Conjured Images

Invoking the Magic of Light and Shadows

What goes into creating this image?

One of the goals for the thoughts page was to help customers better understand the processes of what we do. Hopefully that will help them understand why we ask them to do things like examine the products they are going to send us or why we may ask for multiple samples. It is also hoped that it will help our customers when they are making decisions about their own layouts.

We also hope to show that we actually do create our own images. We don't have a web developer download some pretty pictures, make a web site and then call ourselves photographers. The "have cell phone will travel" model that is all the rage. All the images you see on our site were created in house by us unless specifically labeled other wise and we have the raw files to prove it.

In this article we are going to take a look at some of the things we might do in creating an image. It should be noted that there is no one size fits all approach to creating images. Every product requires a different approach, the one we are outlining here is just the approach we took this time. Even if we were to shoot the same product again we may choose a different approach.

This shoot was done specifically for this article.The image that we came up with is this one.

99 whiskey bottle

The reason why we chose to go with a bottle for the subject of this shot is that glass, especially curved glass, is traditionally one of the hardest subjects to shoot. On the one hand if you point a light at it, like you would with any other subject, the light just passes through and does nothing. On the other hand a bottle is like a curved mirror that reflects every thing in the room. Managing those reflections is part of the challenge. The payoff is that when you nail a glass shot they can look so good.

The first step of the process was to take a look at the project and decide what we wanted the final product to look like. When a customer contacts us some times they have worked with their art dept, decided what the final product should look like and simply want us to capture it. Some companies especially new ones would like us to help them decide what is possible and what would work best for their campaign and budget. As we are our own client in this case we decided to go with a blue back lit look on a reflective surface. Two benifits of this layout are that the back ground enhances the image with out being busy and distracting. It also leaves lots of space in case you need to add text or logos with out them getting lost.

You can almost always tell a better story by adding a couple of props. We have an odd collection of one off plates, glasses etc to suite different layouts so we decided to go with the "whisky" glass in the picture. At this point we were able to remove the back label from the bottle and begin the cleaning process. Every product photographer has a little air let out of them when they discover that some of the most powerful tools they have aren't their crazy expensive camera and lenses but rather a dust brush, microfibre cloth and rubbing alcohol.

The next step was thinking about how we wanted to light it. Keeping with our blue backlit vibe we wanted to put the bottle and the glass on a glass surface. In this case we set up a large black mirror on a table spaced away from a wall. We then put a strobe light with a blue gel under the table pointed at the wall. That is our back light source.

A gradient down one or both sides is a go to any time we are shooting a curved surface like a bottle as it helps accentuate the shape. In order to get that we added a large soft defused light source off to camera left. For reasons we will get to later in the article we couldn't stop there with the lighting and some of the extra lighting we were going to use would conflict with what we had done so far. Because of that it was decided that this would become a composite shot where we take multiple shots of the same product and combine them into one final image.

At this point we have the table setup with the glass and bottle on it. We have our back light and large soft light set up and we have the camera locked off on a tripod and framed up the way we want. At this point we are able to take a couple of shots of what will become our base shot. One is shot with a higher exposure than the other so we have more flexibility in post production. That base picture is shown below.

base picture

It should be pretty obvious why we wanted to do this as a composite image and why this picture couldn't actually exist in real life and needed to be conjured. That is because color science tells us blue light shining through a golden mostly transparent liquid is going to appear green. Fortunately there is an old product photographers trick that gets used all the time in liquor shots where you put some thing gold or yellow colored behind the liquor to help enhance it's color. That is what we did here. We took a shot with a strobe light pointing at some gold foil behind the bottle then did the same thing for the glass. The foil blocks the blue light and reflects golden light through. At that point we were able to composite the golden liquid into the bottle. You will notice that at this point we haven't done the reflection of the bottle.That is because we want to get the bottle finalized before we deal with it's reflection.

gold bottle

The labels on this bottle are interesting. While the color scheme is a simple black on white, what gives it interest is the paper and the printing process they used. If you go back to the final image and zoom into 100% or 200% you will see that the graphics team have selected a very textured paper as well as a printing method that makes the lettering stand out just slightly which creates a bit of a 3D effect which makes the lettering pop. Capturing subtle details like that can really enhance an image and separates the pros from some one just taking a snapshot.

In order to capture that detail we used a hard light source shooting down from above. That completely negates the soft light we are using for the rest of the bottle which was the main reason why we decided to do this as a composite. We also added some movement to the light to give it a bit of an uneven dappled look. This prevents the label from looking flat and gives it extra interest. After capturing the labels we are able to cut them out and composite them in.

At the same time we chose to focus on the top of the bottle. In this case we wanted to capture the gain of the wood which meant another hard light but to also capture the cork and not leave it in shadow we shot it from further forward pointed back and down and slightly to the side. With that done we were able to composite in the top. With that complete we could start working on the glass.

Middle Label

Then adding in the bottom label.

Middle Bottom

The lettering on the glass is white and has a very narrow font. One of the tricks in this shoot was capturing the lettering with out it getting lost in the back ground. One choice we had to make was do we light the lettering from the front making the letters bright white or leave it back lit making the letters dark? We tried both ways and settled on leaving the letters back lit. I had mentioned earlier that we had taken two pictures of the bottle against the back ground. One with a brighter exposure and one with a darker exposure. By placing one over the other and then altering the transparency of the top image we are able to change the brightness of the back ground to get a subtle balance that is bright enough to look right shining through the base of the bottle and the glass, yet not so bright as to make the text on the glass get lost in the back ground.

Glass Top

Once we were done with that we were able to composite in the refection of the glass and balance it to match the actual glass.

Glass Bottom

At this point we are able to start working on the finer refinements. If you look at the picture below you will see just to the right of the bottom label there is a dark spot that looks a little odd so we decided to remove it. Below the main label there is a bright spot which is actually a reflection of the glass. Whether to leave it in or take it out is an artistic decision and we chose to take it out as it didn't have enough definition to show what it was and was just a distraction. Similarly there is a black vertical line running down from the left edge of the image and again we chose to remove it.

Clean up

We should note that we aren't beating up on the manufacturer of the product. Every one that manufactures some thing tangible knows that when you are mass producing products there will always be varience from your ideal product that is introduced by the manufacturing process. It can be a slight variance of color from batch to batch. It can be a seem that isn't 100% straight in clothing or what ever. While we never like to correct any thing in post, including our own work, if we can and it will improve the image we will. Back to work.

There was a tear in the very top label that has "Ninty Nine" spelled out and we had to tape it down in order to get the shot but it looked patched so we went in and corrected that as well. Later we chose to remove the very small teal gap between the liquid in the glass and the base. There are flaws in the glass in a number of places that were corrected, the most glaring being in the blue region at the base of the bottle. One example is the base of the bottle which wasn't manufactured very flat. That is extremely common with mass produced bottles. In this case we raised the right hand side a bit in post but we usually ask customers to examine their products for flaws before shipping them to us or we will ask them to ship us a few copies so we can pick the one that will require the least amount of work in post. There were flaws in the glass showing in the base region that we removed. There was also a reflection on the left side of the base that we removed. Finally there was some ink printing done directly on the bottle base that was removed.

The ink had smudged a bit in the 99 of the middle label. We went in and cleaned that up as well.

You may have looked at the bottle and the glass and wondered how there could be whiskey in the glass when the bottle is still full? In this case we used iced tea in the glass. The down side to that is that it left a number of bubbles both in the liquid and on the surface. In a coffee shot we would have left those in but alcohol due to it's nature doesn't retain bubbles long. So we went in and removed the bubbles.

The curse of the landscape photographer is passenger planes leaving white trails across their beautiful sky lines. For product photographers it is dust. Most people aren't aware of how much dust there is in the air because in most light it isn't very visible. But point the light in the wrong direction and it stands out like a neon sign. From the time we cleaned the bottle and the mirror to when we took the last shot there was a period of ~5 hours. Over that time some where around 300 - 400 flecks of dust had landed on the black mirror and needed to be removed individually. That leaves us with our final image at the top of the page.

For a regional type campaign with it's corresponding budget and depending on end use we would probably stop here. If it was a national campaign with a bigger budget there is another 4 - 8 hours of work we could do if the client required it. If this image was going to be used on large posters or on TV we would also do some more work on it.

One of the big benefits of doing this as a composite shot is that by this point we have broken down all the various parts of the image and isolated them so we can work on them separately. If the customer says they would like the main label a little brighter it is trivial for us to do that. If they want to change the color of the lid slightly we can do that as well. Due to the current conditions requiring social distancing, a room full of people sharing their feed back in real time isn't really practical any more. Because of that we want to maintain as much flexibility as possible when we deliver the product so that we can make changes if the customer asks for revisions.

There is quite a bit of work that goes into an image like this and some of the changes are pretty subtle. So why go through all that effort? Because your picture or video is often one of the most critical parts of your campaign. It is often a customers first contact with your product and the part that will grab their attention in the few seconds you have their attention. If it doesn't make an impression then every thing else may have been in vane.

We hope that you have gained some knowledge to help you with your decisions when you are planning your next campaign. If you have any questions about what we presented here or would like to discuss your next campaign please feel free to use our contact page.