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Photo Shoot Ride-along – Photographing Cocktails

In this article you are going to join me on a real client photo shoot photographing cocktails and learn how we created the final images. You can see a previous ride-along doing head shots on a white background here.


Client brief

The client is a 1960’s Tiki themed cocktail bar in downtown San Diego. They just revamped their cocktail menu and needed photos for advertising, marketing, social media, and PR.

Setting up

The bar is to the left of some foldable colored glass windows. I decided to open these windows to let in some natural light to the bar top. I didn’t get a photo with the windows open as I was in a rush, but here is the bar setup:


With these windows open there was nice soft, indirect lighting.  I decided quickly that I wanted to use the back of the bar as the background.

Selecting the aperture

I grabbed a glass with pineapple leaf garnishes for a quick test. I set my camera on the bar, selected aperture priority, set the glass in front of it, shot at f/20, and got this:


Meh. After seeing this I decided I didn’t want to see all the details in the background because it was competing with the glass. I dialled the aperture to f/3.5 and took another test shot:


Much better. The glass was being lit from the natural light coming through the windows to the right of the glass. The problem was that the back bar was too dark.

If I overexposed to get the background brighter then the glass would have been overblown. The solution? Use a strobe to light the background.

Lighting the background

Now that I had the cocktail the way I wanted it, I needed to throw some light on that background. I recomposed the photo and got this:


I grabbed an Alien Bee 800 strobe and popped on a 40 degree grid to keep the light beam tight.  I didn’t want the light to spread over the whole area, just the back bar. I placed the light on the far left side of the bar and popped the flash.  Note: I didn’t end up using that umbrella.


You can see the back bar was now lit up.


Much better! It wasn’t quite there yet, but we were getting closer.

The light from the strobe wasn’t evenly spread across the background. See the hot spot of highlights on the top left side in the photo above?  That needed to go.

I angled the strobe so the light would cast across the background instead of just the left side.  I grabbed another garnish glass and took a test shot:


Much better. Now I had the background the way I wanted it. From there it was simply a matter of composition.


I had been planning on filling the frame with each cocktail vertically until the client mentioned they wanted space to the side of each photo to write editorial content.

Instead of shooting with my 100mm f/2.8 macro lens I shot this all on a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.


How cool is that garnish? A dolphin playing with a ball in its mouth – awesome. This left some room off to the right for editorial content.


I decided to switch this up and leave some space on the other side. This is helpful for magazines that alternate left and right pages.


Sometimes breaking the rules is fun.  Shooting this cocktail straight down the middle clearly makes it the focus but still leaves room off to the sides for editorial.


The “hero” shot

Sometimes shooting from a low angle and slightly angling the camera upward can give a cocktail a ‘big’ appearance.


 Wrapping up

All in all it was a pretty straight forward shoot. I had to do a little problem solving with balancing natural light and artificial light, as well as how to best compose the cocktails.

The client is happy with the images and so am I.

Did you find this helpful?

If so, let me know in the comments. I would love to take you on more client photo shoots with me and show you how they come together. Now I’m off to enjoy a nice Tiki cocktail!

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Mike Newton
Mike Newton

teaches photography learning shortcuts and other photo hacks at Hacking Photography.

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