Shooting pictures of beer

I was recently asked to do a series of product shots for a chain of micro-brew restaurants in Western Canada and thought it might be a good chance to share a little ‘behind-the-scenes’ info. I’ve worked with this company before, having done work at their brewery this past winter. The last time I was in one of their new locations, I had to do a double take as they have used a dozen or so of my images blown up way larger than life and used as artwork.

This kind of work is always fun, and it doesn’t hurt that the beer they make is delicious. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when I got the call to come pick up a few cases of beer, assortment of glassware, fruit, and instructions of what they’re looking for in the final images. It’s handy to have somebody from the company on set, especially a graphic designer who will be using the images later, to help guide the shoot. In this case, it could’ve saved me a bit of work after the fact – more on this later.

The basics of the shoot were to cover the range of their products, both on a clean white & a clean black background. Seems simple enough, but when shooting liquids and glassware, certain considerations have to be taken. The most important thing is to start with a clean camera sensor, clean glasses, clean lenses, clean backdrops, etc… get the picture? In the last ten years of shooting, it’s become more and more obvious how important it is to get the shot right ‘in-camera’, rather than allow oneself to slip into the mindset of just leaving it to the post production (also known as the “just-photoshop-it” move).

The first round of beers went smoothly, following the list of instructions, and once I got the necessary shots I was able to play around with the product and get some more angles to work with. Slicing the perfect orange/lemon for their respective beers is easy. Trying to convince bobbing raspberries and blueberries to play nice is not so easy. On the plus side, if they didn’t work out, I could always drink the subject and start over. One of the things I neglected to pay close enough attention to was the amount of head on the beer.

When looking at a shot of something like beer, one of the more important aspects is the head. Too much and it looks like a sloppy pour. Too little, and it looks like somebody has already been drinking from it. I’ve learned that the color of the beer has a direct correlation to the amount of head it produces, and how long it stays. During the first round of shooting, I was doing some adjustments while the beer sat under the lights – and the final product didn’t look like I wanted it to. In the end, this happened with a number of set-ups, and I re-shot them for the client.

On the plus side, I noticed a couple other things I wanted to do differently in this second shoot. As I mentioned earlier, glass can be a difficult material to work with. It has the wonderful tendency to reflect everything around it – and if one is not careful, everything you don’t want to be reflected will be. Another thing I had to contend with was the separation of the glass from the background, especially important with dark beers as they tended to vanish into the black backdrop with ease. To counteract this, I would place two small cylinders of paper just out of shot to give the glass a subtle catch light – outlining the shape of the glass and providing separation.

Also, to get a better image of the colour of the different beers, I experimented with a couple different ways of getting light through the glass back to the camera. The first time I did the shoot, I had a snooted light coming through from behind. This worked, but tended to be too hot on one side and dark on the other. The second time I did the shoot, I instead placed a similarly shaped piece of paper that would catch the light straying in behind the glass coming from my key light – a 24″ softbox at camera right.

Finally, for lens choices, I knew I wanted these shots to have as much detail as possible, so it was an easy pick to pull out the Nikkor 105mm VR macro lens – really well suited to shoots like this. With the aperture dialed in, I was shooting at f36 (& smaller) – giving me amazing depth of field, & incredibly sharp images. In fact, the first round was shot with this lens as well and the client couldn’t believe the level of detail. It’s especially important to get this level of detail if you know the images will be enlarged substantially. It also gives the graphic designer the option of using a section of the image, if even more focus is needed on a specific detail of the product.

All in all, it was a fun project to take on, and I’ve heard the images will be used in a number of ways. It’s always fun to walk into a restaurant, open up a menu and know what went into making the shot that draws your attention to a particular product.

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