In this article, I’ll take you through all the fantastic ways you can use coffee photography in your still life photos.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Showcase coffee brewing equipment. A portafilter may not seem interesting, but add some ground coffee and arabica leaves, and it shines!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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?
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 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.
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!