Capturing Steam on Video & Other Lighting Tips

We’re going to show you some lighting tips and tricks you can use on any shoot, like making steam actually show up, using lensers and black wrap. If you shoot food videos, you’re going to love this.
Over time, you learn certain tricks of the trade that stay with you and become habits but they’re not always taught I’ve found because, well, they’re habits. You just do them, you don’t think about them. I’ve collected a few here for you.

Lighting Steam
Steam and smoke, like liquids, are transparent and semi-transparent and therefore, can’t be lit from the front because, well light goes right through them. So what do you do? The trick is the same we covered in our video on lighting liquids, 3/4 backlight to make it pop. You see, when light comes through a transparent item, some of it bounces around and illuminates it.

Backing lighting transparent liquids and objects is the best way to illuminate them. Here the soft daylight from a window and a focused spot light make them pop.

Here I have a small LED par on a dimmer focused on this steaming cup. I turn it on full blast then dim it down to the level I like. Turn it on and off to see how it looks. Love it.

A light set 3/4 back behind the steam will make it pop when lit. Here I have a small LED par light, daylight balanced, on a dimmer.

The steam from the cup and the hot water poured in pop when lit 3/4 back.

But a potential problem: the light is close to the edge of my frame and therefore has a good chance of spilling light into my lens and maybe even giving me a lens flare.
But the bigger issue is the light spill. How so?

Look here into the lens. See this light spilling into it from that backlight? All that light is bouncing around inside my lens and lowering the contrast of my shot.

Back light's can create lens flare and spill light into the lens.

Back light's can create lens flare and spill light into the lens.

This is a familiar look when you're filming into a window, the sky or some other bright source but when you’re not, it may not be desirable. It’s basically flashing your sensor, filling light into the shadows and darker areas of your shot and to some degree lowering your contrast. 
But note. This is a thing that DP’s do but in a more controlled way, and it’s called flashing. There was a unit called the Lightflex, now owned by Arri and called the Varicon. It’s basically glass that sits in front of your lens with a light on one end that you control. It’s a way of adjusting the contrast of your shot, upping the light levels in the shadows and blacks, without adding grain which can happen if you increased those levels in post instead. I’ll put a link in the description with more info from DP Rob Draper on how he’s used it.

Light spilling into the lens, potentialy flashing your image.

Light spilling into the lens, potentialy flashing your image.

Flagging the backlight off of just the lens, called a "lenser.:

Flagging the backlight off of just the lens, called a "lenser.:

But as I said, that’s a controlled and deliberate way of flashing. On set, we get rid of that errant light shining into our lens with what grips call a lenser. You either set a flag or in this case, I’ll use black wrap to cut the light just off the lens, making sure it stays on the subject I’m lighting, whether it’s a person or in this case the steam rising from our cup. But you know, I only want this light on the steam, nowhere else.

This brings us to Black wrap, also called Cinefoil, which you’ve probably heard me mention in past videos. What is it? It’s thick aluminum foil that’s been anodized with a black layer so it doesn’t reflect light all over the place and is used to wrap hot lights around the barn door to contain light spill. But it has many other uses like becoming a barn door for my LED pars lights which don’t have any, or in the case of our steam backlight, going a step further and becoming what we call a snoot. 

A snoot is basically a tube instead of barn doors that only allow light in just one area. With black wrap, I create a tube around the LED and then adjust it so it just lights the steam rising from my cup. If I need to, I can use paper tape to fine tune it.

Making a snoot out of black wrap/cinefoil.

Making a snoot out of black wrap/cinefoil.

Onset, black wrap is what we call an expendable, like diffusion and colored gels for lights. 
But for independent filmmakers and content creators like us, we treat black wrap like gold and save every sheet that we rip off. 
I’m used to using 12” and 24” wide rolls but it comes wider and in lengths from 10’ to 50’. I recommend a 12” 10” or 25’ roll to start you off as that should last you a while.

Editing / After Effects
Gali Segal

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Rosco Photofoil Matte Black Cinefoil, 12 inch x 10 feet Roll

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“Right Place, Right Time”
by Silent Partner from YouTube Audio Library

“Morning Stroll”
By Josh Kirsch/Media Right Productions from YouTube Audio Library

Vericon with Rob Draper ACS

Edge Lit Sign on

Portal Sign


Steam Train by eliasheuninck