written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom•updated: 6/30/2011
Wine is something that holds a whole range of moods and aesthetic qualities which derive from its rich history and cultural significance. Here are a few tips for photographing this unique beverage in its various incarnations.
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Drink and be Merry
Wine is more than just a libation for parties and dinner. It is a cultural and artistic institution to be savored and shared. For this reason, the beauty of wine, and the receptacles used to hold it, is something that people want to regularly capture. These images can stand on their own or even be used to sell the wine, conveying its appeal or depicting its origin.
Yet, wine photography can be a difficult. Here is a look at how to take still images of it in both of its incarnations in and out of the bottle, with a focus on dealing with each one on its own terms.
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Environment and Background
When photographing wine bottles, you have to treat it as a special type of product photography. Wine photography has a tradition associated with it - the tradition of the winery and the advertising representation of its history. This means that you are often dealing with clichéd imagery of the winery, areas where wine is thought to be prominent such as the south of France or Napa Valley, or places where wine is consumed such as regional bistros and upscale restaurants. The common theme here is that location really determines a great deal when presenting the image of the bottle. To accent this effectively, you will need to light the background and surrounding areas of the foreground just as much as you will the wine bottle itself. This can be spiced up effectively by adding a great deal of depth when outdoors, or by using some type of activity when indoors. Traditionally, this is done by using a long background space of the winery with the bottle propped up on a hill, overlooking the whole area. Indoors, you can achieve the active background through mood enhancers like a fire in a fireplace or by using patrons in an intimate restaurant.
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Photographing wine bottles is a special challenge, since it is both a reflective and transparent object. This means that lighting it can be difficult because you may be able to see through it, and it is difficult to make sure that it does not reflect the light. You will have to deal with the bottle in a number of ways, but bringing the light above the bottle and then positioning a smaller fill light to illuminate its label is going to end up getting the effect that you are looking for. Try not to backlight it too strongly, if at all, because this will actually come through the bottle itself. It could then make the bottle have a sort of glow, which is often the wrong type of mood for wine photography.
What you will need for this is a series of smaller lights for the wine bottle specifically, and then broader lights for the entire environment. What tends to be effective for these moody situations is to have a lot of practicals in the shot that can be motivating the light for the viewer, while using a very soft light for the entire environment. On the bottle, you will bring the wattage down and use separate lights to make sure that it is properly illuminated and reflections are eliminated.
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Since you are shooting an incredibly still object, you have a little more freedom with the camera. However, there are also a few restrictions because of the universal nature of the wine bottle shape. This means that using something like wide angle photography, which will distort the dimensions of the subject, may not always be the best choice. You do not have to consider things like shutter speed unless you have active motion that is uncontrollable in the background. What is most important here is to make sure that you have the right depth of field, so that the bottle remains in fine focus, while the background - which really sets the mood context for the bottle - is just a little out of focus. You want the viewer to be able to see what the background image is without keeping their attention on that.
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Out of the Bottle
If you want to photograph the wine itself, you have a completely different set of challenges. Many of the principles for this will come from photographing water and other liquids. The main principle is that you want to use a longer exposure, which means a slightly lower shutter speed. This can be at 1/60 or slightly below, but essentially you want to get movement. What you often want from wine photography focusing on the wine itself is the pouring of the wine as it leaves the bottle and splashes in the glass. For this, you need a least a little indication of motion, though you are free to see how a fast shutter speed will capture this and make it look like a still object.
Lighting this liquid is going to be unique, as well. You may actually want some of the sheen from the light on it to give it character. You will not have the ability to closely structure the light against the pouring of the wine, since it comes in so temporarily, but you definitely can when it is positioned in the glass. When it is pouring, you will want to make the key light much stronger than the backlight, otherwise you will see though it too dramatically.
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The information offered in this article is based on the author's own experience. Do you have other useful tips for photographing wine or wine bottles? If so, be sure to visit the comments section below.