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