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The Honking Elephant guide to cocktail photography, with Tom Brown

Photographer Tom Brown of Honking Elephant reveals some of the tips and tricks of the trade to help you get a better shot at the bar.

Nearly all cameras and camera phones nowadays come with impressive auto settings, but it doesn’t really help you take better photos, it just makes it easier. Surely nothing in life worth doing should be too easy! So, turn the auto function off and let's use the manual settings.

When using manual settings, there are three things that you have to consider that are fundamental to creating good photos.

  1. Shutter speed: Generally speaking, you will always want your camera to be shooting at around 1/80 or higher (so the second number is higher). This variable can’t change too much as going below that will often result in the shaky shots (This is a common problem in low light situations when relying on auto settings).

  2. The ISO is basically how fast the sensor of your camera reacts to light. The lower the number, the more slowly the sensor reacts. So, the higher the number the faster it reacts. Why is this important? Because you always want your ISO to be as low as possible, that way you get nice, crisp and clear photos. When the ISO is too high, it becomes more and more grainy, whilst the colours lose contrast.

  3. The Aperture literally is the opening in your camera that lets more or less light in, as opposed to how long light is let in for. This is measured in f stops. The lower the number, the shallower the depth of field, but equally you can have a shorter exposure time. The aperture gives you a lot of artistic control over your camera, as it allows you to control the parts of the image that are in focus.

This image is shot at a very high ISO and you can see how the image is washed out and grainy.

The above image is shot at f2, resulting in a very nice blurred background, but in this case, it isn’t ideal as it results in the bottle as well as parts of the glass being too unfocused.

The image was then re-shot at f6.3, resulting in much more detail, whilst still having the pleasingly out of focus background.

In my opinion, the easiest way to work out what setting you will want to be using, is to dial in the aperture based on the whether you want more or less background blur, or more of the foreground to be in focus. So, I wanted to have my aperture to have a higher value and no camera shake, so I set my shutter speed to 1/80 and to have the image exposed nicely, I set the ISO to ISO800. If for example, I had really wanted to have a lower ISO then I would have had to lower my aperture, as the shutter speed can’t be changed without getting camera shake.

Lighting So, now in principle we have the basics of how to set your camera up for manual use. The next important factor is lighting. Shooting in daylight is by far the nicest way to shoot images as the light is full and vibrant.

This image isn’t inherently bad, the focus is correct, with a nice separation of the subject from the background. This was achieved by shooting at f5.6. However, due to using an artificial light, we can clearly see how the background has a blue tint, due to a different light source and the foreground has a yellow tint. The colours are also a bit muted and we have a heavy shadow to the bottom right. This is still a useable image however, you shall see the difference when we use some lovely natural light.

This image was taken shortly after, but I turned off the lamp I was using and allowed as much light in as possible from outside. It still wasn’t too bright, so I changed the aperture to f3.2, which we can see as the focus falls off the glass faster.

We can see how there is a more equal quality to the light in the background and the foreground. We still have a shadow, but it is softer and the lemon also has a much more natural colour too it. You can easily see with the two preceding images, that finding a balance between the setting on your camera, as well as lighting can have a very big difference on your end image. However, the best light source is always going to be* that great big ball of fire in the sky. You get really nice light from it, but as sunlight tends to diffuse off surfaces nicely, it is also very good for getting rid of those pesky shadows. (*You can of course use artificial light for wonderful effects if that’s specifically what you are going for).

This image is shot entirely in natural light and it is immediately apparent that the quality of the light is clean and even over the entire images and we don’t have any unpleasant shadows. The colours are also vibrant and rich, looking pretty much like we would expect in real life. The above image has also had the bottle of the brand that was used in the making of the drink added. I think this is always a very nice touch, it allows others to see what was used, can help to use an empty background and also great for brands, as they can see you enjoy their products! But if you do choose to do that, make sure that the branding is clear!

In this image, the label isn’t clear at all and the focus is slightly off, so attention to detail can be very important. Composition Composition is a bit more forgiving, as you can use editing software to re-compose the image if that is what you would like to do. But we can also start adding in other objects that compliment the drink itself. Before, I added in the bottle to make the background more interesting.

In the above two images, I have added more objects into the composition, the first is quite successful, the bottle and flower compliment the drink itself both in terms of position but also in colour. The second image is a good example of over doing it, the strainer and lemon are okay, but the jigger is too much. It begins to distract from the drink itself. I quite like this image, it is one of my favourites from this set. The flower is visually striking, the circular form compliments the drink physically and the colour works with the drink, garnish and bottle. It’s a good example of how grabbing some readily available objects can really add to your photography! There are of courses many more ways to compose your image, as well as using things like a flash and a stand but it does get more complicated and for the sake of a basic introduction. I’ll call it a day here and maybe write a more advanced version, looking into things in more detail and technicality.


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