You’ve probably noticed, but my go-to prop for Instagram photos is a cup of tea. Partly this is because the photos I take featuring rosie-lea are always my most popular – take a look at my most popular posts below for that evidence. I always know that if I’m in an engagement slump then a good ol’ cuppa will be sure to get me out of it. But of course, it’s not all about the likes and validation, there are lots of reasons why I’m drawn to tea as a prop.
Interestingly, it’s not even because I’m that fanatical about tea – I enjoy a cup of English Breakfast but I can go for days without one. For me, I’m drawn to using tea in my pictures for purely aesthetic reasons: colour, shape, story. In this post I’m going to draw out these factors, and share my tips for creating beautiful photographs of your tea break.
Even if you’ve never seen my Instagram, you can probably tell from this site that I’m pretty into brown – or perhaps I should say ‘rustic, neutral tones’. I have my tea pretty dark, with only a splash of milk, so it’s an excellent way to introduce my brand tones, or simply continue them within a picture.
But don’t forget that there is more than brown tea in the world. If you have a more colourful style, then green teas and fruit teas are a perfect way to inject pops of colour into your frames, especially if you want to capitalise on the other elements later on in this post. Stew them for just a few moments for dainty hints of colour, or steep the teas for slightly longer than recommended for more full-bodied colour. And if you aspire to a more monochromatic feed, you can always take the picture before you add the milk (@jessicarosewilliams is a great example of introducing tea into a more monochrome feed).
When I’m styling anything, whether it’s a photo or a table, the most important factor for me is shape. I’m drawn to different types of shapes and putting them together to interrupt the eye and create visual interest and stimulation in a scene. Layering up objects in different shapes is a great way to create texture and depth in an image.
Whenever we take a photograph there is already one square or rectangle, which is the frame of the image itself. We also unconsciously see in lines and grids, which is why photographers use the rue of thirds. Then there will often be linear arrangements in the composition, whether it’s the lines of the floorboards, the edge of a windowsill or table, the legs of a chair. On top of those lines it’s likely that we’ll be adding other rectangular elements to the photo – a book, or print or painting, pens, boxes, trays, cushions. Already there are a lot of straight lines and not much visual variety.
It’s at this stage that I love to add a cup just to introduce a completely different shape, to contrast the straight lines with curves. By adding a different shape to break up the straight lines it redirects attention back onto the other subjects too.
Ok, I’m sure you’re thinking that there are lots of other things you can use to introduce circles to a composition, like candles for example. Which is true, but there is something that those other props lack, and that’s context – they’re not going to make sense in a picture as much as a cup of tea does. Realistically you don’t snuggle up under a blanket cradling a candle, you don’t scribble away in notebooks with an empty bowl to hand. Whatever situation you put it in, a cup of tea is going to make sense in the scene and contribute to the composition not only in a graphic way, but also with storytelling.
The most important element in a photo is the story. The story is what is going to stop people scrolling and linger, look deeper and cast their eyes over the caption to see what’s going on. The story is what elevates an image from ‘pretty’ to ‘meaningful’. And it doesn’t have to be a 700 page epic; it can be a few sentences, a moment in time captured.
A cup of tea is perfect for creating and contributing to this story. Given that finishing a cup is time sensitive (you need to drink it before it gets cold), the cup of tea creates a sense of here and now, of presence. We feel that the drinker must just be out of frame, perhaps grabbing a biscuit or pulling a book from the shelf; it creates intrigue and emphasises that feeling of the image being a trapped moment in time.
Plus, tea is laden with symbols and connotations. As such a universal beverage it is something we can all relate to, and in turn relate to the person in or behind the picture. But more than that, it is an emotive substance. We all have feelings and memories related to tea, whether it’s that cosy afternoon brew after you’ve come in from the rain, or watching your grandmother carefully strain the tea leaves. When you include a cup of tea, you invite the viewer to layer these feelings and memories onto the image; they become part of creating the story.
Do you like using your brew as a photo prop?
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