At the recent California Rum Festival, I presented a session about my experiences in building a large social media following for the Cocktail Wonk brand, plus observations on what works and doesn’t work for other social media feeds.
Being any sort of respectable spirits blogger these days requires you to have a social media presence beyond just your blog, be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc… I devote most of my efforts into documenting my wonk lifestyle on Instagram (@cocktailwonk), which means plenty of drink photos from dimly lit cocktail bars. Along the way I’ve picked up a respectable level of Instagram followers and have a pretty good sense how to create photos that resonate with people.
What follows are my tips for creating great looking bar-based cocktail photos, often in low light, and with just a smartphone. I use an iPhone 6, but have every reason to believe the camera-based tips would work similarly on Android phones. In special circumstances, such as a special event or seeking out a bar while we’re traveling, I’ll use a dedicated camera, but these tips are for the enthusiast drinker who has a smartphone handy and wants a good shot.
So many people have no idea that you can tell your phone’s camera where to focus. An iPhone in a dark bar does a lousy job of figuring out where the center of attention should be. So tell it: A quick tap on the screen points to where you want the image to be most sharp; the yellow square that appears confirms the focus location.
Even fewer people know the camera also adjusts its exposure for the focus location. Thus, with a dark drink in a dark bar, tapping on the screen image of the drink (rather than something in the background) prior to taking the picture sets the exposure for the drink and not the much brighter lights behind the bar. Pro tip: If you’ve got a new enough iPhone you can adjust the exposure before taking the photo by sliding the “sun” up or down.
Perhaps the drink is visually amazing – it’s on fire, or has a fantastic garnish, or is in a great glass– or maybe all three! In which case, get up close. Fill the frame with what’s cool. On the other hand, if the drink is more pedestrian, zoom out a bit and capture why you think this drink is worth commemorating. In a really snazzy looking room? Capture a bit of the bar background in your photo. Hot bartender? Immortalize them alongside their work. Every photo should showcase the reason you took it. If it’s just an up-close image of brown liquid in an ungarnished coupe, no one cares.
In close to capture the garnish details, Tacoma Cabana
Including bar elements as backdrop, Beretta, San Francisco
Any time Murray Stenson makes me a drink, it’s photo-worthy. Elysian Bar, Seattle.
No. Seriously. Do. Not. Use. It. Flash photos look washed-out and crappy, and you annoy the folks around you. I mock my friends to their faces when they use flash in a bar. And don’t think you’re being clever by snapping a photo while your friend floodlights the scene with their own phone’s LED light. It still doesn’t look good, and now everyone else is annoyed with both of you.
Don’t do this. Ever.
While flash is a no-no, don’t hesitate to acquire and use more subtle light sources. Candles are the most obvious choice, if available. With the right drink and glass, a candle hidden behind the glass can provide a nice glow effect. A candle off to the side, just out of frame, often works wonders. And sometimes an artfully placed candle in the frame makes a great shot. Recently I ordered a drink at Seattle’s Rumba and GM Kate Perry delivered a candle with the drink without my asking. At times I’ve collected several candles together near a reflective surface to create a crude “studio light,” but then again, I can be a bit obsessive.
Candle lit from the side, Hemingway Bar, Prague
Built in LED underlights at Bugsy’s, Prague
If the bar offers fun visual elements that can be worked in to your photo, use them! At Seattle’s Canon, the legendary pork buns arrive with a small metal toy cannon. At Rumba, there are a few 10-inch brass palm trees that always liven up a shot. At Rob Roy (again, in Seattle) the infamous hoof lamp (as in the cattle variety) that often pops up in photos. If there are visually fun ingredients in your cocktail–perhaps a house-made tincture or some exotic bottle of spirits– including it in the photo can add to its relevance. Just try not to annoy the bartenders with oddball requests. If you ask nicely on a slow night, many are happy to help you stage your shot.
Why is this drink special? Because it has Stiggins’s Fancy rum in it! Tacoma Cabana.
The bar menu itself is often a good prop–for instance, Callooh Callay’s London Tube map, or the paint fans at Trick Dog in San Francisco. Drop it casually next to the drink; it’s not necessary to get the whole menu in, but ideally the logo or bar name is visible. Even better are the one-off menus that bars create for special events. A bit of that in your photo gives you a more unique photo and, of course, bragging rights.
The artfully placed menu, Tretter’s new York Bar, Prague
The standard 45-degree overhead shot often isn’t the most interesting perspective. Try shooting from below the glass. This works best with coupes, especially if the liquid within is translucent, and you can often pick up backlighting from sources elsewhere in the room, such as the backbar. If there are multiple drinks, lining them up and then shooting from the side captures a unique perspective.
Shooting from below – Loló, San Francisco
A non-traditional angle – Trailer Happiness, London
When to shoot
As soon as possible. A photo of a half empty glass just isn’t visually appealing. Bartenders frequently take care to create a great presentation for your drink before serving it — use that to your advantage. In the past, I’ve annoyed Mrs. Wonk by taking longer than I should to photograph our newly arrived drinks with multiple shots (and even multiple cameras) from different angles, making her wait to imbibe. With practice, I’ve vastly improved how quickly I can get a keeper shot.
Depth of field
If doing a wide-field shot (rather than a close up), use depth of field to your advantage. Slightly blurred backgrounds with shelves of bottles, mixing tins, tinctures and bitters, and even the bartenders themselves give a nice ambience to bar photos. The trick again is focus. Tell the camera to focus on the bottle, and things significantly behind it will be blurred, creatively known as bokeh.
Serious bokeh at Rob Roy, Seattle
Professional photographers manipulate their images for best results. So should you. It’s really quite easy and fast once you’re familiar with the in-phone tools.I’m not a big fan of filters; I rarely use them, much preferring the more basic controls readily available in either the basic iPhone photo editor or in Instagram. Sure, you can go all Adobe Photoshop on your images if you have the time and inclination, but I can edit an image to my liking in 15 seconds or less.
Before straightening and enhancing
After straightening and enhancing – Much better!
Every photo I post goes through most, if not all of these steps, in this order:
1) Straighten and crop. I have a particularly bad habit of taking photos that are just slightly not level. I fix this first, and then zoom and crop the image to fill as much of the frame as possible with what’s interesting.
2) Adjust exposure. If the whole image is dark, I adjust the overall brightness to a better level, but not so much that it gets grainy. In the default iOS photo editor, this is done via Light/Exposure slider. If the overall brightness is okay but certain details are lost in the shadows, use the Light/Shadows slider to brighten just those parts. The Instagram equivalents are under the “wrench” tool: Brightness and Shadows.
3) Enhance colors and contrast. Sometimes simply adjusting the contrast to make details stand out is sufficient. When the image feels flat, bumping up the saturation (in moderation) is all that’s needed. In the Instagram app, the “Lux” slider is frequently one-stop-shopping, doing everything I need to make the photo pop.