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Photography

Wine Product Shoot: Conceptualising a Portfolio Project

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A couple of weeks ago I was looking at a wine bottle on the dining table and wondered about photographing it. I forgot about that until last week or so when Scott Kelby tweeted about traveling for a wine shoot. Taking this as a sign, I decided to get my product shoot on!

While I'm trying to keep the price down, the point of a product shot is to show the product being marketed in the best possible light, and thus perfectionism is the end goal as far as the budget allows. I'm going to look at figuring out your own concept and art direction, finding cheap props, and of course in this situation, lighting glass.


1. Defining a Product Shoot

A product shot serves two purposes. One is to simply illustrate the product itself, and show its appearance as accurately as possible.

Illustration

This is why colour balance, colour profiles, monitor calibration and other details are all a big deal in product photography. I'm not going much into that for this article, since it should be fairly self-explanatory as to why a client would want their carefully-designed product reproduced perfectly for the potential customer to see.

Statement

The second purpose of the product shot is to have the product looking as good as possible to attract attention. This will entail different appearances depending on the product and/or the demographic it's marketed towards.

Same original image, completely different styles for different target demographics' idea of desirability.
Same original image, completely different styles for different target demographics' idea of desirability.

Stylish clothing brands like Levis may use an Instagram-style look to evoke authenticity and vintage heritage. A fast food chain would often use composite elements, separately lit and sprayed down with glycerin, to create a hyper-realistic juicy effect. A brand wanting to appear edgy and intense might use hard edge lights and desaturation, evoking the spotlights of a military compound and faded war photos.

While the product should look real and true to life, art directors know how to make it more than life-like, how to make it a necessary possession for the intended audience to fulfill their life goals and self-perception.


2. Creating a Concept

My first objective in creating an idea for the shoot was to keep it relatively simple. Something that can be done cheaply and not take months to plan and execute. This is, after all, a portfolio shoot and not a commission. The wine idea I'd made a note of already was an obvious choice to achieve this objective, since the expected necessaries for a shoot like that are either found around the home or available cheaply.

Simplicity is good. It allows the focus to be on style and quality of execution, rather than struggling to maintain a runaway "grand idea." No one wants to see how you almost succeeded in creating the most mind-blowing Pepsi shot on top of the Alps, but it all fell apart at the last minute, so you made do with your kitchen table.

Purpose

So once I'd determined I was going to shoot wine, what's the point of the shoot? I thought creating multiple looks for a variety of publication scenarios may be interesting.

I envisioned shooting for traditional magazine ads, location merchandising, social media, various possible uses of product visuals. While this may or may not be like a real product gig, I think it keeps the shoot constrained enough to force creativity in order to complete all the "tasks".

Two bottles balance the composition for still shots, but still allow room for dynamic arrangements.
Two bottles balance the composition for still shots, but still allow room for dynamic arrangements.

3. Giving Yourself Art Direction

Once you know what you're doing and why, it's time to start previsualising the end results of your shoot. I came up with a list of three main objectives to hit based on my initial ideas.

I think it's important to approach personal projects as you would professional ones. Clear goals allow you to hit targets on time and with minimum budget. You can accomplish more, pursue more lofty ambitions, or just get done what you need to when your objectives and parameters are carefully controlled.

My objectives are fairly modest, but span a good range that will stretch my core concept and provide a good spread of visuals at the end, as a client would expect. I wanted to attempt three looks: classic style, modern style, something more graphic and abstract.

I can create more than one particular look for each of these styles, and change the focus between the red and the white as necessary. Overall, this should result in about five to ten useable images, which is an appropriate haul for this kind of shoot.

Art Direction

For this to be portfolio-worthy work, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can pull more than a single shot out of a commission that states, essentially, "here are products from our company, go shoot some marketing materials." This was really all I started with. Not that a portfolio would contain all of the images from this shoot, but maybe two or three showing versatility within a single project.

30-second cellar concept/mood image

30-second cellar concept/mood image to help solidify my thought process

Now I need to break down the exact targets of each of the three styles, figure out lighting and props for ambience. For the first, it's fairly obvious. The red wine generally has to be shot around distressed old wood, varnished hardwoods, straw, etc. The visual communicators of a winery's dark, musty cellar, unknown centuries old.

The white can also be done with these same props and materials in a slightly lighter tone, or alternatively could be set up as a traditional sunny outdoor lunch, a more popular vision for lighter wines.

One for the summer lunch idea

One for the summer lunch idea.

For the second, modern style, this is where I really have to bring it myself. There's no "standard" to circle around. Use of darker woods, other materials like stone and metal, combined with coloured lighting in symmetric or geometric ways is my thought here. It could alternatively be done ultra-clean on seamless, or slightly retro-futurist with colours and shapes on a black background. These are all looks I could play with and see what comes out.

My idea in mind for the modern style... Maybe add some geometry around the sides.

My idea in mind for the modern style. I could possibly add some geometry around the sides.

For the final style, pretty much anything goes as long as it's not too difficult to work out that the view is wine, even if it takes a second glance. On these shots, the label doesn't necessarily have to be included, since the logo may well be added as text over the image somewhere.

Not all of these ideas will necessarily be tried in one project, in order to keep the number of setups down and the quality up. The unused ideas can roll over into future projects.


4. Approaching It like a Job

While this is a personal project with the intent of producing portfolio images, the end result should look like it was accomplished by a hired professional. Not only do you have to create your own commission and art direction, but once you have that it's work as usual.

Now is the time to research. If you're shooting an established brand, you have to know the visual cues of that brand, their business vision and goals, generally what their heritage is and how they like to be perceived. This inspires and informs the art direction, and is vital to the appearance of looking like a real job.

Research

After browsing the wine section at the grocery store, I settled on a wine that I liked the look of based on the label and "company statement" on the reverse. It was inexpensive, and it wouldn't go to waste afterward! It's was an Argentinian wine called Aconga. Just fine for my needs.

After Googling "Aconga," it brought up a very simple site (aconga.com) which matches my personal aesthetic, so it should be fun to shoot. It uses a dark, simple look with old rusty blacksmithing tools and a repousse or planishing hammer. Interestingly, they've also put the Merlot and the Chardonnay together in the images, like I was planning.


5. Finding Props

This is probably the easiest aspect of the whole thing, once you have your visuals set, since there isn't too much thinking involved here. It's really just a case of going around thrift stores, architectural salvage yards and garage sales until you can come up with some suitable objects to build a set for your visual language.

I came up trumps here, since from one yard sale I got a wooden crate and a couple of old rusty tools for under $10. Another $4.50 on a straw bale from Lowes, enough to scatter around and still have enough left over to use as a table if desired, and I was pretty much done.

Cheap, evocative props. The crate is for melons, not wine, but that shouldn't matter from the right angle.

Cheap, evocative props. The crate is for melons, not wine, but that shouldn't matter from the right angle.

I already have some silversmithing tools, sterling wire, ornamental metal bits and pieces, and generally the kind of stuff that should suit an aesthetic like this.

My small smithing tools and a suitable recent thrift store find.

Some of my small smithing tools and a suitable recent thrift store find.

For outdoor lunch/dinner scenes, we have wrought iron garden furniture, which should allow me to bring in the lighter ambience, but maintain the metalsmithing motif.


6. Lighting Glass

Lighting glass can actually be quite tricky. Being both reflective and transmissive as well as distorting, there are few places to hide lights whilst casting appropriate specular highlights to show off the form of the glass as well as lighting the front design and also adding any backlighting to scatter through the contents.

It can be a bit of trial and error, though the first logical place to start tends to be setting the form with strip lights on one or each side. Once these are in place, other lights can be hidden either with snoots, or actually within the specular highlights on the glass; the additive nature of light means that highlights can hide whatever you need them to, since they're already more or less blown out.

Setup on the left, render from camera's view on the right. Note where the highlights fall due to the curves of the bottle.

Setup on the left, render from camera's view on the right. The rectangles emit light like striplights. Note where the highlights fall due to the curves of the bottle.

Your light placement will vary depending on the exact shape of the subject and layout of its environment. Some unwanted details like white "snoot dot" highlights or dust can be removed in post- and frequently are for commercial work,. It isn't exactly "cheating," but it's usually easier overall to set up the lighting carefully in the first place.


7. The Shoot

First, I did the modern-style shots. I had two ideas here, one a white-seamless style high key shot specifically for the Chardonnay. The other was a dark, coloured background splash idea, clean and simple. I used red for Merlot, blue for Chardonnay.

Chardonnay setup with silver serving set.

Chardonnay setup with silver serving set.

Next was the main shoot, where I gathered a few props in the basement and arranged them how I liked the look of them. One wine bottle seemed to make the composition a little lop-sided, so I added both in there and it looked much better. I considered adding a shim under the sledgehammer handle to get the Merlot to stand up straight, but I actually preferred the look of the lean.

Finally I came back into the studio, mixed both of the gels above on the background, and then shot details of the bottles whilst trying to avoid showing too much or getting bogged down in adding more information.

Abstract setup, though I used the camera off-tripod to explore angles.

Abstract setup, though I used the camera off-tripod to explore angles.

8. The Images

Chardonnay with silver serving set result.

Chardonnay with silver serving set result.
The Merlot was very difficult to back-light. Here I've stashed a bare speedlight behind the bottle.

The Merlot was very difficult to backlight. Here I've stashed a bare speedlight behind the bottle.
Chardonnay on blue.

Chardonnay on blue.
Merlot on red.

Merlot on red.
One of the final sequence of cellar shots.

One of the final sequence of cellar shots.
Abstract.

Abstract.
Less abstract, but still not "obvious".

Less abstract, but still not obvious.

9. Post-Processing



10. Final Image

wineshoot_16

I hope you've enjoyed this shoot walkthrough, I think it gives a good indicator of the considerations and thought processes involved when putting together a client shoot, or when approaching personal work from a professional standpoint.

It's important, if you're trying to show that you deserve being paid to shoot, that you demonstrate your abilities to do more than simply operate a camera. A photographer isn't, after all, a button pusher, and we don't generally get hired for that alone. Our vision and ability to capture it are the valuable skills being assessed for hiring potential.

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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