Photography — By Ben on 13 July 2009
Spicy mayo and how to photograph steam

Spicy mayo

I love corn on the cob. In the fairs and street markets in Mexico I would always eat elotes con mayonesa y queso, a classic street food down there. When you walk down the street and see a long line in front of lady (usually) standing next to a big steamer and a table with containers of mayonnaise, cheese and chili powder, then that’s the place to get your elotes.

Last summer I wanted to recreate that delicious street food from my memories, but when I was getting the ingredients ready I wondered how the mayo would turn out if I spiced it up a little. So I chopped one chipotle adobado pepper and mixed it with 1/2 cup of mayo. The result was delicious! For our camping trip last year I also added some Parmesan cheese and packed it in the cooler for easy transportation.

For a while I have been wanting to post this simple tip to make spicy mayonnaise. I finally decided to do it when I was reading an article online on how to photograph steam and realized that a picture of steamy corn would look great. I spent two and a half hours today playing with my food to capture the elusive and ghostly steam with the camera. And here I share with you what I learned:

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  1. First you need to realize that it would be almost impossible to photograph steamy food. I spent about 10 minutes setting up the lights,  props, and taking the test pictures. By the time I was ready to start taking the “real” pictures the corn would’ve been cold. Besides, mayo on hot corn would melt and look nasty so I used a clothe soaked in boiling water between the two cobs as my source of steam. Other options would be to use a cappuccino machine, a small piece of dry ice or steam chips sold at photography stores.
  2. My first test shots were taken against a white background, which didn’t work at all because, unlike other white subjects (eggs, for example), steam doesn’t have defined edges and therefore it will visually blend with the white background. That’s why you need to have a dark background.
  3. To photograph steam you will need a backlight. Without this, it will be very difficult to capture the true effect of steam. It’s the light coming through the steam that lights it up. For the first shot above I used 2 flashes. The master flash was attached to the camera with the head tilted at 90° to bounce the light off the ceiling. My backlight was a slave flash to the back and left of the subject shooting through a white umbrella. I also had a mirror to the right and front of the subject to reduce shadows in the front of the picture. Sadly, my slave flash died in the middle of the session so I had to change my strategy. My master flash became an off-camera flash shooting through a white umbrella from the left of the subject and I used a lamp on the right and a mirror in front of the subject to reduce shadows. As you can see in the picture below, the steam is not as prominent because of the lack of a backlight.

Spicy mayo

Somethings to keep in mind: The bigger the clothe the more steam you will get, but the more difficult it would be to hide it behind your food. Also, you will probably spend a lot of time setting the food and taking pictures, so you might want to keep a pot with boiling water on the stove in order to get fresh steam quickly. Be patient and try different settings and angles. Like I’ve always said, the best way to get the perfect shot is to get your camera out and play with it and your food as often as you can.

I still have a long way to capture steam like a pro, but I think this was a good start and there will be a lot more opportunities to practice, what do you think?

¡Buen provecho!

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About Author

grew up around food. His family owned a restaurant in Mexico City and he spent a big deal of his childhood helping and learning after school the art of creating delicious dishes from simple ingredients. He created this blog to share his kitchen adventures with the world.

(29) Readers Comments

  1. Sometimes I capture steam and smoke…I think it’s luck with me but now I have some more tips…love spicy mayo with fries.

  2. Thx for the photo tips. It is always interesting to see how the photos are taken and look so real.

    The spicy mayo sounds delicious – the corn is just coming in here in New Jersey.

  3. Oh, I forgot to tell you that I love the layout changes you’ve made tot he blog, it makes it much more easy to navigate :)

  4. Great photos and thanks for all these tricks and tips. The corn looks delicious with the spicy mayo.

  5. So this is where the spicy mayo comment came from! Of course, we like any kind of mayo you have, so we’ll take this whole plate with an extra sprinkle of lime.

  6. Great advice Ben! I’ve not really done any “steamy” photos yet, but your tips are great so maybe I should try it out soon! Corn looks delicious!

  7. ben justo ayer me comi un elote con queso y mayonesa, pero no habia entrado aqui asi que para la proxima lo preparo con chipotle, se ve deliciosssssssssssso

  8. Awesome write up!! I am definitely going to have to give this a shot. I would have never guessed the cloth was the source either.

  9. I hope this doesn't gross anyone out, but I read in a photography "trick" book that professional food stylist will soak a tampon in water, and heat that up in the microwave. I would assume a cotton ball would do the same thing – and these items are small enough to tuck behind your food. I'm not sure I could then EAT my food knowing it was previously sitting on top of a hot steaming tampon…

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