Unedited straight-out-of-camera version


Recently I took part in a photographic scavenger hunt challenge which specified NO EDITING AT ALL. The way the hunt usually works is that entrants are given 10 words or phrases to photograph and edit in whatever creative way they choose. However this time (the 29th round of the competition) we were instructed that photoshop, lightroom, and any kind of editing or digital filtering was banned. In photography circles this is often referred to as #SOOC or "Straight Out Of Camera” which for any photographer is a great exercise in getting back to basics and reconnecting with the goal of achieving technically accomplished photography in support of the creative vision.

In addition to the restrictions imposed upon us by the competition’s rules, I decided that all of my images would be conceptual self portraits and created at home (given the ongoing pandemic restrictions). One of the words we were challenged to photograph was COFFEE. This post shows some of the thought processes and the practical processes I went through to create my interpretation of coffee (albeit from the perspective of a voracious tea drinker!).

IDEATION – this came to me from the phrase "wake up and smell the coffee" (meaning 'to become aware of the reality of a situation, however unpleasant’). The thing that has always struck me about this phrase is that whilst it alludes to awareness of a bad situation, the aroma of roasting coffee beans is surely one of the most wonderful smells. When I was a kid in 70s Britain and well before coffee chains were ubiquitous, my mum used to occasionally visit a coffee shop where they would roast and percolate the beans on site. Due to my immature palate at that time I believed the drink my mother so clearly enjoyed tasted unforgivable, but the memory of that glorious smell, well, that  transports me right back to a time and a place.

For my photographic concept to illustrate COFFEE I imagined a woman, in her bed, awoken by a rather-too-early alarm. In addition to visually associating the smell of coffee to being wrenched from slumber I wanted to concurrently illustrate, in the form of the woman’s embrace of an outsized steaming cup of the stuff, that coffee also delivers the comfort and invigoration needed to ease the transition from asleep to awake.

PLANNING THE SHOT & THE CHALLENGES AHEAD – Without post processing to fall back on there were some challenges I foresaw in creating the image I envisioned:

COLOR – I knew I wanted the overall color of the image to evoke a sense of coffee by being predominantly in rich, brownish hues.

STEAM – Given that the inspiration was the ‘smell’ of coffee, I wanted to be able to have a visual representation of that smell which I imagined in the form of a rising steam effect.

LIGHTING – I knew I wanted the image to feel dark and cosy, as if I’d been awoken before sunrise, and yet I still needed my audience to be able to see all the key story-telling details of the picture.

EXCESSIVE COFFEE CUP – intended to add an element of something unexpected to a scene, my vision included a supersized cup filled with coffee. How could I make that happen?

So, after jumping online to purchase the largest coffee cup I could find, the next step was to set up the camera and start to act out what these scenes in my mind could look like in pixels. To start exploring the composition, I captured my first test shots which looked something like this:

Work in Progress during the Making of "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee"


• The duvet cover is too bright, the lighter band across the middle is too distracting.

• The bedside light is distracting.

• Can’t see the time on the alarm clock.

• No need for the second, digital alarm clock.

• Composition is flat, not enough depth and the main subject is not impactful enough in frame.

• White light off screen right isn’t making sense.

• Main subject eyeline should draw us into the frame, not out of it.

• See less of the artwork on the wall behind, it’s distracting.

• Have Teddy Bear character be more engaged in the story.

• Need to see coffee in the cup. Need to see steam rising from coffee.

After the initial test shoot I did a little more online shopping and purchased the following:

– A pack of incense bricks, with the intention of using them to create a physical steam effect.

– A brown bed sheet.

– Some dark brown gels (locally, from DTC grip)

Things  changed about the shot setup for the second attempt:

• Lit the alarm clock separately with a cool light (the blueness of that light intended to evoke a night time moonlit sensation, and be in complementary contrast to the warm brown hues that dominate the rest of the frame).

• Moved the subject closer to the camera for a more dynamic sense of depth and increased focus on the story.

• Moved the key light to the screen left side of the bed.

• Turned the supporting actor (bear) so it’s eyeline engages with the main story.

• A tighter crop.

• Tested the incense ‘steam’ and the gel ‘coffee’ techniques.

• Installed a brown bed sheet to cover the duvet.

• Added an orange gel to the key light to bring more warm,  rich coffee bean color to the scene.

Work in Progress during the Making of "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee"


My overall impression was that I had now cropped too tight, the blacks were too dark, the image too contrasty and the new sheet needed to go through the washer/drier to get rid of its ‘just out of the packet’ creases. Sometimes I write my visual notes by hand, this was one of those times:

Work In Progress Notes

If editing were allowed, some of these things would be fixable in post processing, so it is an interesting exercise to have to reshoot to make changes instead.


Below is a snapshot of the set showing the lighting setup for the second test.  The reason the softbox is gridded is to lessen light spill beyond the main subject. The speedlight on screen right has a blue gel taped onto its flash and a snoot is being used to concentrate the light in the area of the alarm clock.

Behind the Scenes of "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee"


On attempt number 3 I forgot to record behind-the-scenes for prosperity, but for that  final image I tweaked this lighting setup further by extending the key light on a boom arm to bring it further over and more on top of the subject instead of off to the side of the bed. I also later added an extra fill light with a pinkish-red gel at the screen right corner foot of the bed to add warm light to the dark shadows on the main subject thereby reducing the contrast and the zero-detail-darkness in the blacks that had come across as too harsh in the previous attempt.

Coffee – Behind the Scenes


The most challenging part of the entire production was creating the ‘steam’ rising from the cup (which I’ll add is extremely heavy, even when empty, so using real hot liquid was never an option). I stuck a strip of brown gel inside  to look like coffee. It was tricky because I needed to cut the strip with a slight curve to compensate for the cup narrowing slightly from top to bottom. Inside the cup I placed a little bowl of sand (as a safety measure for playing with matches), an old spoon (as a utensil for shoveling the sand), a box of safety matches and my incense bricks.

I set up my camera on a timer using a Camranger running on an ipad to take several shots at intervals, then lit the incense and got into pose. I had no control over how the smoke would look during the intervals, but they tended to give better results sooner after being lit than later, so it was a matter of working as swiftly as possible, trying to conjure up poses to sell the story and hoping for the best. I had to do many takes and burn many incense bricks before I got a result I was happy with. All of this was going on whilst California was suffering wildfires and we had all the windows closed to protect ourselves from its effects. Needless to say, purposely filling up the bedroom with plumes of woodfire-scented smoke was probably not my smartest idea ever. How we suffer for our art! How much more healthy this would have been if only I could have used Photoshop to add in the steam effect!

There were other challenges too - like effectively hiding the ipad from which I would trigger the camera operations, holding the heavy cup at an angle which did not giveaway the FX ‘tricks’ tucked inside. Positioning my legs under the covers so it looked natural but so I did not get pins & needles. (For the record, I got them anyway.)


The following video shows a straight-out-of-camera scroll through a Lightroom folder showing all the self portraits I took during my third attempt at capturing the coffee scene. At first my intention was to have my eyes open - looking at the coffee steam. As much as I tried, this didn’t seem to work out, and I felt more drawn to the captures where my eyes were shut because they helped to sell the story of the smell of the coffee. Each time I set off a capture using my ipad as the camera control, I would take 10 shots at intervals before reviewing the results. Problems I was encountering along the way included smoke getting in my eyes and stinging, accidentally tilting the coffee cup too much toward the camera exposing the incense setup and ruining the illusion of it being filled with coffee and the teddy bear falling over without me noticing.

Normally I could fix any of these things in post processing but because of the challenge rules I was forced to keep trying over and over again until all the elements came together in one shot. My smoke-filled lungs did not thank me but I certainly felt a sense of achievement when I finally got a result that worked on all counts!


1/100 second

f/ 5.0

ISO 125

White Balance As Shot: Temp 6,350, Tint +11

Profile: Camera Standard


KEY – 1 x B1 STROBE with orange gel and gridded softbox

ALARM DETAIL – 1 x TT560 Newar flash with blue gel and snoot

FILL – 1 x Newar flash with pinkish red gel and octabox

Bedroom recessed ceiling lights were also switched on for the shoot.

Before/After Edits • Spot the Difference!

  • coffee
  • Wake up and smell the coffee!


I got very close to my original vision using all in-camera techniques as described above, but there are a few things I would tweak further given the chance to edit. In the following (edited) version some small changes were made:

– Using a spline curve in Photoshop I perfected the level of the coffee inside my cup (the hand-cut gel had been a bit wobbly and uneven)

– I added a teeny bit more steam.

– I darkened the sheet in the foreground.

– I desaturated the orange hues on the main subject face just a smidgen.

Slightly Edited Version

Wake up and smell the coffee!

To find out more about the Photography Scavenger Hunt Community click here . The global community is friendly, welcoming and open to photographers at all levels. We'd love newcomers to join us for the next round!

To see all of the other entries for the word COFFEE check out the coffee album which you can see at this link.

Any questions - leave me a comment below...

And thanks for reading!

Untitled photo
  • Rebecca Hagberg

    on November 24, 2020

    Sam, this is beyond impressive! I really like how your mind works in making your vision a reality. How long did the entire process take (not deciding on the final image, but in shooting the scene)? Thanks for sharing such a detailed account. Your work is always so clever and fun!

  • Sam Breach

    on October 15, 2020

    Thank you @yvette @sgtphotography and @Maayan! I'm amazed you all made it to the end of my very long blog post - you all deserve a medal!

  • Yvette van Teeffelen

    on October 14, 2020

    Wow Sam I'm beyond impressed. So great to read about your process. Such a fantastic image!!

  • sgtphotography

    on October 14, 2020


  • Maayan Windmuller

    on October 14, 2020

    Wow, thank you for this detailed and in-depth behind the scenes post Sam! It‘s fascinating to see how your mind works :-) And the teddy bear is a cutie!

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