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How to Photograph Tea and Cookies


World Mental Health Day

Today, the 10th of October, is World Mental Health Day. The UK's Mental Health Foundation marks the day with Tea & Talk, a fundraising event that aims to get people talking mental health: It's an event that anyone can host and participate in.

It's often hard to get the word out with events like these. A good photo and an invitation card can help. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to make a simple and engaging photograph of tea and cookies to illustrate your invitation to Tea & Talk, or an event of your own.

Tea  Talk poster

What You Need

To follow along with this tutorial, you will need:

  • A camera with a medium or short-telephoto lens; I used an 85mm, but any lens in the 50mm to 100mm range will work (if you have a zoom lens, try out different focal length to see what works best for you)
  • A window (if you don't have a window, get outside. If you don't have a window and you can't get outside, you can mimic the look of a window with a large softbox)
  • A print template
  • Cookies, preferably with an interesting visual appeal
  • A small table
  • A tablecloth (I used an old dress shirt with a coloured pattern)
  • A nice teacup or teapot
  • A tripod (optional, but makes work easier)

1. Set the Mood (Board)

Start by writing down how you want the photo to feel. My mood words for this shoot are:

  • Inviting
  • Warm
  • Tasty

With your mood-words in mind, start imagining what you want the final image to look like.

I usually use Envato Elements' stock photos section to look for existing photos to take as inspiration. So collect a few images of tea and cookies that you like. Coffee shots might be helpful too. Here's are a few of the tea-and-coffee images I find inspiring:

Cup of black coffee Turkish style on a patterned blue and white background
Cup of black Turkish or Eastern style coffee, from Envato Elements

I like the simple, graphic composition and the patterned tabletop in this photo. The spoon is a nice detail, too. But this is coffee! Cool shot, but not exactly what we're going for.

Lavender cookies and cup of tea on white wooden background
Lavender, cookies and cup of tea on white wooden background, from Envato Elements

That's a little more like it, but the whitewashed boards and bundle of lavender say "country kitchen" more than I want for this invitation.

A cup of tea with cookies a book resting open with glasses upon it
A cup of green tea with cookies, from Envato Elements

I like the intimate feel in this photo and the shallow depth of field. There are more elements in it than I want, though. A bit busy for our purposes. We're getting closer.

2. Plan Your Composition

You can save yourself a lot of time and effort by planning your photograph to fit the space provided in the design. Photographers often get caught up in photographing; it's easy to get carried away with a good subject! Keep the template in mind throughout.

In this design, the window for the photograph is vertical and skinny. This means the way we compose the frame and place the tea and cookies will have to fit a tight space. That is our design challenge. How will we solve it? 

  • Tea is, basically, not much to look at. We can minimize or ignore the actual substance in our composition. Instead, we can better communicate "tea" with the recognizable shapes of a teapot or a teacup. The spout of the teapot or the handle of the teacup are enough.
  • Cookies are the star, in my opinion. I want the cookies prominently placed, in front of the teacup or teapot. Icing, granular sugar, swirly designs, multiple layers: all visually interesting things to have in a cookie.
  • The graphic elements in our example template are black and tan, so the cookies, teapot/teacup, and background need to work with these colours.

OK, that's your preliminary research. Let's move on to the photoshoot.

3. Set Up Your Scene

Here's what my workspace looks like:

tea and cookies in an office in front of a window

Window as Light Source

Set the table so that you have the window behind you, with your camera placed between the table and the window. You'll use the window as a big, soft light source.

Depending on the size of your window, how sunny a day it is, and whether or not you have curtains, move the table closer to or away from the window to control how much light reaches your cookies. If you have a sunny day, use sheer curtains or a white sheet to diffuse and soften the light. On a grey day, open the curtains.

I set up my table four and a half feet (approximately a meter and a half) from the window. I also closed the curtains, turning the window into a giant diffusion panel.

wide angle view of tea an cookies and a rocking chair

Dress the Set

Adding a patterned fabric under the tea and cookies isn't strictly needed, but I think it helps sell the comfortable feel. It's also an opportunity to personalize your photo. 

With the skinny vertical space, we're not going to see much of the background. If you want the background to be a particular colour, however, you can drape a sheet or hang a roll of coloured paper behind the table. My back wall is about 2m/6' from the table. If you do use a backdrop it can be closer still.

Lens Selection

Our photo has to include in all of the essential visual elements without feeling cramped. Cropping into the subject, which I am usually hesitant to do, is the way to go in this situation.

You probably don't need the background to communicate anything other than colour, so you can safely choose a slightly longer lens. Longer lenses will help compress space in your image, and, if you use a large aperture, will blur the background nicely. Move the table toward or away from the background to control how objects in the background (if any) appear in the image.

I used an 85mm lens with an f/2 aperture.

4. Make the Photograph

Now you're ready, it's time to make the picture.

Place the camera about halfway between the table and the window, looking down on your cookies from a 30°-45° angle. Focus, and then move the camera in or out until you've found a composition you like. Refocus. Check your exposure settings.

Take the photo.

tea and cookies

5. Make Another Photograph

Once you have a photo you are happy with it's time to get creative. 

Leave everything where it is on the table, but move the camera to a new position. What does your composition look like at a 90° angle? How about from up above?

Teapot and molasses cookies

On paying photo jobs, the client often has a particular image in mind. Indeed, part of your work is to figure out in advance what your client wants their image to look like. Usually, though, they've focused on the one image, and have not imagined what a different angle or composition might look like or how it could come in handy. In my experience, these secondary, free-creative photos get used as often not. It's a good way to give your clients a little extra value and have some fun along the way.

Make the Invitation

The final steps are to import, process, and prep your photo, and complete the template. We've covered this part of things in detail elsewhere on the site, so I'll skip review it here, but bellow I've included are a few resources to get you going if you need help with post-production.

Have a great World Mental Health Day!

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