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Tips, Tricks and Gadgets for Taking Better Cocktail Photos

an overhead photo of a cocktail.
Taking a stunning photo of your drinks doesn't require a professional photographer or even a high priced camera. Instead, use your smart phone to take photos that will bring in guests by the masses. Photos by Kyle Ford.

In the digital age, it’s inevitable. Businesses that want to succeed have to secure a strong online presence, and that means taking and posting sharp, interesting and compelling photos. Consumers are increasingly swayed by strong visuals, and this truth extends to bars. Want people to come in and buy drinks? Try posting enticing photos of them.

For small bars and bars that just opened, this can seem out of reach. Paying for a professional photographer is prohibitively expensive for some, and certainly to do so on a regular basis is out of the question. If this is the boat you’re in, take heart! You don’t have to take out a second mortgage on your home or become trained as a professional photographer to take solid photos of your drinks. In fact, you can get the job done (and done well!) by familiarizing yourself with a few go-to angles, exploring editing apps, and perhaps making a few small investments into gadgets that will up your smartphone's camera capabilities.

We spoke with Kyle Ford, Instagram pro and co-founder of Ford Marketing Lab, an agency that markets to millennials. Through their innovative content and digital prowess, they create authentic digital relationships and social media influence. We asked Ford about how bartenders can make a few simple purchases to improve photos of their cocktails and build their social media presence.

A photo of a silhouetted cocktail. Taking a stunning photo of your drinks doesn't require a professional photographer or even a high priced camera. Instead, use your smart phone to take photos that will bring in guests by the masses. Photo by Kyle Ford.

What are some affordable tools that bartenders can purchase to take better photos using their iPhone cameras?

First and foremost is upgrading your smartphone to the latest model, since camera technology is constantly improving. It should go without saying that the camera your phone is equipped with will play a large part in determining your photo quality. Two things to pay attention to are megapixels and aperture, as these determine photo detail and your capability to shoot in low light, respectively. Pick a smartphone with a camera at or above 12MP and a wide aperture (low f-stop number). The big players here are Apple, Samsung and Google. Apple’s iPhone 7 has a 12MP sensor and a wide aperture of f/1.8. Similarly, Samsung's S7 has a 12MP sensor and an aperture of f/1.7 I personally use a Google Pixel XL, which clocks in at 12.3MP and f/2.0. It takes beautiful photos.

Once you have a good camera, it is time to accessorize. My top 3 picks would be:

  • Remote shutter: Useful for triggering your camera without camera shake (and selfies!)
  • Gorillapod or other tripod: Useful for stabilizing your camera and creative positioning
  • Portable LED light: Useful for adding “daylight" colored light to dark bar photos. I recently picked up a Manfrotto Lumimuse at the suggestion of another photographer. It is like having the power of the sun in your pocket.


What's the best angle to take a photo of a cocktail?

This really is a personal choice, based on the aesthetic you are trying to achieve. Here are 3 useful angles to play with:

  • My personal favorites is what I like to call a contextual cocktail shot. I used to exclusively shoot in this style. This is a wide and straight-on shot that frames a cocktail within its environment. Think Wes Anderson. I enjoy this style, because the photo not only showcases the cocktail, but tells the story of how and where it is consumed.
  • The most popular is probably the cocktail portrait, which is a close and angled shot that mimics how cocktails are actually viewed when sitting at a bar. This is the best way to showcase the cocktail and its garnish from a natural viewpoint.
  • Lastly, you have the overhead shot. This is a fun and stylized way to present a cocktail.

How do you stay inspired and creative?

I’m constantly inspired by my environment. The amount of work and attention to detail that goes into the design of most bars presents the cocktail photographer with an amazing array of backdrops. Simply look around. Every time I walk into a bar, I immediately scan for potential photos. Outside of that, the subject itself is liquid inspiration. The story behind a cocktail, the bartender who created it and the ingredients that comprise it, all play a role in the essence that I like to capture in a photo.

How do you deal with low light in bars when taking photos?

"Death before flash." I joke about getting that tattooed on my arm. Think about it, though. When was the last time you saw a great smartphone photo taken with a flash? Without getting too much into the science of light, just know that directly bombarding your subject with harsh lighting is generally going to make your photo look over-exposed and often accentuate undesirable details.

Instead of using flash, first look to take advantage of other sources of light in your environment. What is ideal is called ambient, indirect and diffused light. A great example of this kind of light is what pours through a window in the afternoon. This gives you a chance to play with shadows, while enveloping your subject in a warm, even embrace of light without glare. Even when the ambient light is not ideal, snap a photo anyway. One of the advantages of digital photography on a smartphone is that there are several options for adjusting your photo after the fact. While it will never be a good as capturing a photo in ideal lighting, using your favorite photo editing app to adjust things like exposure, highlights, shadows and contrast can definitely improve the situation.

When all else fails, it may be time to bring out the big guns. In otherwise impossible circumstances, use off-camera LED lighting. You can employ the use of a friend’s flashlight feature on their smartphone to light the environment, or use professional grade lighting like the Manfrotto Lumimuse suggested above. Just remember, do not point it directly at the cocktail.

A cocktail with a wall in the background. When it comes to choosing the background for your cocktail photos, keeping it simple is often the best advice.

What's the ideal background for a cocktail photo?

This is a stylistic choice, but simplicity is often key to the best photos. Keep in mind that the subject of your photo is the cocktail. You do not want to your background to distract from that. Seek out a spot within the bar with good lighting, a background that gives you a sense of place and elements that draw your attention to the cocktail.

Any general tips for making drinks look as appetizing as possible?

Look at the cocktail and ask yourself, “Am I enticed to drink this?” Glassware and garnish are vitally important in dressing a cocktail up for a photo. Don’t overdo it with the styling, but make sure everything looks to be in its place. I prefer for cocktails to look as natural as possible. This means photographing them the moment they are finished being crafted, when they look most composed, before the ice melts or frost dissipates too much. Again, avoid using flash or harsh lighting, as this has a tendency of accentuating undesirable details.

What about things to avoid in your photos?

Before you take a photo, think about its composition. Bad composition can be avoided by asking yourself these four questions:

  • Is there a clearly defined subject and background? No? Then what exactly are you photographing and why?
  • Is there a sense of balance? Consider the weight of everything in your photo.
  • Is there a purposeful point of view? Play with perspective. Taking photos from a unique angle can make them more memorable and help to develop your own style.
  • Is there a degree of simplicity? While busy photos can work, it is generally best not to confuse or overwhelm your viewer. Unless, of course, that is what you are going for.

These questions will help guide you toward better composition, without getting too much into the science and art of photography. However, I’ve elaborated on the essentials for smartphone photography on a blogpost on my website, for those who want to learn more.

Do you use/recommend any particular apps for editing? What do you take into consideration when editing?

Outside of a decent camera, the robust digital photo editing apps available today are the best tool in improving your cocktail photos.

With the use of filters and other adjustments, you can correct and stylize an image to better match what you had in mind. All from your phone, you can crop a photo to frame a subject correctly, while also adjusting important things like brightness, contrast, saturation and sharpness. You can easily play around with adjustments under Instagram's edit tab for free, or download another app like VSCO for even more filter and editing options. For the advanced, I highly recommend Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile, because it includes an invaluable “white balance” tool that helps color correct dark bar photos. Some other pro tips:

  • Always sharpen your photos to some degree. Every social media platform compresses your uploaded images, immediately reducing their quality.
  • Straighten your images, when applicable. If something is slightly or needlessly askew, it can throw off the balance of your photo.
  • Cool off your image. The human eye tends to be more attracted to blue and white tones. This can be achieved by adjusting your image's white balance, temperature, tint and/or pulling out some saturation. Give it a try in your app of choice and see what looks best.
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