The idea sounded simple enough: Photograph wine pouring into a glass. But that idea opened a Pandora’s Box of technical challenges and experiments in a quest for the “perfect pour”. This post is a work-in-progress as I experiment with different tools and techniques, and I hope to update it as I go along.
Emphasis for this project is on the technical – how to capture the wine pour itself as envisioned. Other elements are just an experiment in how the project might be extended to become a more complete product shot.
I’m joined on this project by an avid sommelier, who’s providing a lot of trade guidance and protecting me from mistakes that would make a wine enthusiast cringe at the final product. Although final shots will be taken with wine, there’s a lot of experimentation and discovery to be done using water as the medium. Some last-minute adjustments are expected, since wine pours a little differently than water.
Above is an early concept-test photo, exploring lighting positions, exposures, and ability to freeze the action. The scene was lit with two speedlights – one above and to the right, just out of frame, and another behind and under the glass pointing up. Both flashes were covered with large Zip-Lock bags to waterproof them.
This shot was achieved with a brute-force, spray-and-pray technique while pouring water from a pitcher by hand. Thanks to the very low flash power setting, it’s possible to shoot at 8fps, capture many shots per pour, and have several shots to choose from. But as this project develops, my goal is to control the pour and timing precisely to capture a single shot per pour.
The Goal: A Triptych
The end product here is envisioned as an art piece spanning 3 frames, printed at about 24″ each (probably cropped square) and displayed in a descending upper-left to lower-right placement – one with a close-up of the bottle and upper pour; one with the pour inflight; and ending in the third frame with wine splashing into a glass, across the bottom, up the far side and above the lip.
The main subject will be a dark red wine. Supporting props will be a dark brown bottle (never green glass, according to my subject-matter expert) and a simple but bulbous-shaped wine glass. The background will be a blown-out white, and no model will be used. Very little of the glass or bottle will be shown in order to emphasize the wine being poured.
Framing will be simple and thin, maybe even a frameless floating mount with no matting or glass. Finish will be glossy and printed on a metallic paper, or possibly even metal sheet.
As technique goes, the goal is to produce much in-camera, with a bit of compositing to merge the final result. Rather than “spray and pray”, the idea is to make the process very repeatable and predictable, allowing fine adjustments to be made from one shot to the next. This approach requires a fair bit of technology, preparation, and rigging – but on the front-end of the workflow… planning instead of post-process.
Planning the Details
Even the simplest of shots has many elements involved, each with its own set of things to consider. Many are trivial, but some are deceptively time-consuming. Here are some with the perspective of a product shot; there are probably many more I’m overlooking:
- Wine bottle
- Color of glass
- Positioning – how much is in the image; angle of the bottle
- Label – how much to show
- Reflections – highlights, shadows, unintentional elements (e.g., photographer, studio); polarizing to cut specular glare
- Rim lighting and shading
- Fluid inside the bottle – level, angle, transparency
- Note that wineries and enthusiasts will pick up on subtle details, like the precise coloring of the wine variety and age, the shape of the bottle’s neck and mouth, and the color of the bottle’s glass.
- Wine pour
- Freezing its motion
- Shape of the flow – turbulent vs. stream, wide vs. narrow, flat vs. round
- Speed of the flow – calm vs. dynamic
- Angle of the flow – to catch the near or far side of the glass, possibly splashing along the bottom and out the lip
- Bubbles – removing bubbles from the flow
- Timing of the shot – as the wine splashes the bottom, swirls out the lip, or fills the glass
- White vs. red vs. blush wines – determines other colors, lighting techniques (like whether to light for the wine or the background)
- Unintentional elements – reflections of bottle labels, neck bands, or nearby objects
- Wine glass
- Shape – wide vs. narrow lip, round vs. tapered bottom, straight vs. rounded sides
- Type of glass (cut crystal, smooth, etc.)
- Camera angle – above or below the lip
- Reflections – light, dark, and unintentional
- Clean and prep – water spots, fingerprints, lint, etc.
- How many glasses are needed for prep and workflow?
- Light or dark – darker wine probably calls for a lighter background, and vice-versa for white wines, but this depends on how it’s being poured. Translucent (nearly clear) liquids photograph differently when turbulent vs. calm, and this affects the approach to both lighting and background.
- Consider that with liquids and glass, other elements in the picture become integrated in the subject – seen through the glass, or reflected off the glass or the pour. So, you need to shoot for the intended application because a simple cutout or color substitution isn’t going to be practical.
- Message / Emphasis / Tone / Image
- Are we trying to convey a particular image here? Support a theme?
- Primary emphasis is on the pour itself – its color, quality, and dynamism. Other elements are secondary – the neck of the wine bottle, the glass, the hand holding the glass, the background
- Composition will be tight – emphasis is on the lower portion of the pour and the cup portion of the glass. The neck of the bottle and the stem / base of the glass may be cropped form the final composition
- Application is wall art – potentially a triptych spanning 3 frames, about 24″ each: one with the bottle and the upper pour; one with the pour inflight; one with the wine splashing into the glass, across the bottom, up the far side and above the lip
- Setting and Props
- Isolated studio “hero shot” vs. Lifestyle setting
- Mood – everyday casual, elegance, business, party, reception, holiday, etc.
- Location / room – bright, dark, formal, casual, restaurant, home, resort, beach, etc.
- Table – material (wood, linen, bar counter, etc.); colors (light, dark, textured, etc.)
- Table settings – flatware (fancy, casual, color), glassware (cups, stemware, etc.), plates (materials, colors, patterns)
- How much will be seen – how tight is the shot? E.g., hand model vs. lifestyle model? Will enough show that we need to add a makeup artist and wardrobe stylist to the crew?
- Genders, age, image – again, what image is being portrayed?
- Skin tones – complementary to the lighting and colors of the main subject?
- Prep – manicure, nails, nail color (simple, fancy, subtle?), nail length
- Wardrobe – formal, casual, business, elegant?; colors; styles; fabrics
- Pose – how will the glass and bottle be held
First Phase: Mechanics of the Pour
The pour itself is what drew me to this project, and it poses the most technical challenges. How to shape the flow and control its behavior; how to time the shot precisely; and how to freeze the action crisply. And rather than “spray and pray” hoping for a good frame, how to control each element predictably: to allow for repeatability and fine-tuning rather than depending on blind luck.
Freezing the action – This is more technical than one might think. It takes more than a fast shutter speed to freeze water in motion. Sure, the camera shutter might go as fast as 1/8000 sec, but that’s not fast enough to get a really sharp picture – when shooting close-up, everything speeds up. What might cross 1/8 of a frame normally now crosses the entire frame in the same fraction of a second. Plus, the faster the shutter speed, the brighter the light source needs to be.
Contrary to logic, the technique actually calls for a really slow shutter speed – my exposures are around 1 second long. But you need a really fast flash – around 1/40000 sec. Although the shutter is open for a long time, the only light source is the off-camera flash, so the camera only records what’s illuminated for that fraction of a second. A flash’s duration can be set much faster than the camera’s fastest shutter speed, plus it can be timed to fire more precisely than a camera’s shutter. I use an aperture between f/8 and f/11 for the best image sharpness, so the room doesn’t even need to be completely dark for a 1-second exposure.
Fortunately, all this capability can be had in the form of a common speedlight – as expensive as a Nikon SB-800, or as cheap as a Yongnuo YN-560 – I use either one for this technique. These speedlights typically have strobe tubes filled with xenon gas, and although they aren’t as powerful as studio strobes, xenon flash tubes emit light much more intensely and about 100 times quicker. Their quickness is what makes them attractive for this application.
As a generalization, speedlights emit the shortest (fastest) light burst when they’re dialed to their lowest power setting – this is the setting we need to freeze the action. The trade-off is that the light is very weak at this setting, but we need a lot of light to illuminate our subject at an aperture of f/11. Fortunately, we’re shooting a nearly-macro image, so the subject area is small – this means we can move the light source very close, and the inverse-square law says we will rapidly gain more light on the subject.
But what if it’s still not enough light? Do we turn the power up? No, because that would make the flash burst slower, and the image might start to experience motion blur. Instead, we add a second speedlight, also set to its lowest output level (e.g., 1/128 power).
In my next post, I’ll discuss precision timing for the shot, and a little about shaping the flow’s appearance (my current challenge).
Questions & Comments
Got a suggestion or a question? Confused by my logic? Please post a comment below! I don’t claim to be the end-all authority here, and I’m certainly not the first to take a photograph like this.