Back Label? Leave It, Sometimes!

            Typically, whenever we do a bottle shot, the back label is removed.  This is because in order to make the bottle glow we need to reflect light through it from behind with either silver foil or bounced light off of the background.  If the back label was left in place, it would shade that reflection and make the trick look obvious, not to mention it would be distracting.  Sometimes though, it is best to leave it in place.  Such was the case with this Bulleit Bourbon image. 

            Unlike most liquor bottles, the Bulleit Bourbon label only has one label that wraps around the bottle.  To remove the back label would mean we would need to cut the label in half at exactly the point where the label turns to the back, which would be dependent on the angle of view.  If we cut just a little before or behind this point, the cut would be seen, so we would need to be very precise.  Being this precise is always an issue, not to mention it cements our view and keeps it from changing. 

            Another issue is that those who know Bulleit Bourbon know the label wraps around the bottle.  Altering the label would not look right to the aficionado and could be distracting in itself. 

            So we decided to leave it in place, and, with this bottle, it works very well.  First, the back label is not overly large, so it only blocks a minimal amount of light from coming through.  It is not really that distracting.  Second, because of how the bottle is light, the front of the label is bright where the back of the label is dark, and vice versa.  This creates a nice contrast, adding dimension, and helped accent the dye cut of the label.  

The Hybrid

            Usually when you see a liquor ad in a real location, the bottle was shot in studio and dropped into a stock image.  There are a couple reasons for this.  First, properly lighting a bottle requires 5 to 12 lights, depending on the effect, and at least one diffusion panel.  This takes up space, which real life locations rarely have.  Second, if you have a generic bottle shot on white (or black), you can drop it into many different stock images, giving you some variety. 

            However, you will never be able to reproduce the nuances of how the bottle fits into the environment.  The image will look somewhat fake, maybe not enough for someone to articulate why, but enough for them to feel. 

            In some cases though, the bottle was actually shot on location for that nuance.  However, since real spaces are small, you usually can not light the bottle as well as you could in studio. 

            To solve this, I prefer a hybrid method, shooting the bottle on location and in studio, and compositing them in post.  This gives you a nicely light bottle while still maintaining some of the nuances of it being in a real environment, and you will still have a studio bottle shot in case you need to change it up later.  Here is how it works. 

            For the image above, we first started with the location shoot.  Working on a tripod, we composed and styled our image, and then lit the bottle with one light.  This light’s main purpose was to illuminate the reflector behind the bottle so the bottle would reflect on the bar.  It was not flattering, but all we wanted was that reflection.  We then proceeded to light the rest of the image, capture the final, and measure the exact placement of the bottle to the lens. 

            Then, in studio, we carefully replicated the bottle and lens placement and lit the bottle correctly, which required 6 lights.  Specifically we used three rim lights, one side light shooting through a diffusion panel, and two snooted lights, crossed polarized to the lens, hitting the main and neck labels.  We also paid mind to the colors of the location image and gelled the lights accordingly.  Now it was off to post-production. 

            Anthony, from Pixel House, helped me with the post production by layering the studio bottle shot over top the location image.  Then, to add even more depth, I also had him layer in some car light streaks and a brighter left bar from two additional location captures.  A little tweaking in PhotoShop and we ended with a well lit bottle shot that seamlessly fits into its location.   

Classroom Management

            When looking at my images, many think I just show up the magic happens.  However, often, the logistics of a shoot can account for more than half the work.  Such was the case with a recent project of the new School of Business at LaSalle University.  My client, Kimmel Bogrette Architects, not only wanted great images of their project, but wanted most to have students and staff, including in an image of a classroom.  This took some planning and coordination on my part. 

            To start, after getting through the usual stuff (contacting the VP of facilities, sending over my certificate of insurance, reaching out to security, etc.), I also contacted the dean of the School of Business, Dr. Gary Giamartino.  I discussed with him our need to photograph the building while in use, which he was apprehensive about at first.  I explained for all the images, but one, everyone would be unrecognizable.  However, with the classroom, I would only capture this image if I got permission from him and a professor, and would bring model releases to be signed by all.  This put him at ease and he referred me to his secretary, Joanne, to get the ball rolling. 

            After obtaining permission from the dean, my client and I decided on two possible classrooms and that morning light would be best for each.  I then sent this information to Joanne, she looked at class schedules for both Mondays & Tuesdays and reached out to professors.  After a week, a few professors gave us permission, so long as we would only be there for the first 5 to 10 minutes of class.  I worked this into the overall shot list and scheduled the shoot. 

            A couple days prior to the shoot, when the weather forecast was more certain, I contacted the dean’s office again to give them the exact day.  Joanne confirmed with the professors and found out if any were giving exams.  Of the four classes we had access to, two were giving exams and one overlapped with the timing of another image, which meant our best option was Professor Meghan Pierce’s 11 AM. 

            We arrived at the classroom at 10:45 AM, when the prior class ended.  I quickly composed and setup the camera, while my 1st assistant straightened the desks, chairs and whiteboard.  My 2nd assistant explained to the students what was happening, had them sign releases or sit on the other side of the room if they were uncomfortable. 

            Since we wanted as natural of a look as possible, I choose to use no additional lighting.  People tend to anticipate flashes and look awkward, and continuous lighting for photography is bright and uncomfortable.  Plus, I had little time for setup.  To make up for this, I captured an HDR bracket, at base ISO, prior to the room being filled.  Then, my exposure for the class in session was ISO 100, f/8 at 1/15 second, fast enough to freeze the seated students and to ensure at least a handful of captures would (mostly) freeze the professor. 

            All this ensured we could create a balanced image in post with sharp subjects.  Also, a week prior, Capture One (my raw processor of choice) version 9 was released with a new color editor that helped me seamlessly correct any color shifts and casts from our mixed light environment, which are more noticeable when no professional lighting is used. 

            At the end of it, my client was happy with the image, along with all the others, and all of the work paid off. 

Mad Men Lighting

            As an artist, inspiration can come from almost anywhere at unsuspected times.  Such was the case with a recent image I created of a Bourbon, Neat. 

            A Bourbon, Neat is a relatively simple drink; just bourbon in a rock glass, minus the rock.  The propping is minimal, so the lighting needs to be intriguing and flawless.  I was not quite sure what I was going to do, and eventually put my efforts into another drink, an Old Fashion (see below). 

            Since I knew an Old Fashion was Don Draper’s favorite, I decided to look at Mad Men stills for reference on propping.  This is when I saw a still of Betty Draper sitting in a smoky bar silhouetted by the sun (click here) and instantly knew this was the look I wanted for the Bourbon, Neat.  Now it was just producing it. 

            To start I decided to allow the rock glass to take up most of the image, making it, and the black coffee table, the center of focus.  This also sent the background almost completely out of focus, giving me the advantage of creating a believable set from simple supplies.

            The background is just a chair and a black sweep with a large square hole cut in it.  A piece of fabric was hung in front of the hole to simulate a window, and 1/8 diffusion was tapped to the back of it.

            To light the image, I first concentrated on shaping the glass and the front of the set with strobes.  A strip light was placed to the right, accenting the side of the glass, and a large soft box was placed on the left, angled behind a diffusion panel, producing a sweeping gradient on the front of the glass.  A small gridded soft box lit the chair, and a slight ceiling bounce provided overall fill.  The color temperature was set to 5600K, producing a slightly warm tone. 

            For my “sunlight,” a 650w tungsten Fresnel was placed behind the window zoomed onto the glass.  Aside from silhouetting the glass, this light also produced a slight glow in the 1/8 diffusion but was not enough to brighten the “window” to my liking.  So two 750w tungsten floodlights were placed behind the set, out of view, to further brighten the 1/8 diffusion and window.  Last, to reinforce my sunlight, a scrimmed 150 tungsten Fresnel was used to light the base of the glass. 

            The exposure was for one second, which gave dominance to the tungsten lights.  Also, I did not gel or color correct any of the tungsten sources, which is how I produced that orange sunset glow.  And, for the final touch, I lit a dozen candles on the floor and blew them all out right before capturing the final image. 

Up Close & Extra Hoppy

            Beer snob?, well … um, I like to think of myself as a beer aesthete, or maybe gastronome.  I enjoy tasting different beers, especially local ones, and photographing them is also fun.  So last Friday I was perusing the isles at my local market, looking for something to enjoy, and I noticed that Troegs Brewing redesigned the packaging and label for their Perpetual IPA, a favorite of mine. 

            Actually the box really caught my eye, and when I looked at the label, I decided this could be a fun personal project.  So I bought a six-pack, walked home, and started conjuring up ideas. 

            To start, I decided on creating a bright lively image that gave the impression of a couple of friends enjoying a cold IPA.  The bottle was to be to center of the attention, and, to give a little depth, two pint glasses were placed in front of and behind the bottle so neither was in focus.  Now the box and label were very similar, so there was no need to have both in focus, but I still needed to show the box to complete my vision.  So the box was placed in the back, but close enough to be legible. 

            Now, it was just a matter of getting the lighting right, adding some condensation, and, for the final touches, a spent cap and an almost finished beer. 

            Next, since the label was so eye-catching, I decided it was time to get close, really close, like 6 inches from the bottle close.  This really highlighted the label, but did crop out the brewery’s name.  Luckily though, the spent cap was able to provide a creative solution for that. 

            Once again, I added condensation to the bottle, reflected some light onto the cap, and placed an almost finished beer in the background.  However it was still missing something, until I noticed the spay bottle I keep for my window plants and decided to mist the slate surface.  

Know The Aspect Ratio!

            For those of you who don’t know, the aspect ratio of an image is the ratio of the length to the width.  For example, most digital cameras, including all 35mm formats, have an aspect ratio of 2:3, very rectangular.  Medium format cameras have a ratio of 3:4, so more square.  1:1 would be perfectly square, and so on. 

            Usually, images work great in one ratio, but when cropped to another loose part of their strength.  All this is due to how the image was originally composed. 

            Most of the time when I shoot, if a ratio is not specified, I will compose the image to work best at 3:4, the native aspect ratio of my camera.  For example, this image of a kitchen (right) works great at 3:4.  Now you could crop it, but parts of the design would start to be lost, such as the anchor of the chandelier or the molding on the left, and the image becomes less impactful. 

            Sometimes though, clients have a preferred aspect ratio they like to work with.  Such is the case of a client of mine in New York who only ever wants square images.  This family room image (left) was composed with that mind, and does not really work in any other crop. 

            The end use of an image can also dictate what ratio to use.  For instance, this Absolut image (below right) was composed knowing it would be used as a full spread.  The dimensions of this spread were 13.5 x 21.5 inches, which is the crop I set when composing it (with an extra quarter inch added on for the bleed of course).

            So, if you are hiring a photographer and you know how the images are being used (or most used), giving he/she the aspect ratio can help greatly in making sure the images are most impactful.