Photographing a Wine Bottle

Part of my recent engagement photo shoot with Tom and Julie involved some very special wine bottles. You see, Tom used two bottles of wine he had made with custom labels including one that was his marriage proposal.

While planning the shoot we talked about using the bottles in a few shots but I also knew that these bottles had plenty of potential for other uses (like save the date mailers). So when the shoot ended Tom and Julie agreed to leave their special wine bottles in my care so that I could give them a proper photo shoot. But like all product photography, getting a killer shot of a wine bottle is a lot trickier than it sounds. For this blog entry I’ll talk a bit about the challenges I faced, my solutions to common problems, and I’ll share my thoughts on this unique form of photography along with some behind the scenes looks into my product photography area.

First and foremost, I admit that I’m not the biggest name out there in product photography and I’m not here to say that my way is the only way, the best way or the way you should be doing things. This is a blog entry that contains my own personal experiences photographing this wine bottle and some different things I’ve photographed in the past. This is a big part of my business but there are plenty of other people out there who do some incredible product photography (especially food photography).

My Product Photography Area

Some people may recognize this space from some other blog posts or from some of my entries on Google+. This is an area I call my “sun room” and it’s a seven foot by eleven foot room connected to my office. This area has become my all-purpose area where I edit pictures, photograph products and even scan images for photo restoration projects. This area is great because it offers me relaxing views and some incredible natural light (which is killer for photographing food, for example).

Sometimes I’ll use my translucent panels or collapsible reflectors to diffuse the light from the windows and sometimes I’ll use blackout curtains to kill the light completely. For product photography this has been a really handy space for me to use.

In the case of my wine bottle I needed to go with the full blackout curtains. The reason? The dark wine bottle (filled with it’s dark red wine) was super reflective and showed me absolutely everything in the room. While I know that I need some reflections (and I’ll talk about those in a bit) too many reflections is just a distraction. Here’s a quick look at what the dark wine bottle looked like before I darkened the room and started to deal with the room reflections:

You can attempt to remove the reflections in Photoshop but that can take forever (and still look very artificial). If you’re going to spend that kind of time in post-production you might as well take advantage of the 3D capabilities in Photoshop and build a wine bottle from scratch.

Another issue you can see is how the reflections are creating some serious color casts. With the green trees and blue skies outside of my windows you end up with a lot of blue on the bottom of the bottle (and on my white table) and you can see a lot of green along the top of the bottle. I know how to remove these color casts in Photoshop but it’s faster to close a curtain or two than it is to go in and do a full color correction in post-production.

Foam Board

Something I own a lot of is white and black foam board. They cost about $4-$10 each depending on the size and are available at most hobby stores and office supply stores. I’ve even seen 2’x4′ foam board at dollar stores. I keep plenty in my studio and I take some with me on every shoot.

Foam board is super useful for creating fill light, blocking stray light and I also use foam board for backgrounds or for a placement table. For this shoot I used two pieces of white foam board for a table and a background. To hold the background board I used one of my clip clamps and an umbrella bracket on a light stand. This setup gives me plenty of flexibility for getting the look I need. Here’s a closer look at how I position my foam board backgrounds:

By using this system I can make quick changes to the foam board or I can change the angle of my background. A small change to the angle of that background piece of foam board can make a big difference to the reflections on the wine bottle and even help contrast by keeping some reflected light off the front of the camera lens.

Controlling Reflections and Shaping Your Light

Controlling your reflections can be probably the single biggest problem to solve with product photography. Before I started my own photography business I worked at Ford Design North America and I learned a lot about photographing cars from the in-studio photographer, Gene. It’s super tricky because reflections can communicate shape but too much can just become a huge distraction. The solution is usually a combination of reflection control and artificial lighting. In my product studio it started with using blackout curtains and turning off any lights. Then I brought in my own flashes to light the scene and create reflections in a very specific shape.

Above I mentioned that reflections can communicate shape. With something shaped like a wine bottle the roundness of the bottle means that it will reflect almost everything to the sides and even behind the camera. If you’re adding in your own light the shape of your light modifier can make a huge difference. To give you an example I took a shot with a standard studio umbrella. Umbrellas are well known for giving forgiving light in the studio but in this case it created a huge (and very unusual looking) reflection on the bottle. Here’s a look at how I set up a single umbrella for a shot:

And here’s a quick look at what the reflection of the umbrella on the wine bottle looked like in the shot.

You can clearly see the unique white shape of the umbrella reflected on the bottle. And it’s not just once. The shape of the bottle means that you’ll have a smaller reflection of the umbrella further up on the bottle. Overall the exposure is fine but those reflections are a total distraction (and will take some serious work to remove in Photoshop).

So what’s the best way to light a wine bottle? Most photographers will tell you that using strip lights is the best solution.

A strip light or a strip shaped soft box is a light source that is much taller than it is wide. I’ve used them in the past and they’re totally awesome for getting control of your light. I’ve used them as rim lights, hair lights and for just about any situation where you need a light source that is narrower than you’d get from a standard square or octa shaped softbox.

But if you don’t have one handy there’s plenty of solutions for making a strip shaped light source. One way is to use a ton of gaffers tape to cover part of your light source. Another solution (and one I favor) is to use a flag to change the shape of the light. When I photographed my wine bottles I used black foam board and some clamps to turn my light sources into quick strip shaped soft boxes. Here’s a quick look at my setup for the wine bottle shoot:

With the shape of my light sources figured out I just needed to eliminate the last of my room reflections. My solution was to drape some heavy black cloth behind the camera. With some clamps and two 8 foot light stands I was able to completely eliminate the last of my room reflections from the bottle. Here’s a look at my black cloth in use:

It might look silly but believe me when I say that it really helps to keep reflections off the bottle. You can also see that I was using an on-camera flash to optically trigger my two strip shaped light sources. I placed a bounce card on the flash to prevent it from being reflected on the front of my bottle.

At this point it’s time to start taking shots and making small adjustments to the light position, light power and anything else that can help the final picture. The best way to do this kind of photography is shooting tethered and getting a large look at the image (instead of using the LCD on the back of your camera). You can even trigger the camera remotely to make sure you don’t end up being reflected in the shot.

There were still some small details that needed attention in Photoshop but overall my time in post-production was very minimal. After all of the setting up and making little adjustments here’s what the final image looked like (including post processing in Photoshop):

In summary, this kind of photography is very much about controlling reflections and not about trying to eliminate all of the reflections. Don’t forget that we can communicate a lot about shape with good control of the reflections and our lights. In this case I was able to tell the story about the shape of this wine bottle by using strip shaped light sources on either side of the bottle. Without those reflections the bottle just becomes a lifeless black shape with a label. A studio environment is a great place to get the maximum control of your lighting and reflections and it will allow you to experiment with different setups and techniques.

Every new product you photograph will have a unique shape so it will have it’s own challenges. Unfortunately, there’s no single thing that always gets you perfect results so I experiment with different setups and I try different techniques until I find the magical combination that gives me the results I’m looking to achieve.

If you’re interesting in trying out product photography then you’ll need to bring along your patience and be ready to see some pictures that let you down before you land a stellar image. Sometimes it can be frustrating but when you do get a killer shot you’ll say to yourself: “that was worth all the trouble.”

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