Beer Photography

When two of life’s great things collide it’s normal the outcome can either be a disaster, like mixing custard and fish fingers, or an utter joy to behold. Luckily for us the combination of cold, frothy beer, lighting and the click of a camera is the latter. Actually my eldest daughter did try fish fingers and custard out of curiosity because Dr Who ate it, and she reported that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I’ll take her word for it and stick to beer.

I bought a big box of Greene King’s finest with the intention of photographing them to build up my portfolio. I went for bottles as I wanted the challenge of illuminating the inside of the bottle too.

My setup is fairly simple

  • A small table
  • A vinyl backdrop used to create an infinity curve
  • Three speedlites
    • Light A – on the right of the product in a big octagonal soft box, placed high above the product to light the scene
    • Light B – placed to the left, in a strip soft box, with a large diffusion panel between the soft box and the subject
    • Light C – a smaller speedlite hand-held to give directional lighting for illuminating the inside of the bottle
  • A piece of gold reflective card

From the outset I knew that I wanted an even lighting on the label, a gradient highlight on the left of the bottle and a glow coming from inside the bottle. I didn’t want to illuminate the bottle from behind, I wanted something more subtle, so would use light reflected from gold card and create a composite in Photoshop.

As the beer I chose (Old Speckled Hen) is a medium brown colour, not as light as an IPA, but not as dark as some ales and certainly nowhere near a stout, I wanted a background that complimented the colour. The label is red and white with black lettering, so the choice of background had to work with this too. I chose a wooden look backdrop (named Warm Oak), placing one end on the table and curving the far end up against a wall holding it in place with blutack. It created the overall look I wanted, but it is a slightly reflective surface so I knew I would have to alter it slightly in post and that I would want to use a shallower depth of field than I normally would do for product photos to give some separation between the subject and background.

Background set up, product in place, I set about my lighting. I used a speed lite in a octagonal softbox placed high above the subject to illuminate the entire scene and produce an even light on the label. Ignore all the clutter on the right of the image, it’s nothing to do with the lighting setup – I should have moved it out of the way and regretted it later as it caused a horrible reflection in the glass that I didn’t notice until I came to editing.

With my main light set up I took a couple of practise shots, to get the lighting at the right power and in the right place. I normally start with one light and then add lights as I need to. In this case the main light just needed turning down a touch, and I needed to alter the angle of the scrim (the diffusion panel) on the left.

With out the scrim the light is a hard line, which can be altered by moving the position of the softbox in relation to the subject. Move slightly behind and the line appears close to the edge of the subject. Turning the softbox towards the camera and away from the subject places less of the light on the subject and creates a thinner line, turning it towards the subject makes the line thicker, However you may illuminate the background if you turn it too far. Using the scrim creates a gradient. The image in the middle uses a single diffusion panel for the scrim, the one on the right uses two and really softens the light. I would have liked top have moved the light more behind the bottle at this point, but I was stuck for space as I was using the back wall to hold the background so couldn’t move the light stand any further back. Serves me right for been lazy and not using a pole on a light stand to hold the background so I could move everything around.

After a couple of adjustments I got the light on the left the way I wanted it and the label was nicely lit. I didn’t like the big highlight on the bottle, and there was a bit of a sheen on the background. Both would have to be fixed in post. I could have used a polarising sheet and a circular polariser to get rid of this and I’ll show that in another blog. The image I ended up with for the main shot was this.

It’s a reasonable starting point, but needs some work. There’s some blemishes to remove from the bottle and a reflection on the right of one of my diffusion sheets. I only noticed this as editing time.

The other shot I needed for my composite was some light inside the bottle. I chose to use a piece of gold reflective card to give a warm glow and bounce a flash off this. I placed the card behind the bottle and made a curve out of it. I took several shots from different angles to give me a better choice in post later.

For the glow inside the bottle I turned off the other two lights and used just the one light and hand held it. I also placed a grid on the light to give it more direction and less spread.

The result was this.  I wouldn’t be using this at full brightness, it would be painted in selectively by using masks and with the opacity turned right down.

So I had my main image and the glow images and it was time to put it all together in Photoshop.

I imported all of my images into Lightroom, selected the ones I wanted and then opened them in Photoshop. I created a new image using ‘save as’ for the main image photo, and then move the other images to it , each on their own layer.

I ended up with the following:

  • Paths for both the bottle and the label, using the pen tool. I would use these to create masks later.
  • A duplicate of the background where I removed the top corners with the patch tool to remove the light patches from the wall behind the backdrop.
  • A layer containing just the bottle from the main image
  • A duplicate of the bottle layer that I used for retouching marks on the product
  • 5 glow images, grouped in a folder so I could control them independently and as a group.
  • Various adjustment layers to alter contrast, highlights, etc.

Each of the glow images had a mask applied so it would only appear inside the bottle and not affect the background. I masked out both the background and the label for these glow images. I also adjusted the opacity to around 5% on each, or less depending on the image as some where a lot brighter than others. The effect I was looking for with the glow was very subtle and not the traditional back illuminated look for bottles.

This is without the glow

And this is with the glow. The effect is very subtle, but you do notice it on the final image and the product looks less flat.

I also chose to darken down the background a little as there was too much glare from the main light. I will try this again when I have a polariser and share the results. This is the final image. I deliberately left some space on the right as copy space.

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  1. Nice one, Shaun. Very good and informative with a great final image. Next subject has got to be a bowl of custard with some fish fingers sticking out !

  2. It’s really fascinating to see how you imagine and then create the shot, both with the set-up and the editing process.

  3. Fascinating and very helpful – and now I’m thirsty! Thanks Shaun.

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