Category Archives: Shooting Food

The making of a premium whiskey product shoot

Photographers tell stories, that is what we do with our pictures whether it is a bride or a family portrait. But, we also have to tell a story even if the subject is completely devoid of any emotion such as a product shoot. The photographer has to tell the story or “sell” the story by use of props, product placement, environmental conditions, colors, lighting and shadows. All of this is to evoke a emotional response in the viewer, normally to make them want to buy whatever the product is. This can get very complicated very quickly for the photographer. It’s not just the normal details of F stops or aperture, it is the psychology of of the audience that the photographer must keep in mind. It can be the props to work with the subject, to frame it or enhance it or to give it an emotional hook as it were. The color temperature of the lighting can evoke just as strong of a response as the props can. Soft shadows or hard light can really set off the drama or provide a memory of hazy, lazy summer days.

I recently did a practice product shoot using a favorite whiskey called “Knob Creek“. Now, in my mind, premium whiskey is something enjoyed at the end of the day primarily by men. The name of Knob Creek gave me thoughts of the water used to make whiskey, the wooden barrels used to store it, and just the over all process of making fine whiskey.

So I have two parts of my concept for Knob Creek shoot. I have thoughts of how it’s made and that it would be a manly drink served in the afternoon or evening while thinking about the day. Ok, time to start the process of putting together the subject and the props. First was the subject which was an opened bottle of whiskey. I had an idea of using kraft papper and some charcoal to hook to the idea of how whiskey is made by filtering it through charcoal. I also felt I needed to have a nice heavy glass with some whiskey in it as if it were ready to drink. The kraft paper and charcoal came from the backyard BBQ where I had some hardwood charcoal left over from BBQing last summer. I used a wooden table that I let the kids play on. It is honey toned and has been battered by the kids so it has some “character” in the surface. I set up one SB800 to shoot up and bounce off the ceiling for easy shadows and soft light. Here is the very first image of the session.

Knob Creek Whiskey Produst shoot -1st shot 3200K

It really does not look like very much does it?  So what was next? Well, In my mind’s eye, I wanted things warmer since it was to be late afternoon and I got this by shooting on “shade” white  balance rather than keeping it on automatic or flash. This warmed up the tones very nicely as you can see here.

Knob Creek 2nd shot with adjusted temp 5700K

Now things are working better conceptually for me. But it still needs alot of work to really work as a product shoot. This image does not make you want to buy or drink Knob Creek. So next I decided that I needed  to add some “whiskey” the glass and some ice. Personally speaking, ice offends me in my whiskey but alot of people disagree with that. But, I did not have any fake ice and real ice looks so bad and melts rapidly. Instead of “ice”, I did have “whiskey stones” which are carved stones that you freeze and then drop into the drink to chill it but not dilute it. So now  I have my ice but I need whiskey in the glass. For this shoot, since my kids were watching and I had limited amount of whiskey on hand, I made up some water with two types of yellow food dye which matched very well to the real whiskey. This way, if one of the kids got too curious as I was in and out of the room, no harm would be done.

Knob Creek product shoot with stones and drink

Closer, I’m getting closer but the stones are too white and the background is too blah. So what to do?  I decided that someone who enjoys a premium old school whiskey like Knob Creek would also like to collect vintage items. I happen to restore vintage radios so I grabbed a small one so it would not compete with the subject and put it into the image. Now I also had to work out my fill light since I need some light on the glass, the label and the radio. I used a white board and bounced a second SB800 flash off that and onto my “set”.

Knob Creek product shoot with angle and lighting

I also started to settle on my angle for the hero shot at this point. I also made a fun discovery that by using a manilla envelop as a flag on the first flash firing up to the ceiling, it also put some wonderful amber highlights on the bottle. Who knew? I really liked what I had so far but the background was still lacking some balance.  Again, with thinking of the type of man who would be sitting here with a vintage radio, whiskey stones and classic whiskey, I thought some vintage books would work well.

Knob Creek product shoot with added books and cropping

Now I’m getting to be very happy with the overall look and feel of the image. At 70mm and F4, my depth of field is right about 4 inches which is just enough to keep the bottle in focus and foreground/background out of focus. I also wet the stones so they went more of a black/grey than white.

Now I was able to take this image and do some retouching on it which cleaned up some blue toned reflections that were out of place, darkened up the lettering of the label, removed some reflections on the glass and added a vignette. There also was the normal tonality adjustments and sharpening that takes place with any digital image.

My final image is here. I have a very successful image of tone, product, props and overall “look and feel”. It makes a gorgeous wall print in my office.

Knob Creek  final edits from photoshop


Here is a image showing the progression of the set and shooting.

sequence for knobcreek edited

Here is the set up for the shoot. As you can see, it’s very basic and not complicated at all. This session revolved more around color and props than it did about fancy lighting or accessories like grids and such.
My equipment for this shoot was:

Nikon D700 with a 24-70 F2.8 lens at 70mm and F4 – Two SB800 flashes with Atlas PW clone triggers

ISO 200 and a shutter of 1/125

marked up whiskey set up shot

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Shooting a veggie a day

So today was a practice day for me. I have been threatening for weeks and weeks to shoot some food and today was it. Or at least some of it. I used a 50 dollar battery operated LED video light, a mirror and a home made silk that uses Toughspun. I spent about ten dollars for the various veggies and fruits which is cheap for models. I used a c stand to hold my video light attached to my monopod stand which doubled as a boom. The mirror provided some light from the side and underneath the glass. My post processing was done in Lightroom using a preset that emulated Kodachrome 25 since I wanted that very contrasty punchy look. You can see from the set shot that I didnt do anything special other than clean off the end of the dining room table.

I used my D300 with two lenses. My first lens was a favorite of mine, the 17-55 F2.8 and the second was a Lensbaby composer at F4. My ISO was 400 and I shoot from 1/60 to /1/160. No flash was used, just the video light which I got from Amazon for something like 50 dollars plus 30 for a battery and charger.

When you are shooting something like this, it can be trickier than people at times as the still life does not move at all unless you move it. So you are always on the look out for reflections, lines, composition and so on. You need to worry about color and texture plus what props you are using. Lighting becomes critical for shadows and highlights.

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Shooting Dinner

I tried something different tonight. I spent some time cooking up a dinner from a Food Channel show and it looked so good, I ran to get my camera and took some shots of it. I was also trying to remember some advice I had been reading in a book called Digital Food Photography
. So I attempted a few things with the bare minimum of lighting and the onboard flash.

Before Post Retouching

I used my 17-55 2.8 first wide open but really did not like the results from that. Way too shallow depth of field with the 55mm racked out. So I ended up at F8 to F10. I started shooting at ISO 1000 but ended up at ISO 2000 to get the shutter speed at LEAST to the 1/10 I shot at and without a VR lens.. ouch! I comp’ed the exposure by +.7 and the onboard flash was dialed down -2 stops. I used the slow shutter to get a bit of the ambient light and I shot RAW to make damn sure I had all the info I could get.

I did get some black poster paper to put on the wooden table for the table top shot. The tones of the food and the table just blurred all together too much and the black gave the badly needed visual separation. For the plate, I used the cast iron burners of the stove and under exposed them so you get just a touch of visual kitchen reference.

I ended up with two out of about 15 images that were lit nicely and not blurred from the hand holding at such an absurd shutter speed. Both had BAM presets applied in Lightroom and both had color balance adjusted and the color luminosity adjusted after I was done with the coarse adjustments in CS4. In CS4, I used Noiseware to remove the noise of shooting ISO 2000 and then flattened the image and applied a high pass filter. I did a bit color burn in here in there to accent some of the colors. I also adjusted the black point to give a bit more contrast overall. All of this in about 10 minutes worth of work in post.

My final results are here and I think given the circumstances, they turned out pretty well. I am certainly going to learn how to shoot food better and the above book is highly recommended as a good guide it it.

Shepherds Pie Served Up

Shepherds Pie

Shooting food is fun and quite the challenge even for a “snapshot” type of picture. You need to light it well, keep the focus and keep appealing visually. Get the overall tone wrong and food just looks bad no matter how well technically you have done in shooting the image.

I found some good tips at The blog is too busy for my taste with ads but there is good stuff there if you are willing to dig around.

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