How to Photograph Cocktails

Cocktails are notoriously difficult to photograph for three main reasons.

  • The drinks you’re shooting are almost exclusively going to be in highly reflective glassware, making glares, reflections and hotspots difficult to avoid.
  • Unlike normal product photography, cocktails are something that must be made prior to shooting. You’ll either need to possess the ingredients and tools needed to make a proper drink, or have someone on hand who can.
  • As for the liquid itself, many drinks served on ice have a limited time window in which their contents look their best. Taking too long to get a shot means you’ll get a warm, watery cocktail that lacks visual appeal.

Here at Liber & Co., we do our fair share of in-house photography. What follows is a step-by-step guide walking you through our process.

Use natural lighting

Food and drink usually look their best under natural light, with the caveat that direct sunlight can sometimes be too harsh. What you’ll want to do is use a well-lit window that provides indirect sunlight. The best (whitest) light is to be had during midday, whereas PM light will give too many bluish hues that your camera will capture. Build your setup right up next to the window.

jungle bird photo

You’ll notice that I’ve placed three white boards* in the setup. These are useful if you’re looking to get an evenly lit drink that is not a “lifestyle” shot with a natural background. Later in this post, I’ll show you how to use Photoshop to easily cut out the drink and use the image in media. 

Notice that one whiteboard is opposite the camera to provide a measure of light bouncing toward the lens. The white board on the right side bounces sunlight onto the shaded side of the cocktail that faces away from the window.  The third white board is what the drink it resting on. This allows some light to go through the drink, making its liquid contents brighter and more vibrant.

Check for reflections and glare using an empty glass

Once your setup is ready, grab an empty glass that is identical to the drink you’ll be shooting later. With your camera on a tripod, use the empty glass to test a few shots to see if the light is OK. 

rocks glass

If you notice reflections, adjust your shooting height/angle. If you have too many hotspots, your light may be too harsh. You can diffuse some light with a muslin cloth, tracing paper etc. Hang it in-between the drink and the window to cut down on the brightness. Obviously, your lighting is slowly changing as the day passes, so once you have the setup how you like it, move quickly into making the drink. 

Make your garnish now

Drinks need garnishes. They elevate a drink’s visual appeal by adding texture, color and creativity. Before you start putting booze to ice, take a minute to consider and make your garnish. Many drinks have “proper” garnishes, so if you’re shooting a classic like a manhattan cocktail, an Old Fashioned or a daiquiri, be sure to research how these drinks are usually garnished. 

In this example I shot the Jungle Bird, which is a classic tiki cocktail that takes well to ornate garnishes. I chose pineapple leaves (one ingredient is our pineapple gum syrup), and a lime wedge (another ingredient is lime juice).

pineapple lime garnish

Whatever your garnish may be, make it now and have it on the side, ready to accent the cocktail. Chances are you’ll make quite a few before getting one you’re happy with. As a quick tip, wiping citrus or leaves with a paper towel dabbed in a bit of olive oil can brighten up a dull garnish. Be sure to wipe off the excess.

You’re ready for your subject, the cocktail!

Remember that capturing the drink in its authentic form is as important as getting a technically good photo. Adding a blue food coloring to the cocktail may be visually intriguing, but I suggest that you stay true to the drink’s recipe instead. Therefore, make the drink as if you’re serving it for consumption. Leave the empty glass where it is in the setup, and pour the mixed drink directly in. You’ll want to avoid spilling the drink and getting liquid on the exterior of the glass or the whiteboard. I’d suggest pouring the mixed drink into a small pitcher, and using this to carefully fill your glass. For the Jungle Bird cocktail, I shook the ingredients with ice, and poured it into our glass filled with crushed ice. 

jungle bird cocktail

After pouring, I added more crushed ice and positioned the garnish.

jungle bird garnish

Shoot quickly before the ice melts. 

Using the pen tool to cut out the drink

I wanted to use this cocktail photo in recipe flyers for our pineapple gum syrup, so once I had a good shot, I used Photoshop to cut the drink from its background. Doing this lets you paste the image into whatever file/background you’d like. 

Open the image in Photoshop and use the pen tool to trim the drink along its edge. It’s easiest to zoom in and start with a straight line to get going. Here, I chose the left of the drink, where the rounded bottom of the tumbler glass straightens out. 

jungle bird pen tool

 


jungle bird cocktailThe pen tool is all about creating anchors and pulling them to mimic the image’s edge. It takes some practice to master, and here is a great pen tool tutorial to take you through the details.

Save the image as .png with a transparent background. This image is now ready to use in any media with a variety of backgrounds. You can see here that the image's transparent background allows our website's normal background to appear. Without this transparency, the image would be a white box surrounding the drink.

*White boards can be had for ~$10 at Office Depot or similar stores. Look for them in about 2’ x 3’ sizes.