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Use Hydrochloric Acid and Ammonia For The Ultimate Hot Drink Images

By Anthony Thurston on November 9th 2014

Trying to shoot images of hot drinks can be frustrating. The steam rising from the beverage does not last long and it can be hard to accurately capture it in your image.


There are many tricks to getting that perfect steam, but most have the same problem as using an actual hot drink: the steam only lasts a short period of time, and is not reliable. Photographer Phillip McCordall put together this great tips video showing you exactly how to get around this, with some ingredients that you may not have guessed.

[REWIND: Canon’s 18-135mm May Be Their Best Kit Lens Yet]

Using a mixture of hydrochloric acid and ammonia, you can easily create steam that not only lasts a long time, but looks great in an image. Special care must be taken when using this, of course, but it works well.

I always love finding old tricks like this. It is just one of those things to lock away in the memory for the next time I am shooting any sort of hot beverage and need some reliable steam. Just remember to bring some nose plugs, apparently this methods stinks to high heaven…

If you’d like to try another easy method to create smoke (and one that won’t smell up your entire studio), be sure to check out the new SLR Lounge Smoke Texture Pack.

[via The Phoblographer]

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Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Aaron Cheney

    For a much safer way of doing this… buy the SLR Lounge smoke texture pack. Works like a charm!

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  2. Peter Nord

    Having a Ph.D. chemistry I feel compelled to make a few remarks. I would reserve ‘highly toxic’ for truly toxic compounds like cyanide where a little bit will quickly do you in. Ammonia in water is commonly used in cleaning. A common household item. We have been dumping hydrochloric acid in swimming pools for years. If you get the household concentrations on you, you wash it off with water. (Getting it in your eye is more serious) Exposure to the vapors of either causes you to move away immediately. Not pleasant, but you don’t die. When the vapors combine, the visible material ‘smoke’ is ammonium chloride, not at all toxic. Notice in the video he used very small amounts. A few small drops of each smeared on either side of the cup. They have to be kept separated for this to work. The vapors of which are combining, forming the ammonium chloride which is visible above the cup. I wouldn’t want vapors of hydrogen chloride around my expensive cameras. Talk about corrosion of your circuit boards. I’d rather drop a few chips of dry ice in my tea cup of water for the smoke effect. These chemicals don’t belong in a photo studio. They can cause problems, but household exposures won’t kill you.

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  3. Brett D

    A cotton ball soaked in water and microwaved is a much safer method to create steam (I hear that a tampon works great too, though I’ve never actually tried that).

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  4. Jiachen Liang

    Because doing what chemistry undergraduates do in extremely controlled environments such as high-power fume hoods, in your studio or home, is very intelligent…

    If you’re gonna do this, set up some heavy duty ventilation if you don’t want the photos you take to be your last.

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  5. Michael Giordano


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  6. Jordan Kicklighter

    I just made an account here just to comment on this article. The first comment is absolutely right, this article greatly understates the risk here. Playing with hydrochloric acid alone is dangerous, and combining it with ammonia creates highly toxic fumes. Don’t play around with this stuff unless you know what you’re doing. It would be much safer to use something such as dry ice to give off a steam/smoke effect. Please be careful.

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  7. Steven Pellegrino

    The acid and ammonia technique is an old chemistry trick that decades ago magicians used to use. I think he really under played the danger here. Obviously the acid is dangerous. It will burn you and different surfaces if you spill/splash/drip it. However the fumes are toxic! If you use this, do so in a well ventilated area only. Photoshop is a safer method. Go for the SLR Lounge smoke texture pack.

    If you really want to try the acid method, hydrochloric acid is also called muriatic acid and is found will swimming pool supplies.

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