magical coffee photography brewing equipment shot on dark background

Coffee, versatile as it is, also works pretty well in high key. Especially if you want to add not only cups and drink, but some roasted beans. Or you can try backdrops of a variety of bold colours.

I prefer cold shades like sky blue, it contrasts the colour of coffee beautifully, creating a  nice visual balance.

Overhead still life shot of a circle of coffee cups and two teaspoons in the centre acting as clock hands

The important thing here is to decide which palette you are going to use before arranging the scene or gathering props.

Try to imagine the resulting picture in your head, try to catch that mood you’re about to create. Whether it’s dark and cosy, light and cheerful or vibrant and bold.

Fun coffee photography shot of six falling cups balanced on the tip of someones finger

4. Draw With Coffee Beans

Coffee images don’t have to be only about coffee as a drink. Coffee beans deserve your attention too!

Start from simple decorative curves and swirls around cups in your flat lay and go to more elaborate drawings. Try to speak Gallifreyan or draw ‘crop’ circles with coffee beans. Draw a maze or a treasure map. Or maybe just wish someone a good morning.

Triptych food photography shot using coffee beans and biscuits to spell the messgaes 'coffee', 'but first, coffee' and 'put the kettle on' in create food art typography

Coffee beans are a wonderful tool for food typography. You can use them alone or combine with words made with cinnamon, anise stars, cardamon, sugar cubes or cookies.

Think about a word or a short sentence you want to say, draw its outline and fill it with coffee beans. This work requires patience, but the result is always worth it.

Overhead shot of a maze of coffee beans with a cup of sugar cubes in the centre

5. Tell a Simple Story

This is definitely my favourite kind of coffee photography. Tell a little story with your shot. Something really simple. Don’t try to crush the entirety of Ulysses in one shot.

Something like “It’s Saturday morning, I’ve got a huge mug of cappuccino and a lot of time to be lazy” is enough.

Bright and airy still life diptych of coffee equipment on a wooden desk with other props

This is a good story because it’s about the little joys of life and a firm intention not to hurry and spend the day in a leisurely bliss.

So, how to tell this story in a photo? Ask yourself one important question:

What Does It Mean Visually?

This is Saturday morning. What does it mean visually? Natural morning light (or a good studio imitation). Maybe a part of a window on a background. High key. Lots of room to breathe.

I’ve got a huge mug of cappuccino. This one’s easy. Get your coffee. Get something with your coffee to call it a breakfast. A doughnut, a croissant or maybe a bowl of cookies.

Also, where are you having your morning coffee? In a bed? In a sunlit kitchen? On a balcony? In a coffee shop with huge windows? You name it.

I’ve got time to be lazy. Good, but what does it mean visually? What are you going to do with your weekend? Will you spend it reading?

Or will you decide to practice drawing and paint a watercolour sketch right inside your favourite coffee shop? Will you just look at the sky from your balcony counting clouds?

Answer that question and bring something to a frame to show that intent. A book, a couple of brushes and sketches, etc.

And voila! You have all you need to imagine the picture, get your props, arrange a composition and take a shot.

Overhead still life using coffee cup, biscuits, chalkboard, pencils and coffee beans to tell a story about a high school kid doing their geometry homework

What if your story is about a high school kid doing their geometry homework?

Now, pick your own simple story. Think of time and event.

Where are you? What are you doing? Can you tell what time is it? And, above all, what does it mean visually?

Overhead shot of a coffee cup with the image of an airplane inside, resting on a suitcase

Coffee photography is not about the drink (I know, I’ve said it before).

It’s about your favourite books and movies, about your dreams, about you. Take it to the next level and tell stories of your own.

Overhead mystical shot of a person writing a 'to do' list in a notebook while holding a cup of coffee, sugarcubes, pine cones and other props are strewn around a glittery blue background

A darker take on I’ve got a huge mug of cappuccino and a lot of time left to be lazy.

6. Create an Adventure

You can step up your storytelling game. Make a cup of coffee your lead actor, imagine yourself a director giving orders to coffee beans and cookies. A director who tries to say something to their audience.

We’re entering the waters of conceptual food photography here, but it shouldn’t be scary. There are lots of different ways to come up with an idea, containing a small narrative. Let’s look at one of them.

Overhead still life of coffee cups, cinnamon sticks, balls of paper and pencils with a notepad with the words 'where do you get your ideas' on sky blue background

First of all, let’s make it personal. Think, what do you like about your coffee? Is it the fact that it gives you an energy boost? Or in contrast, do you drink coffee to take a break and relax?

Energy Scenario

In the first case, picture your coffee as a life-saving liquid, a magical potion of strength. Or maybe as something that lets you wake up in the morning, that leads you out of the maze of tangled thoughts.

Gather a bunch of empty coffee cups around a piece of completed work. A painting, a script, a sculpture or an architectural blueprint. Show that was your alter-ego created during a marathon of working enthusiasm and inspiration.

Maybe you can draw a blueprint of a Rube Goldberg Machine and use a coffee cup as the key element.

Overhead still life of coffee cups, pencils and writing equipment

Make a list of all the words that your brain associates with energy and try to pair them with coffee. One by one by one. Find a pair that clicks.

And finally look for a visual way to express that match.

Relaxation Scenario

On the other hand, coffee may make you feel cosy and relaxed. Good! Make the same list, but with relaxation as the keyword. Write down all the stuff that makes you feel comfortable. The top of my list is reading. Just sitting down with a good book, without any hurry or time pressure to get work done.

So, how can I combine reading with coffee? Maybe I’m reading a fantasy book and see a dragon in a coffee cup reflection. Or a Middle Age castle formed with hot rising steam. Or I leave a cup of coffee on a high stack of unread books. Only to find later lots of stairs and ropes, brought by some tiny folk to reach for my delicious (but alas stale) latte.

Conceptual still life shot of a person reading a fantasy book and seeing a dragon in a coffee cup reflection.

Thinking of a vibe you’re trying to recreate is a good way to start your story. Describe the atmosphere you want your viewer to feel in one word. Make this your starting point.

7. Imagine a Character

My favourite way to come up with ideas for still life photography is to think of a character, a hero for my story. A reader, a stargazer, a pirate, an architect or a watchmaker.

Anyone who can have a cup of coffee may be a leading actor in your story. Pick someone with a little spark of adventure inside. Say, your hero is a writer. What will they do? Will they spend a sleepless night looking for a new plot twist at the bottom of a coffee cup?

Overhead still life of coffee cups, biscuits and chalk lines arranged like a star map

Imagine a stargazer

Or your hero is a wizard’s apprentice, learning how to levitate things. What would an apprentice use for practice? Something simple and affordable, sure. A coffee cup!

If you pick an artist, imagine them working on a lovely watercolour painting and getting very immersed in the process. And, of course, put brushes in a coffee cup by mistake (even the most collected artists do that, believe me).

Fun coffee photography shot of a falling cup, saucer and sugar cups balanced on the tip of someones finger

Imagine a stage magician

The key element here is asking the same question you ask while thinking about simple stories. What does it mean visually?

Your hero is a steampunk engineer. This means having blueprints, rulers, and compasses on the table. Also, zeppelins in a steam rising above hot coffee. And a girl in goggles working at 5 a.m. and drinking espresso after espresso to just finish this one project.

It means dark colours. And it determines a colour palette of craft paper, leather, copper, and steel.

A still life of coffee brewing equipment and hand drawn plans in the style of a scientists workshop

Or maybe a steampunk enthusiast

Note on Character Props

Asking and answering that question gets easier and easier each time you try. And sure, getting props for a steampunk scene is tricky.

But! I assure you, you can make do with the bare minimum amount. And you can make lots of it yourself. Drawn by hand blueprints, paper blimp, and spray-painted goggles are good enough for a photo.

Make a list of different characters and imagine how a cup of joe might look like for each one of them. Then pick a story you like the most and take the shot.

8. Add Some Action

And last, but not least, make your still life photography less, well, still. Dynamic images always look captivating, so why not try and bring your coffee images to life?

Steam

The first and easiest way is to shoot coffee while it’s hot and capture beautiful curls of rising steam. Use backlight to make steam not only visible but shiny. Set your camera on continuous mode. Pour some hot water into a cup and take a sequence of shots with rising clouds of steam. Keep the kettle a bit higher than usual so it won’t get into the frame.

Be careful with hot water and watch for the safety of any electronic equipment. And check out our tutorial on shooting smoke to get the lighting scheme and some useful tips.

A still life of coffee brewing equipment on a wooden desk, in the style of a scientists workshop

Splashes

A slightly harder way to add action is to shoot splashes. For a first try, I recommend shooting from the side, using a smooth background and dropping a sugar cube into a cup.

Shooting from above is a bit trickier because if you need another iteration, you won’t be able to just merge a clean shot and a shot with a splash together. You would need to clean up the background first.

But don’t worry, we have another tutorial, specifically about shooting splashes, check it out! Photographing coffee splashes is actually easier than it looks, I promise.

A playful food photography shot of a person holding strings to nine coffee cups as if they were holding a bunch of balloons

Conclusion

Coffee is a wonderful object to work with! It may even be a symbol of a large number of narrative opportunities in a conceptual still life photography.

A cup of coffee is such a simple and mundane object, it can take you anywhere. A scientist’s lab. Or  a wizard’s study.

Seize this opportunity to talk about your dreams and adventures. Drink coffee, take wonderful pictures and stay inspired!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Dina Belenko

There is one phrase I always use to introduce myself, it describes me precisely: "My name is Dina and I tell animate stories about inanimate objects". I'm a person with little paper cities, sugar cubes, moon from polymer clay, doll's miniatures, broken cups, handmade Rube Goldberg machine, repainted puzzles, wire trees, cardboard dragons and spilled coffee. And with a photo camera. That's quite essentially me. You can see more of my work here: https://www.instagram.com/dinabelenko/

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