Something I've always wanted to share is more behind-the-scenes action. I actually never shown a single one of my photos before the final product. It's never been that I have anything to hide, it's been that I don't believe clients need to see any scratch work. But I believe part of your duty as someone who is in the process of mastering a craft, to teach those who follow you. As more photographers learn, we all grow; Photography grows. Teaching makes me both a better teacher *and* photographer.
I mostly do portrait work, but it can be tough juggling ethics when showing before/after with people. The problem lies in that the more intensive the post-production, the more I want to share how it's done, but the more I feel it's not fair to show a client's flaws in such a dramatic fashion. It's pretty incredible how good you think something looks "straight out of camera", but after you tweak and polish... it's only after you look at the original you realize how flawed it really was. So while I work up to people, we'll start with some product photography. I can offend no one except myself... and mostly my glass-cleaning abilities. Okay, seriously, photographing glass is the hardest thing in the world... but we'll get to that in a minute.
I love product photography. It's the ultimate learning experience. If you want to learn how to light... well, anything... photograph static objects. Take your time. Experiment. You should never practice on paying clients, and objects are way better than clients anyway. They do exactly what you want them to do and on your own time. In this example, we're going to be taking a photo of some alcohol: my favorite products to photograph. There are literally entire magazines filled with alcohol. Whether you drink or not, they are fascinating subjects. You've got the social factor of class and prestige, combined with the fact that it's something that is (should be) consumed on the merit of taste and we want to convey that to our viewer. We've got goals as far as the subject matter, and in addition to that, we've got the challenge. The big one is glass. Glass is shiny. Glass is clear. But at the same time, we don't want to it be too shiny, and at the same time, we want it to look like glass. I will say right now, this is NOT about photographing glass. I'm terrible at it and have a lot to learn myself. I ended up cheating a bit in post, but I did my best not to have to.
Anyway, I set up my scene. First, I knew I was going to use two lights. My main was a Nikon SB-900 thru a 22" beauty dish with a cloth cover, which creates a soft box effect. Why not use a soft box? Since I'm using one key and my subjects are small, I can point the beauty dish down from above creating a nice wash of main light. My second light is going to be a rim light. It's really a glorified rim since it's going to do a few things. It's going to add dimension with angles and shadows, it's going to add color to the alcohol, it's going to add shine to the glass, and it's going to fill in some shadows. With my lights set up, now I set up my subject. I'm shooting a Kentucky bourbon whiskey. When I think of bourbon, different feelings and emotions come to mind. I think warm and I think woody... both in taste and vision. So I get a cutting board with a really nice wood pattern to be my base. I like the drama of a black background so I find one that is relatively so. I'm not too worried about small things showing up, because I know it's easy to just black them out, but we want to get as much right IN camera, because that's less work later. Whiskey is a gorgeous golden "maple syrup" color and I want to convey it's warm color, with the warm color of the wood, so I'm going to use my kicker/rim with a tungsten filter making the light even warmer. I'm going to keep my key bare because I don't want the image to just look... orange. I still want that dimension. It's okay to mix light for that. Again, be sure to experiment to find what works best for your setup and your subject.
As far as the composition of the image, I'm trying to make this look as delicious as possible, and I want people to want it, and in particular, want this particular brand and product. Logo needs to be front and center. The drink itself needs to be "ready to drink", so I've actually prepared a glass, put some whiskey rocks (soapstone kept in the freezer to keep your drink cool and unwatered down) in it, and poured a proper 2oz pour. When you're shooting products, think "real life." I left the cap off and set it in front of the bottle. Everything from the coaster's position, to the uncapped bottle, to the distance of the glass from the bottle, to the direction of the odd-shaped glass were all conscious decisions to achieve my goal. With product photography, your subject isn't going to get tired, and no detail is too small. Take your time if you have it. If you're on a paid shoot, that's different, but this is about learning right now.
So everything is in order. I snap a few test shots... the lights aligned... and I start shooting away. After about 10-15 different setups (varying bottle, glass, cutting board, and rim light placement), and 30-40 shots, I decide this is my best one:
And you know what? I think it's fairly good. The idea is that we want to get as much right as humanly possible. The most important things to me at this point are that the bottle is well lit, exposure is dead-on, and my composition is rock-solid. Immediately off-the-bat, what would I change (other than general tonality)? Well, it's pretty much all in the glass. The glass is not crystal clear. Well, I promise I did my best, but this is a glass I've had for many years and it's got some minor scratches, and not using gloves, I'm not perfect with my finger prints. The funny thing is that the glass looked spotless in person. Photography with lights will bring out imperfections in your glass you never knew existed. I cannot stress enough how good this glass looked in person. For perfect glass, you'll want to use brand new glass. You'll want to use a lint-free cloth and you may even want to soak and scrub the glass in Windex and let it air-dry. Of course, you won't want to be drinking your product afterwards. In this case, I did, so I had to stay away from chemical cleaners on the inside. 😉
The other big thing I notice is that the whiskey in the glass isn't as pretty as the bottle. I could fix this in-camera by using a third light, but not only was this not an option tonight, but I want to show that this can be done with two. Really, the important thing here is that we exposed to show color in the glass. The issue is that it just isn't bright enough. We will do an easy and convincing adjustment in post to fix that.
So what needs to be done in post? We've got to make this image pop with some contrast, curves, and HSL (hue/saturation/luminance) adjustments... we've got to black out the background... and we've got to fix that dirty glass. No problem.
1. I do a general contrast and clarity boost. Nothing crazy, just trying to give a little pop. Also brought the black levels up to crush the background and make this image look "manly."
2. White balance. I warmed up my key to about 5850K. It's just ever-so-slightly warmer than the 5500K daylight that the bare flash is at, but that rim light is now SUPER warm, since it's daylight balanced at 2850K. But the image itself, while very warm, isn't disgustingly so since only half the light is "very" and the other half is "just." The big thing we see in this is that the cutting board looks gorgeous.
3. I cheated with the glass. I basically cloned out the entire middle of it to match the black background, making the glass look crystal-clear. In order to make it look real, I faded back in the reflections on the left side.
4. I just took an adjustment brush in Lightroom set to Exposure -4.0 and just painted out the distractions in the background.
5. Cloned out little specs of crap here and there.
6. Created a selection of the words "KNOB CREEK" with the magic wand tool, converted it to a layer mask, and made that selection "multiply." Using multiply is a great way to darken features in an image very naturally and organically. It's like if you had a piece of paper on a window, and then you "multiplied" it with a second piece. There would be less light coming through because there is twice as much material. I found that it was just a hair too much darkening, so I then dropped the opacity of the selection about 25%. But it definitely looks natural.
7. Used a colorized brush, matched to the redish-orange of the bourbon, also with a slight exposure boost to color in the whiskey in the glass. Since we already had the color and detail, and we shot at base ISO of 200, we're not sacrificing any quality doing a 1 EV boost in a mid-tone section of the image.
8. Just because I think it looks awesome and dramatic in final presentation, and because the background is TOTALLY black, I extended the entire canvas up to make it a square image. Why else is this good? Because you need to keep in mind magazines when shooting products. You just never know. This image now works in either portrait or landscape... and of course... just looks great in square.
So here you go, the final product:
Is it perfect? Naw. I'd change a couple things, mostly involving the glass. Also, when cloning out the background, it gave me the idea that it would be neat to have a totally "bokeh" background with maybe Christmas lights. On the other-hand, maybe that would be a distraction or not fit the "target demographic." In the end I am pleased... but of course, there are people who do this for a living. There are people who know how to handle glass and have more than two lights on them. There are people who have a team of Photoshop experts who's entire job is to make alcohol look pretty. I just threw it together in my living room because I picked up a Christmas gift set that came with these SWEET leather coasters, and wanted to share how I do this. I hope you're inspired, or at the very least, are better than me and have tips of your own to share.
For bourbon whiskey lovers only: My staple bourbon of choice is Maker's Mark (and Maker's 46), but I think Knob Creek is fantastic. My other favorites are Blanton's, W.H. Harrison Governor's Reserve, and really, I think Buffalo Trace is amazing bang-for-the-buck. The best bourbon I've ever had? For the longest time it was Pappy Van Winkle's 20 Year... but to be totally honest, the Harrison Governor's Reserve is probably the best I've ever had, and at $60 a bottle, is A THIRD the price of the Pappy. Equally amazing is that Harrison is an Indiana bourbon. 😉