Although I tend to treat each photographic image as a challenge with it’s own individual needs, there are certain beginning points that I have learned to launch from when starting any food photography session.
In the case of shooting beverages, I have found that using ‘backlighting’ tends to be the most effective. Backlighting simply refers to having the (main) light source illuminate the subject from behind by placing the subject in between the (main) light source and the camera.
Having the (main) light source for the image anywhere along this back axis will help to create an effective beverage photograph for a couple of reasons:
Backlighting Showcases Transparency- A general majority of your beverage shots will be shown in a clear vessel. Whether you use a martini glass, a milk bottle, or a mason jar, the most effective way to illuminate what is in the vessel is to backlight it, directing light ‘through’ the liquid.
Backlighting Strengthens Effects- Backlighting a beverage shot will help to accentuate other points of visual interest of the beverage: Condensation on a glass, specular highlights or prisms effects of ice cubes, highlighting textures of garnishes such shining through a slice of lemon or lime or adding a pretty ‘rim’ light on a cherry or highlighting texture on a mint leaf. Even if the subject is not shown in a clear vessel (such as a cup of coffee), backlighting can still highlight certain aspects.
Backlighting Avoids Tricky Reflections- By avoiding the presence of having a direct light source placed in front of the subject, you minimize the presence of unappealing reflections being seen in the glassware or whatever vessel is holding the beverage, creating a better visual overall.
Compare both images here. Shot in the exact same room, exact same angle, using only natural light diffused through typical, opaque- white mini blinds. This is the easiest set up to duplicate at home on at a restaurant. The image on the left was ‘front lit’ and the image on the right ‘back lit’. To backlight this image (right) I just placed the glass directly in front of the window (with closed blinds). To front light this image (left) I moved the glass in front of the wall opposite the window and had the window at my back while shooting.
You can see that the ‘front lit’ image (left) in comparison is rather ‘flat’ looking. (Photographers use the term ‘flat’ as a general term when describing images. It can be used to specify technical aspects of an image such as with the looks of lighting or contrast. We also will use the term to describe compositional traits of the image as when an image lacks depth in showing a clear foreground and background. At times we may even go as far as using the term ‘flat’ to convey just an over all ‘general feeling’ that an image is providing.) Again comparing the images above, the front lit image (left) is fairly monochromatic between the surface beneath the glass, the wall behind the glass and even as far as the lines of the glass. The ice cubes as well blend into the image especially compared to the back lit image on the right. You can clearly note ‘more contrast’ with this image. The window (background) and surface are clearly separated and not only are the water droplets more noticeable, but the lines of the glass are darker and further defined as well. This is especially noticeable at the bottom of the glass. The same definition of improved contrast can be seen clearly within the ice cubes. As light shines through, the natural prismatic effect does it’s job in creating better interest. The transparency of the liquid is starting to show a little better and you can begin to make out a clear gradation from light pink around the top to a deeper, richer color at the base. Either image is far from being considered a portfolio showpiece but hopefully you can clearly see that by just positioning your beverage to shoot it with ‘backlight’ can make a drastic improvement.
Turn off your ‘on camera’ flashes (this is front lighting)! Put your drink between you and a window (They are fairly easy to find…this is backlighting). Adjust exposure as high as you can until the point where you begin to lose detail in the glass. Close your eyes for a second or two and look at it again. If if makes you thirsty, your done. Post it, share it, sell it, blog it. (ok that’s like 4 things, but really, it’s a simple way to drastically increase the overall appeal of your next beverage shot.)
Some more examples of backlit beverages (or objects like a honey jar).