Cocktail Photography

A while back, I reviewed Artisanal Cocktails, by Scott Beattie, with photographer Sara Remington. Not everyone liked the book as much as I did, but I have yet to read anyone who was less than in love with the Sara’s cocktail photography. As a result, I’ve communicated with her a bit, and pestered her with a bunch of questions about photographing drinks, and she has been more than generous with her time in responding to my questions.
Since this is Tiki Month, and one of the cool things about Tiki drinks are how elaborate they look, I thought this would be a good time to share her thoughts about how to photograph cocktails. Hopefully, if you like taking pictures of your drinks, or anything else for that matter, you can find some useful words here.
If you want to find out more about Sara, or see more pictures than those I’ve borrowed to illustrate this piece, you can visit her professional website. You can also see some other work on her blog. Besides Artisanal Cocktails, you can also see her work in the chocolate chapter of Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking. Two books forthcoming this year are Rustic Fruit Desserts and The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook.

It’s a long article, so I’ll tuck the Q&A under the fold.
It’s been a while since I wrote up an interview, so I hope everyone (especially Sara) will forgive the slightly rambling nature of this one.
Q: What kind of camera do you use for your work, and how is your studio set up and lit?

Lately for most, if not all, of my work, I shoot digitally and use a Canon 5D. I just bought the new 5D Mark II that’s 26 megapixels, so this sensor is perfect for larger projects (ie billboards, if need be). I rarely shoot film anymore nor does the client ask for film (I have to fight for it where I see necessary) but when I do, I shoot with a Hasselblad H2 and Provia 120 film. I have an array of macro lenses I use for both film and digital, and have been experimenting with tilt shift lenses as well.

Q: Do you shoot in RAW? For those of us who don’t bother, is there any real benefit we should consider if our photos are by and large going to be displayed on the web, rather than in print?

I always shoot in RAW because, in general, the files are larger and give much more leeway if and when they are considered for stock usage. You should always consider the long term future use of an image, not just the immediate future, because when the time comes and a client would like to use an image in TIFF form, you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t shoot RAW and you only have a jpeg version! But yes, in theory, there is no real need to shoot in RAW if you’re just going to be using it for web, but why not take a bit of extra time to shoot in RAW, then convert to jpeg when needed?

{I’ve taken this advice and found no problems with RAW. I was concerned about space, but with today’s dirt-cheap memory chips, there is plenty of room for lots of pictures even in RAW. I intend to leave my camera on RAW full time now, except for when I’m traveling and need to keep several days of pictures of my daughters with no way to download them. Just check and make sure your photo software will handle the format!}
Q: How much work do you do in Photoshop on your shots? The colors are simply amazing. Is this post-processing, or a function of lighting and camera settings?

I actually don’t do a ton of color work on the images, just a bit of a bump in the contrast and levels, but I try and correct everything in camera whenever possible.

Q: In the case of lighting and camera settings, I assume you aren’t just flipping the dial to “P” and hitting the shutter. What kind of manual settings do you use, and do you set them completely manually?

No way! Never use the P setting; everything is on manual. This gives you full control of what you want to focus on: metering for the shadows, for the highlights, etc. From there, I just bracket different exposures. There is no ‘formula’ that I specifically use; I just experiment with various apertures, going with a more shallow depth of field depending on what the client is looking for, if I think it makes the food look more attractive, etc.

{This answer really opened my eyes, and my methods. I never used full manual back in my film days, because I simply didn’t have the skill to do better than the program mode, nor the expertise to know how to take advantage of controlling depth of field, etc. I still don’t have the skills or expertise, but with digital and a good viewfinder, I don’t need it! It simply had not occurred to me how instant, free examination of your shot allows you to play around and get better looking shots. And turn off the auto-focus too. You will not be sorry!}
Q: Do you suppose that the small studio box kits from places like Hammacher Schlemmer are worth using? And what are the basic elements we’d need to decently light our shots?

To be honest, I hardly ever light my images. Every single shot on my website and in the cocktails book is completely naturally lit. I have various bounces (silver, white, gold, a mix of all three, ect.) that I use, along with a scrim here and there if the light is too direct or bright, but natural light is the absolute best to make food and drink look like it has personality. I’ve seen lighting masters replicate the look of natural light 100% in window-less studios, but living in California where the sunshine is plentiful, why not take advantage of it?
I’ve never used those studio box kits either, because I want to keep the subject that I’m shooting in an environment that looks natural, not force it into something that it would not normally be in. Unless you’re very, very tech and light box saavy, it just looks forced, fake, uncomfortable, and, to put it bluntly, just not that pretty!

{For us Basement Bar mixers, this advice is good but often useless. Also, I usually only mix at night, so I may still break down and ask for a light box for my birthday.}

Q: You use a narrow, sometimes incredibly narrow depth of field, which I just love. Is this all from your lens and light settings, or do you enhance this effect in post-processing?

Every shot that has a shallow depth of field I shoot in camera, nothing in photoshop. I achieve this by, basically, shooting at f4.5 or below.
You can achieve the same effect with a 4×5 view camera or a tilt shift lens as well. I prefer to capture all the effects in the shot (lighting, shallow depth of field, etc.) in camera, because it reduces the need for more processing in post which can take up a huge amount of time, especially on a larger shoot.

Q: Do you do your own styling? If not, do you work with a regular collaborator?

When the client doesn’t have a budget for a stylist, I usually do my own prop styling. But I hardly ever do my own food styling on plated dishes.
The occasional time that I do, however, it’s with an ingredient, say, some chocolate powder on a spoon. But for the most part, there are so many amazing stylists out there that can do above and beyond what I would be able to do. I try and work with the same people each shoot, but occasionally, there’s a shoot that would fit a particular stylist I like perfectly. I like to create a team and family so not only do I know what to expect, be we all have fun on a job and respect each other’s talents equally.

Q: Cocktail glasses, champagne flutes, etc are irregularly shaped and don’t fill in the visual landscape very well. How do you compensate for (or take advantage of) this? For instance, are there specific angles you prefer for certain shapes of glasses?

It’s true; there are a lot of glasses and flutes that don’t fit the format of a page that well. Shooting drinks is really tough, not only because of the fussiness of the glasses, but because the food styling has to happen in a matter of seconds; the drinks change so quickly. I don’t have a particular ‘formula’ except to stay away from those poorly styled and poorly lit cocktail books that are way over the top with little trinkets, umbrellas, paper things, and funny napkins!

Q: In many pictures, you photograph a pair of drinks, or multiples of a food item. What prompts this decision?

In many shots, I use multiple drinks and glasses because, well, it just looks better! It fills in the space and makes the composition more interesting, gives it more personality, etc. It’s a decision the stylist and I make on a shoot, but nothing is set in stone. We just push glasses, napkins, and other props around until we feel it’s right and works with the size of the book, the page of the magazine, etc.

Q: Oftentimes the garnish is much more exciting than the cocktail itself; do you struggle with how to balance the two, or are you ok with making the garnish the highlight of the photo? {This question came from Rick Stutz of the blog Kaiser Penguin. If you read KP at all, you’ll understand this question!}

I often times concentrate on the garnish if and only if the drink is slightly bland, doesn’t have a lot of color, etc. Same goes with interesting props, but trying not to go overboard and make the prop or the garnish the hero, because then the drink may get lost. It’s just a decision I make on set as well. Another interesting thing to do is pre-chill the glasses (see below).

Q: You capture condensation particularly well. Do you pre-chill the glasses? In general, how do you get such nice, attractive condensation, and capture it before it drips? Are there any tips for capturing frost and condensation without its blocking the view of the drink?

To do this, we … stick the glasses in the freezer for about 10 minutes. Sometimes when the glasses are pulled out, the frost is a bit much, so waiting a few minutes opens them up and creates a beautiful, subtle condensation that I occasionally use as the main focus.

Q:For those who are limited to the more simple of the point and shoot cameras, are there setups, layouts, angles, etc. that will work with those limitations?
For those with prosumer or higher-end SLRs, what are some fancier shots to try to show off with?

To get this professional food and beverage look as a beginner, you at least have to have a digital SLR with a fixed macro lens. I suggest starting with the Canon Rebel or the Canon 20D, a 50mm 2.5 macro lens, a simple tripod, some natural light, and a small, white or silver bounce.
Start simple, simple, simple. Shoot something beautiful that doesn’t need much work, like a bunch of gorgeous red and yellow beets, sprayed with a bit of water.

Thank you very much, Sara! OK, everybody, get out there and show us your drinks!

UPDATE: Welcome readers of Serious Eats, and Still Life With…! While you are here, why not look around? You’ll find a few nice drink photos, and a bunch of mediocre ones. And lots of fun stuff about cocktails and the cocktail life!

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

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