Photo Shoot Ride-along - Photographing Cocktails

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!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mike Newton teaches photography learning shortcuts and other photo hacks at Hacking Photography. He is a full-time advertising photographer in San Diego California. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, or his personal photography site.

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks for the article!

  • Michael Owens

    Just like the headshot article, I found this interesting, detailed and most of all, felt like I was there!


  • Ranch Wife

    This is absolutely helpful! I love tagging along virtually and appreciate you breaking down the details of each shot. Thanks so much!

  • Awesome! I’ll keep ’em coming if they are helpful.

  • Great feedback, I’ll start cranking out some more live photo shoot posts.

  • My pleasure.

  • Wilson Anthony

    Thanks for the walk-through. I’m a beginner and learnt quite a bit from your article 🙂

  • Jason Dries

    Nice. Thanks for helping me learn. I’ve tried shots like this and I’m positive that I can do better now!

  • Absolutely! I’ve found that lighting in layers is the best way to approach most scenes. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Happy to help Wilson 🙂

  • Michael Owens

    I look forward to them. Thanks!

  • Alex Hamer

    Concise, informative and chronological. Thank you!

  • Tim Lowe

    I love these shots and the article is great as it shows the thought process in getting the proper shot. I have a favorite bar that I visit every time I’m in the US. I love shooting the line of shot glasses that are always lined up on the working side of the bar.

  • Greg

    Mike, this article was very helpful. I have the equipment and now I have the how-to. Can’t wait to try it out. Look forward to more from you. Thanks.

  • Thanks @alexhamer:disqus, I find simple is best.

  • Very cool shot! Where was the bar located?

  • Thanks Greg, I’d love to see any follow up photos you take!

  • Tim Lowe

    Martini Room, Elgin, IL. Just outside Chicago

  • Debbie Langer Borato

    Loved this. However, I think I actually the back ground on the dark side with just the color of the bottle coming out. Nice

  • That could work too!

  • Concise and to the point–I loved it! Thanks for taking us on your walk through, Mike. I have one comment about these particular cocktail photos though. I personally thought the background was too busy and it actually took away from the center piece of the photo–the cocktail! It’s probably a matter of personal taste, but I would have also taken photos in front of a slightly more neutral background with less bokeh, or maybe used those colored block windows as an alternative background just for the sake of mixing it up.

  • Thanks Suzi-Pratt.

    I think it is a matter of personal taste. I found that having an almost dark background was boring, especially given the vibrance of this restaurant’s interior (which the client wanted to accentuate in the shoot brief.)

    There wasn’t really any neutral space in the very small venue and the colored block windows cast incredibly mixed colored light as they are opaque. Each color would have mixed into the cocktail and made it look fairly psychedelic 🙂

    Overall I was trying to help them differentiate from the ubiquitous ‘soft window light’ cocktail photos that are so often used both in the San Diego market and in publications like Imbibe Magazine.

    Unrelated note: your website design is awesome!

  • Ahh, yes I can totally see the similarities to Imbibe’s style. I’m relatively new to cocktail photography since restaurant interiors are more my focus (I loved the restaurant photos on your site, btw! The design styles are so different from those in Seattle); I love gaining new perspectives on different styles. Thanks for the followup 🙂

  • Randy Beers

    Alternate title: “Shooting Shots and Shooters”
    Great article!

  • combatbootz
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