Thursday, 22 September 2016

Photographing Beer

Just about right

As a regular blogger I have always tried to include relevant photos in my posts, as not only do they break up what can sometimes be, large and somewhat daunting-looking blocks of text, but they also attract the reader’s interest and help draw him or her into the main subject matter.

I have tried, wherever possible, to use my own photos, as not only are they more personal, but they are often more relevant. Of course, this is not always possible, but relying upon online sources is often fraught with difficulties, especially over the issue of copyright, so it is always preferable to try and use original and topical photos taken by oneself.

Now I used to fancy myself as a bit of a lens-man, and back in the day I had a pretty decent 35mm SLR, complete with a number of interchangeable lenses. I also had the equipment to process my own black & white films; it's still up in the loft! However, times change and technology moves on, and the world of celluloid film, along with developing and printing photos, now seems like ancient history, following the rise of modern digital photography.

Too much reflected light
Despite jibes from my family, about lugging all that camera gear around, I stuck with my trusty Pentax, until about eight years ago, when I finally accepted the inevitable, and switched to digital. So from carting a bulky SLR around, I went completely the other way and started using the camera on my Smartphone.

It made sense, as I normally had the phone with me. It was also light enough to carry in my pocket, easy to use, and I didn’t have to wait for the photos to come back from the processors. More to the point, digital photos are easy to upload and can, if necessary, be altered using simple computer software. The only trouble was, the quality was nowhere near that achievable from a decent camera.

It's easier with dark beers
I bit the bullet again back in 2015, when I pooled the money I’d been given for my 60th birthday, and bought a half decent, compact digital camera. The difference in quality was noticeable straight away, so having now acquired a reasonable camera it seemed a good idea to learn how to get the best out of it.

Step forward renowned Dutch photographer TeoKrijgsman, who gave a presentation on “Beer Photography”, at last month’s European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam. Perhaps the presentation should have been titled “How to take eye-catching photographs of beer”, because whilst I had never heard of Teo before the conference, once he had shown us some of his work, I realised that here was someone who could take photos of beer and make them look really sexy!

Teo started with the basics and said that whilst the advent of digital photography has made things a lot easier, taking a good photo is as hard now as it was 100 years ago. So to try and précis what we were told, especially in relation to photographing beer, I will attempt to break the topic down by listing out some of the bullet points.

  • The basis of a good image is making the right choices.
  • It is important to know what goes on inside the camera, as well as what is happening in front of it.
  • It is vital to have total control over this, as it is the key to taking a good photograph,
  • A tripod is often essential in order to hold the camera still, and in one place.It also ensures your photos are sharp, and in focus.
  • When photographing beer, remember it is a product and photographing a product well is one of the hardest things to so.
Too much refelction from use of flash. (Good head though)
Moving on and going into slightly more detail, remember that light will pass straight through glass, almost as if the glass does not exist. It is therefore vital to understand the importance of light when making a photo; especially one incorporating a glass of beer.

Light will obviously pass through the beer, but some will also be reflected back; the amount varying with the colour and/or clarity of the beer. A glass of beer will have foam on top of the beer, and bottles will normally have labels. Bottles in fact can be tricky because of the colour of glass, the presence of any labels and, of course, the curved shape of the bottles. This curvature effect also applies to a glass.

To overcome problems associated with reflected light, make sure there is a light source behind the beer, when taking the photo, but try and ensure the source of the light is out of sight. Photographing a glass of beer with a window, or a lamp behind is one way of doing this, but make sure the light source is not so powerful that it “washes out” the rest of the image. A more subtle way of providing additional light, is to place a piece of white paper underneath the glass.

A good effort
Professional photographers use many tricks to enhance the look of the product they are photographing, and in the case of beer, Teo told us how a pinch of salt, added to the beer, causes it to foam quite dramatically, creating that tight, thick head which advertisers like to show us. Another trick is to spray a mixture of glycerine and water on the outside of the glass, using one of those cheap, hand-held spray-bottles. This gives the impression of beads of condensation on the outside of the glass or bottle, with the added advantage that these droplets won’t run down the outside and spoil the effect!

Teo did show us some quite stunning examples of his work, in the form of a series of magazine shots he did for Dutch brewer, Grolsch, but these were all carefully staged and composed, and not the sort of work taken in the heat of the moment in a crowded pub or bar.

Outside in shaded light - just right
Obviously the detailed stage-management of the scene and the sorts of tricks mentioned above are for professionals, and as most of us would want to drink the beer once the shoot has finished, adding salt to it, or spraying glycerine around, would quickly render the beer unpalatable. So in the question and answer session which followed, I asked Theo what tips he could give for photographing beer in a “live” environment. By that I meant in a pub, or bar, both of which could be busy, with all sorts of distractions both in front of the subject and behind it.

Subtle backlight
This is important, as many writers and bloggers will want to write something about the beer they have just drunk, so they need to know how to take the best picture under what an often be, trying circumstances. Theo drew attention to the window option, highlighted earlier, but accepted that as this wasn’t always practical, or even possible, the next best thing was to provide light either directly behind the glass or bottle, or from the side. (Side-lighting is more effective for bottles, because the glass will normally be coloured).

Don't use flash when photographing unfiltered beers!
One of the best and most practical light sources is the torch, which many people have as an accessory on their Smartphone, so after the afternoon’s session had finished, many of us had a go at using this technique. You can see some of my efforts interspersed amongst the text of this blog, and there are also some examples showing what not to do. But in general I feel we all came away from the session with an enhanced knowledge of how to take a better photo and, more importantly, how to apply some of these techniques to photographing beer.


Curmudgeon said...

One thing I've noticed is that typical British bitters always look considerably darker in photos than in real life.

It's also difficult to get the impression of light permeating through beer.

Paul Bailey said...

The reason a glass of “typical British bitter” often looks darker in photos, is because there is little reflected light. This creates a very “flat” looking photo.

The trick with the torch feature on your Smartphone works, providing you are not using the phone to take the photo, and have a camera with you. Either that, or try taking the picture in front of a window.