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Anatomy of a photo: Balvenie Scotch

Several unconnected events converged to make this photo (below). First, I received a review copy of The Nikon Creative Lighting System by Mike Hagen (from rockynook and NikoniansPress publishing). A review is on the way. Second, and more importantly, I received as a gift a bottle of Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old single malt scotch.

Read on to get details of the lighting setup and what I think works and could be improved in this photo.

Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old

The setup

This scene was lit with two off-camera flashes. The first reflected from an umbrella directly to camera left set at -1.3 EV. The second directly behind the bottle, aimed at about a 45 degree up angle and towards the camera at 0 EV (TTL mode, normal sync). This flash was zoomed to 50mm. Both flashes were triggered wirelessly from the D90 built-in commander which did not contribute to the exposure. 98mm, 1/60s, f/5.6.

Flash setup

The good

Let’s talk about what I like in this photo and what I don’t like. First, the good. Overall, I got the effect I was going for. The scotch seems to radiate with a warm, inner light (which is just how it makes you feel). The tone is somewhat dark and moody as one would expect from a drink that’s so, you know, manly.

I intentionally used settings to blur the background container while still keeping all of the important text legible. I very much like the reflections of the whisky on the container. The background is dark and all of the attention is on the bottle. This photo (shot as a JPG fine) was cropped, resized, and sharpened slightly. No other image adjustments were made. It was the best of about 15 different takes.

The bad

Flaws Flaws are more interesting thought, aren’t they? For starters, the bottle isn’t full (a). I was willing to sacrifice a perfect photo for a dram or two. I guess that makes me a bad photographer. But I have no regrets.

I zoomed the flash behind the bottle to 50mm to help minimize light spill (b). You can still see some light reflecting off the bottle, lower right. This would be virtually impossible to completely eliminate without using a snoot for the flash but is easily removed in post-processing.

There’s even more light spill lighting up the side of the container behind the bottle. Whether this is a flaw or not is a matter of taste. Again, it could be eliminated with a snoot on the rear flash. This area would be more difficult to deal with in post.

I have a feeling that the photo would be better off without the window reflections on the bottle (d). Or perhaps, with cleaner reflections. Closing the curtains or moving to a different room without windows would have helped. It would be very difficult and time-consuming to cleanly remove the reflections on the neck in post so this is definitely a decision you want to make while shooting.

A little extra light on the tube container in the background (c) would have helped balance the photo a little better and added interest without taking away from the bottle. Maybe just a little rim lighting on the left side. Or maybe a dim spotlight thrown across “The Balvenie”…

What do you think? Any tips to share? What would you change about this photo?

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you’re interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.

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  • Only that the bottle should be a little more empty ;)

    • Hmm… how much more empty? Should I mail it out to you so you can show me exactly? ;-)

  • a couple more things I’d try are:

    1. using a long light source coming from the side, to give a nice wine-like lighting on the bottle’s right side (given that you do eliminate the reflections from the window on the bottle).

    2. placing the bottle on a glass surface, illuminating it form the bottom, letting the light disperse inside the bottle (and enjoying a nice reflection of the bottle on the surface).

    I really like the results you got from that back light. The lit strip is awesome.

  • Good illustration on how you can do a lot with basic hardware. With a great result. And one of my all time favourite whiskies as well.

  • I don’t know what’s more tempting in your setup – the bottle of delicious, honey and vanilla bottle of Balvenie or second Nikon flash I lack at this time.

    Awesome anatomy of the photo, great result.
    P.S. If you like Balvenie try Cragganmore or Macallan French Oak

  • Nice, simple strobist setup.
    Resulted in a great picture!

    Mike

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