Studio Photography on a Shoestring Budget

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Aside from crafting delicious wine beverages, my other favorite pastime is photography—and one of my favorite things about having a beverage brand is getting to exercise my product photography skills (which were virtually non-existent before this last year). 

Black plexiglass shown here.

Black plexiglass shown here.

I wanted to share a quick post about a photo project I did last week to turn my garage into a make-shift product photography studio for under $100 (camera not included...). Anyone with some patience, a camera and some basic household goods can do the same to get great bottle shots. 

The first thing I did was to get an old white bed sheet and hang it over the ceiling track for our garage door opener and position it to the side of the ping-pong table we have in the garage (a ping-pong table is not a strict requirement, any flat surface will do).

The most expensive item I bought for this shoot was a square piece of black plexiglass (also known as acrylic) from our local plastic-supply store. This plexiglass has a really nice reflective quality to it that's great for making any product look really classy and professional. I bought mine for $36, so it's not too bad. I set the plexiglass on top of the table and used some shims to get it nice and flat and put the bottle in the center. 

Lamps positioned behind hung bedsheet

Lamps positioned behind hung bedsheet

I then found two lamps (one reading lamp and one desk lamp) and positioned them behind the bed sheet, opposite the table. Positioning the lamps here is the tricky part and it takes patience. The key is to position one lamp just behind where your bottle is to get a really nice, defined edge line on the glass. That's the nice white line of light you see on bottles that really gives it definition and contrast. The second lamp should be positioned so the light shines just in front of where your bottle will be—this is your main light that will illuminate the bottle. Try moving the lamps forward and back and see the effect it has on the bottle. One trick is to buy some basic tracing paper from an art store and put the paper in front of your lamps to help diffuse the light and prevent any harsh reflections from showing up on your glass (if your lamp gets really hot, be careful because this could be a fire hazard).

Bottle-shaped foil reflector shown here behind the bottle

Bottle-shaped foil reflector shown here behind the bottle

The next step requires some craftsmanship—you need to build a cardboard-cutout reflector to bounce light from behind your bottle to get that nice bottle glow. We'll position the reflector at a 45-degree angle from your light to the back of the bottle to bounce the light through the glass and towards the camera. Take some cardboard or posterboard and trace around your bottle so you get a nice shape that matches the contours of your bottle. Then wrap the cutout in aluminum foil and use a bent paperclip taped to the back as a little kickstand. The trick is to position the cutout just behind the bottle so it can't be seen behind the camera. Tethering your camera to a laptop or smartphone (or having a partner) so you can see what you're doing can make this a lot easier. 

See the backdrop lamp-light here. 

See the backdrop lamp-light here. 

The final light you need is your background—I bought a simple black poster that kids use for science fair projects and propped it up on a chair just behind the back edge of the table (and used a dictionary to raise it up). I then got another desk lamp, put it on the ground and bounced the light at the bottom of the poster to give it a nice semi-circular glow. Again, you can use tracer paper here to reduce the brightness of the lamp if needed. 

Now for the finishing touch! To get that "sweating" condensation look on your bottle that's so popular in ads, you want to spray your bottle just before shooting. Here's the cool trick (that I learned from YouTube)! Buy a bottle of pure glycerin (CVS sells it) and a cheap water sprayer (also at CVS, in the travel section) and mix 50% glycerin and 50% water in the sprayer. The glycerin will help the water droplets "stick" to the bottle and allow you to focus on shooting without having the water running down the bottle. It's an amazing trick! 

Finally, it's time to shoot! I set my camera up on a little gorillapod tripod on the table and propped it up just slightly to capture enough of the reflective surface in the shot while still retaining a low-angle "hero shot" look. It's best to use a pretty long lens here—and the lower the aperture, the better. I used an 85mm prime lens on a full-frame camera at f/1.8 for this shot. Any lens set to 50mm or higher will probably do the trick. No iPhones! Get it nice and focused right on the label and use a remote or a timer on your camera to shoot to minimize camera shake. 

The final thing you may want to do is to wrap some more aluminum foil around a flat surface (I used a photo album lying around) to use as a reflector to illuminate the side of the bottle opposite your lights. If you're getting too much contrast in your shot, try playing with this reflector to help balance the light on the dark side of your bottle. 

That's all! Check out the final product below. Good luck shooting! Feel free to share or leave comments and questions below. 

I watched some great YouTube tutorials to get this shot, check them out yourself here, here, and here.