Photographing glass is a pain in the proverbial backside. It reflects everything and not just the lights a photographer uses, but the camera, the studio and even the photographer. So when I picked up a commission to photograph some very posh English sparkling wine, not only did I have to get my dusty product photographer head out the box (random Worzel Gummage reference there), I also had to get creative with the method.
These days the UK makes some of the world’s best sparkling wines in the champagne style. The vineyards though don’t have Moet and Tattinger budgets so haven’t turned to 3D computer generated graphics of their products, so they turn instead photographers who know how to photograph glass bottles properly.
Curved glass is horrendous to photograph well as it is so reflective. Depending on the shot required, I often refrain from using flash favouring natural light as I can see the reflections as they will look. Luckily my studio had a massive natural light source from a window along one side. So getting flat even light is fairly straight-forward with the addition of reflectors. I used, for this shoot, several white A0 artboards as they are oblong and not round, and are large enough to create a pleasing reflection.
The first set of images were organoleptic, which basically means I added props to induce a mood depending on the tasting in the wine or the mood each wine evokes. Each bottle sat on a background and was surrounded by props, which made it less of a stress for reflections.
Each bottle was laid down and propped straight with balls of BluTack so they didn’t roll. I then set about creating a visually pleasing scene using the props agreed with the client.
Let’s look at the Brut Reserve first. The seaweed and oyster shells I collected from a nearby beach, the oysters came from a fishmonger, the limes were also needed in another shot, so I picked up a bag from a local supermarket. In fact all the props were found or bought fresh on the day of the shoot, so careful planning was required.
The ice below each oyster is actually acrylic. Being sat next to a window during the shoot meant real ice would melt, so I used fake. The water drops are also fake(ish). They are real drops, but normal water runs too much and evaporates over the course of a shoot, so it’s a mixture of 50% water and 50% natural glycerine which provides the look of a cold bottle straight from the fridge, but it stays looking like that all day.
I wanted some interesting, but abstract reflections so set the camera up on a boom over the shot and made sure its reflection ended up where the label sat. Hence no camera in the shot. So I wouldn’t be in shot, I connected a remote release to the camera.
I did several shots at around f/16 to get everything in focus. A long shutter speed was not a problem as everything was steady. From tests though I know my lens performs its absolute best at between f/8 and f/11, so with the f/16 shot done I selected f/8 and did a series of three shots: One focused on the deepest part of the background; another focused on the oysters; and the last focused on the label on the bottle. I then focus stacked them in post production to get the highest quality image.
That, of course, is a good, but easy, way to photograph glass bottles. A bottle shot on white is a lot harder. The reflections are horrendous to control and clients want to see the liquid inside. In this case I always use flash, but I don’t like to overly complicate the set up with lights so instead use a lot of reflectors and baffles to control where the light is hitting and opt for a classic set up (see diagram below). The only addition I sometimes use, depending on the subject, is a top light to add something into a foil top or a metal cap.
The hard work is done by reflectors and baffles placed around the bottle to bend and control the light. So to the side I use the A0 artboards again to control the reflection and create an even side lighting, but I also use black card baffles to create the dark sides of the bottles to help lift them off the white background.
The shape of the bottle dictates where the reflectors and baffles actually go, and it takes a bit of trial and error. Generally, I take a shot, move the baffles a bit and take another until I get it right.
The light coming through the bottle is provided by the light blowing the background so it’s even, but if you wanted a black background, just add a light pointing back so the bottle is between you and the camera. To soften the light try cutting white paper to the bottle’s shape and sticking it to the back of it. That way the light coming through the glass will not be so harsh.
Another tip, especially for beer and wine bottles is to remove the back label which can cause distracting shadows and unwanted flat areas in the glass. Lastly to give a bottle a lift, try a top light to create a rim on the cap or foil
If you want to get into fiddly and challenging product photography, give glass bottles a go. It’s the challenge I love, but once you’ve nailed the shot, there’s a sparkling reward at the end of it to enjoy.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.