Photographing Liquor Bottles | Behind the Scenes of a Product Shoot

For this blog entry I want to talk about Photographing Liquor Bottles and give a look Behind the Scenes of a Product Shoot. After my recent trip to Kentucky I wanted to take some pictures of some special bottles of bourbon I received at the Maker’s Mark distillery. The bourbon inside the bottles was aged in a barrel that had my name on it (along with names of some other really cool Maker’s Mark Ambassadors). I was surprised to learn that I’d be putting custom labels on the bottles before I dipping them into the signature red wax to seal them. I’ll be sharing my experience at the distillery in a future blog post.

For this blog post I’ll be sharing my techniques for setting up and lighting a product in my studio. It may seem simple but when the goal is to create a specific look for your final shot it can get super complicated really fast. For the shot above I used a total of 5 flashes (three groups each set to different power levels).

the Design Phase

Product photography is a unique category of photography. Most of the time you’re shooting in a very controlled environment like a studio. The challenge isn’t illuminating your subject completely but selectively. Another challenge is dealing with reflections (especially when you’re photographing highly reflective surfaces like glass). I’ve always felt that the best product photography has incredibly complicated lighting that isn’t obvious in the final image. This kind of photography may seem easy but it takes plenty of time and patience as you make small adjustments to the products and to your lights.

My personal workflow has always been to start with an idea and to slowly build up a lighting scheme. For my bourbon bottle shoot I tried a number of different setups (one bottle, two bottles, with a rocks glass, etc.). I call this the design phase of my shoot. Here’s a look at some different setups as I looked to find my final orientation of the bottles:

During the design phase I’m not really worried about how the lighting looks. I’m more concerned with the products, their placement, my lens choice and where the camera goes.  When I do product photography the camera gets placed on a tripod and it doesn’t move until the shoot is over.

Whenever I’m shooting products I prefer to use a long lens. 85mm or higher should give you an image with minimal geometric distortion. Anything lower than a 50mm lens will introduce geometric distortions making things look strange (and that can really upset most clients). Super wide angle lenses are off limits. My focal length for this shoot was 100mm.

Camera Settings and Light Control

Once I get a setup I like I turn all of my flashes off and I put my camera into manual mode. Usually I choose a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second at ISO 200. With the shutter speed and sensitivity set I’ll dial in an aperture setting that gives me a black frame. In this case my aperture was f16. Here’s a look at the setup after I dialed in my settings:

Perfect! Now I can start to build the scene by bringing in flashes one at a time and adjusting their power levels until I arrive at the shot as I envision it. I like to start with my main lights (flash group A) and find a setting that opens up shadows but doesn’t light the scene too much. For this shoot I used two flashes (one on either side) and to soften the light I used 30″ shoot-through umbrellas. Here’s a look at the scene with the same camera settings and the two main lights added in:

If you think it still looks dark you’re right. I’m choosing this light level for my main lights because I want to be able to direct my viewers attention within the photograph. I’ll do this by using two more flashes to make the labels of the bottles a little brighter than the rest of the image. The trick to making this work is to use a light modifier to control exactly where the light will go. Two great tools for controlling flash output are snoots and grids. For this shoot I used two flashes with 1/8″ grids. I talked about grids in another blog post here.

Adding Accent Lights

To add just a little bit of light to the labels I added two flashes (flash group B) with very tight grids installed on the flash heads. Here’s a look at the same shot but with the addition of the two flashes:

This little bit of extra light makes the labels a just bit brighter than other areas of the image and that brings a viewers attention to them first. You may also notice that I made the light on the left bottle just a bit brighter than the light I used on the right bottle. This was done to subconsciously lead a viewer through the picture starting with the brightest bottle label and then taking them through the glass to the right bottle and then to the large bag in back.

By using a tight grid on the label flashes I was able to put the light exactly where I wanted it and I kept additional light spill to a minimum. I chose a low placement for the label flashes so that I didn’t create new shadows. Here’s a look at a where one of the label flashes was positioned:

You can see in this shot how the flash was placed low, turned 90 degrees and had a 1/8″ grid installed to put light exactly where I wanted the light to go. Both of the label flashes were set to the same power and zoom settings but the flash for the right bottle had a 1/2 cut of neutral density gel attached to lower the amount of light a little bit.

Adding in a Background Light

Now the shot is looking close to how I envisioned it. The only problem I see now is that the large bag is getting a bit lost in the dark grey paper background I used. The solution was adding in a background light (flash group C). Here’s a look at the shot after I placed a fifth flash behind the bag:

I really like how this looks. There is good separation of the background from the subjects and it’s adding a nice glow to the bag without being distracting. To make this happen I placed a flash behind the large bag and I used a sto-fen diffuser to get a nice spread of light. To get the look I wanted the power level was turned all the way down on this flash. Here’s a behind the scenes look at the background light:

You can see the flash and the radio trigger I used but what might be harder to see is the piece of white foam board placed between the flash and the bag. The white foam board eliminated color casts from the flash hitting any colored parts of the large bag (which had a lot of Maker’s Mark red on it). You can also see the blackout curtains I use in my studio to keep outside light from contaminating the shot.

Here’s a behind the scenes shot of the entire lighting setup (with the exception of the flash used to light up the right bottle label):

Finishing the Shot

Now all that remains is some time in post-production to clean up any stray reflections, fix any problems with my paper and to apply some final touches that will create the final look. For my final image I added a bourbon colored cast to the edges of the shot in Photoshop. Here’s a look at the final image.

You can purchase grids like the ones I used to highlight the labels in this shoot on here. To hold a grid on your flash you’ll need a speed strap like this one.

You can find my blog post about using grids here.

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