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Hot Cocoa Mini Sessions

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Tips for a Successful Hot Cocoa Mini Session

Kris Ann Valdez

Bring a little warmth to the holidays with a hot cocoa mini session. Our photographers offer their best advice to create festive, fun shoots to charm the whole family.

What is a hot cocoa mini shoot?

These sessions take place during the winter holidays. For the setting, photographers choose between a hot cocoa stand (older children), or a large mug filled with pretend hot cocoa (babies and toddlers). 


How much do you charge?

The photographers we spoke to charge $150-200 for the base package. This typically includes ten to twenty minutes of shooting and five images (with the ability to purchase more). Some photographers like to charge per image, while others prefer to offer the entire album. Example prices include $30 per additional image, or a $99 upgrade for the whole album. Most people will choose the upgrade! 

What materials are needed to build a large “cup” of hot cocoa?

It can seem daunting to DIY your own giant cup, but Lauren Adams of Bokeh Love Photography follows five simple steps to achieve the look:

  •       Buy an oversized planter from a home improvement store, like Home Depot.
  •       Paint it white.
  •       Add a glued-on handle. The handle is “anything from a candy cane made of wood to a Styrofoam, to a cut in half wooden ‘2’ from Hobby Lobby.”
  •       Purchase the jumbo campfire marshmallows from the grocery store to float in the mug.
  •       Decorate the mug’s exterior to holiday perfection.

For visual learners, Sissi Wang of Just Kidi Studio provides a Youtube video of her cocoa mug creation process.

After your giant mug is ready, Dawn Lopez of Dawn Lopez Photography says it’s important to choose the right backdrop—plain, forest, winter wonderland, or fireside-themed...there are so many options!

To create a white floor, photographers often use two white wall panels, which can be purchased at a home improvement store too. Hanging your backdrop up, you can blend it in with the floor’s seam by adding buffalo snow and twinkle lights.

What do you need to make the hot cocoa?

San-Francisco based photographer Athena of Athena Galgiani Photography mixes warm water with hot cocoa (1.5 packets should do the trick). Brown food coloring works if you don’t want to use chocolate.  Add a splash of milk, or milk substitute for dairy free clients. Then stir, stir, stir!


How do you keep little ones safe while sitting in liquid?

Safety is the number one priority, especially where water is involved.

Never put a baby directly into a bowl of liquid. The “cup” should have a seat made of bricks and towels so the child can sit comfortably.  Always have an assistant and/or parent(s) stay within three feet of the child.

Lauren recommends sending a questionnaire beforehand about allergies and informing parents their children need to wear a diaper/clothes during the session to keep things sanitary. Also, require parents to sign a contract understanding they’re putting their children into a water/milk mixture.

Do you have to fill the hot cocoa cup with mock cocoa?

Nope!  While cocoa-colored water is adorable, it’s extremely messy. Dawn says it’s “time consuming to clean up between sessions, and more costly too.” An empty cup with marshmallows will also do the trick.

Just make sure to weigh the bottom of the cup with weights so it doesn’t tip over.

Posing tips for the cocoa mug session?

Deep breaths... most babies do not like the idea of sitting inside a blind box.

Our photographers offer these tips:

  •          Play with them for a bit before shooting to get them comfortable with the idea.
  •          Add big marshmallows, candy canes, or playful toys.
  •          With parents’ permission, let them nibble on the marshmallow!
  •          If you choose to add the cocoa, splashing is encouraged!
  •          Practice lots of patience.


What should the subjects wear?

If you do choose to shoot with hot chocolate in the cups, then red toddler bathing suits and Santa hats are always cute. Prompt parents to order ahead of time online so they aren’t scrounging last minute.

If you’re not shooting with liquid, most clients wear PJ’s or Christmas outfits.

How much of a buffer do you need between each session?

Sissi says she never schedules more than three sessions in a day due to the uncertainty of babies.

Lauren allows herself ten minutes between each session to dump, sanitize, and refill each cup. To achieve this, she must have several helpers.

What props are needed for the hot cocoa stand?

The cocoa stand itself can be made from an old fence, pallets, or wood purchased at a hardware store. Once the base is built, consider these props:

  •          Christmas-themed straws
  •          Marshmallows
  •          Hot chocolate mix and/or peppermint candies in glass or plastic clear jars
  •          Mini Christmas trees to decorate the stand or larger ones for the base
  •          Earthen, copper, or holiday-themed mugs
  •          A sign/banner hanging or leaning that says “Hot Chocolate” or “Merry Christmas”

Tips for getting a good shot

The hot cocoa stand sessions are meant to be interactive, so have fun with it! Athena prompts kids to pretend they are selling it, asking questions like, “How much is your hot chocolate?”

She gives each child chocolate milk to drink with a straw so they can take sips or hold it as a prop.

Ask kids to look directly at the camera and smile too. “Focus on them as they interact with each other,” Athena says. And “when you think you’re done, be on guard to catch that last smile or laugh.”

One last tip is to make sure to shoot during sunset hour. Since it sets earlier in the winter, plan ahead to make sure you don’t lose light.

What should the subjects wear for the hot cocoa stand shoot?

Something holiday-themed, or neutral! Either works well.


How do you generate interest in your mini sessions?

To book mini sessions,  promote a month in advance. Many photographers start by posting in their VIP Facebook group with a booking link. Then they post elsewhere, like Facebook and Instagram feeds/stories. An email list with past families is helpful to have so you can notify them of upcoming sessions. If you don't sell out, create a Facebook event to gain more interest.

Any additional tips?

Don’t forget to have fun with it! Kids will sense if you’re enjoying yourself and it helps them relax and enjoy the process too.

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