I made a picture for the cooking.SE blog:


If you look very hard, in the middle, below the vanilla bean tip, is a small spill of synthetic vanilla essence (which is almost colorless, not dark like real vanilla extract). What changes in lighting or shooting angle would have made the liquid clearly visible?

The constraints:

  • The background has to be the white porcelain plate
  • The other ingredients have to remain clearly visible and look nice from the new angle
  • I don't want to work with colored light, as the real, yummy colors of the food are important here
  • it is important for the blog post content that I don't "doctor" the vanilla essence to look different (e.g. color it dark).

I saw the related question How to shoot water spilled on the floor?, but I don't think its answers give me enough hints for my situation.

  • What was your lighting setup? Did you use off camera flash or any studio strobes?
    – dpollitt
    May 23, 2012 at 16:23
  • @dpollit In this case, I put the plate below a window. But I have flash units I could use next time.
    – rumtscho
    May 23, 2012 at 16:36

5 Answers 5


Use narrow spotlights, like the others say. Better: use a series of point-like lights. I often notice shiny objects or liquids by the pattern of specular reflections on them. A linear sequence of point light sources, or a large circle of them overhead, should make the edge of the liquid puddle obvious. Its shape will be very suggestive of liquid. The plate may be just as shiny but its shape will also be clear, very plate-shaped. (I'd show an example here, but don't have access to my photo right at this time.)

Small, tight hard points of light will do much better than an equivalent amount of light spread out. I'd use only point lights and no diffuse lights at all, not for fill light or anything. Use several point lights spread around as fill, if needed.

Just as important as the lights is what's between them. Be sure that there's darkness. Black material, night sky, whatever. If a subject like that is photographed in a white room, the plate and liquid will lack contrast, become lost in a fog of whiteness as in that photo; the highlights aren't sharp enough or brighter enough above the surrounding white. Use black drapes or boards all around and above.


Apart from lighting it differently (covered in other answers), consider something like a small shot glass with the liquid in it. Change the composition to provide context clues that a clear liquid exists.

  • Actually, it isn't enough liquid for a small shot glass - it is maybe 0.5 ml. I tried to shoot it in the vial it came in, but decided it didn't look good next to the unpackaged powders. But it is a good consideration for other shots.
    – rumtscho
    May 23, 2012 at 17:35
  • 2
    Context clues are still your best bet probably, but you would probably need to change the overall composition of the photo. Maybe the vial on its side, spilled. Maybe the vial off to the side? Either way, context is a key.
    – rfusca
    May 23, 2012 at 17:40
  • 4
    If not a shot glass, then how about a teaspoon? May 23, 2012 at 18:27
  • It might be kind of interesting to show the contrast with real vanilla extract.
    – mattdm
    May 23, 2012 at 20:42
  • 3
    You could also just use more of the stuff in order to use a glass receptacle. I doubt many readers will be looking at the photo and thinking "I'll be damned, that's more than 0.5ml of vanilla essence or I'm a monkey's uncle!". This may run counter to your programming however. May 24, 2012 at 9:10

As real vanilla essence is coloured, and as that appears to be a real vanilla pod, why not colour the liquid somewhat?

If you really really really had to make the fluid stand out as is you could try.

  • Well directed shaped light at appropriate angle using a lens and mask to create a tailored reflection on the vanilla essence only. Not hard technically - just lots of work to get 'just right' - and may not look good enough.

  • Desperate maybe: Main light via a polariser with matching polariser on camera. Variable angle (starting at 90 degree) polarised light on the essence using change of angle on reflection.

  • Photoshop! / The Gimp! / ...
    Maybe mask the existing liquid. Shoot as close as possible shaped liquid of suitable colour and add. A realistic coloured liquid on a plain white plate with similar lighting could be added subsequently with greater ease than most other choices. Probably.

  • Thank you for the suggestions. I don't want to color the liquid, as I wanted to depict what flavorings I actually used for baking cookies, pictured beside items whose taste was used in the flavoring. I used this imitation vanilla and not real extract, so I wanted the reader to see the difference. Besides, the color of the cookies matters in the rest of the article (I discuss the use of food coloring), and the vanilla cookies are very pale, so showing dark extract would have been misleading.
    – rumtscho
    May 23, 2012 at 16:35

It's important to note at the outset that the way a viewer "reads" a photograph and perceives shape and depth is by the shadows and highlights. This image is nearly shadowless and the liquid featureless, which is good for certain things, but not for making objects of similar color stand out. A relatively hard light at a low angle might bring up reflections, but it will add shadows everywhere.

  • 1
    Generally, I could have placed the vanilla somewhere else on the plate, so it could have had its own corner. Would it have been possible to add only one hard light for it? What equipment would I have needed for it, and how would I have had to set up the lights?
    – rumtscho
    May 23, 2012 at 16:52
  • 1
    The most focused light you will probably use is a light (speed light or studio) with a snoot. I don't use shoots -- I use Cinefoil instead (cheap), which is like aluminum foil but black. I wrap that around the light, tape it down and hand shape until I have placed a spot on only the item I want to highlight (to the extent possible). If there is spill (for example, on the vanilla bean), there will be a shadow behind it. This is more a side effect of the composition than the lighting. Remember, take lots of test shots; bits are cheap.
    – Steve Ross
    May 23, 2012 at 17:37

You can reflect more light off the liquid fringe with a narrow spot. Experiment with a narrow beam LED flashlight to get the mirror opposite location of the source and imagine the surface as a mirror. Unfortunately that will also reflect light off the plate. So to make them non co-planar or in other words at a different angle, tilt the table enough to prevent drip but move light reflect off the camera for the plate but onto the camera lens for the creamy liquid.

If you can only tilt it 5deg then you need a spot light with a smaller beamwidth. This will catch more of the surface but not all. Consider a spot light restricted by a tube.

You just need a good key light, to catch the edge effects at the right intensity.

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