Tutorial: Lighting a simple wine bottle

There are a lot of tutorials and videos on line about lighting bottles, and although the principles are universal, there are many different types of bottle so I’ve split this topic into separate parts, with this part dealing with a simple, classical wine bottle and with a separate tutorial on a whisky bottle, which is a bit more complex and which needs a different approach.

wine_2-2 The overiding principle, which never changes, is that we can’t actually photograph glass at all, because it’s invisble. Because of this we photograph only those parts of the subject that are not invisible, and these include:

  1. The shape (which is never invisible because, even if the contents are completely clear, the construction of the bottle, together with its contents, refracts the light, which creates an interference to the passage of light that we can photograph).
  2. Anything that’s engraved or moulded onto the glass surface – with this particular bottle, there are no mouldings or engravings.
  3.  The contents, which normally have some kind of colour, and the colour of the glass, if it isn’t completely clear.
  4. Anything that isn’t clear, such as a label.

Now, this particular bottle is especially easy to photograph because it has such a simple shape. More complex shapes don’t always lend themselves to this technique.

The lighting is in two parts, and the first part is Brightfield Lighting (also known as Whitefield Lighting, same thing) and in consists of placing it against a pure white background, so that the light simply shines through it, giving a glow to the contents, and defining the shape of the bottle.

Brightfield Lighting can be achieved in various different ways, for example by bouncing light off of a white background, but for this shot I simply placed a 70 x 100cm softbox behind the bottle. Any softbox will do in theory, but
1. It needs to be large enough for the job but not much larger than it needs to be, because if it’s too big it may ‘wrap’ light around the subject, and will also create unwanted contrast reduction and may even create flare. If you haven’t got one small enough, reduce the effective size by using Cinefoil or some other form of masking over the unwanted parts of the softbox, or by flagging.
2. The power needs to be adjusted so that it’s only just bright enough to render the background as pure white – anything more power than this will create the contrast reduction and flare mentioned above, and will also over-illuminate the contents. It needs to be lit by a flash head, not by a speedlight, because only a studio flash will light the front diffuser as well and as evenly as it needs to be
4. It mustn’t be too close to the bottle, again to avoid unwanted wrap, loss of contrast and flare.

To keep this shot simple, I used a piece of white acrylic and sat the bottle on it, but of course you can use anything you like – a table top, a bedside table or a bar would work just as well, and probably better, it all depends on how the shot will be used. And again, to keep it simple, I didn’t include any glasses, but Brightfield Lighting works even better with glasses than with bottles! Just a quick if obvious tip – if you’re going to include glasses, make it two, which is sociable/romantic – a single glass can indicate a drink problem 🙂

The video mentions that the bottle needs to be cleaned thoroughly before the shoot, and also mentions that any ‘product

Brightfield lighting alone doesn't light the sides or label

Brightfield lighting alone doesn’t light the sides or label

information’ labels etc have to be removed and that the bottle has to be arranged with the label dead square to the camera, and these points are absolutely vital. Details that I didn’t mention in the video, but which may be worth knowing, is that the camera is set to look down slightly on the bottle so that it’s top is visible to the camera, and that I set the aperture to f/16, to make sure the depth of field will be adequate – but that was with a full frame camera, don’t go smaller than f/11 with a cropped sensor camera.

The photo above is just with the BrightField lighting, the softbox behind the bottle.  But as you can see from the photo on the right, it isn’t enough on its own, because the light is behind the label, so the label is photographing as almost black, and come to that so are the edges of the bottle, due to the refraction of the light passing through the bottle. So, I added a strip softbox each side of the bottle, dead square and angled forwards, and very close. These softboxes added the diffused specular highlight to each side of the bottle, simply adjust the power until you’re happy with the result. Strip softboxes were designed specifically for lighting bottles, and are the ideal tool for the job. Because of the angle of these softboxes, they also lit the label.

There here is a shot without the brightfield lighting, that is with the flash that’s fitted to the main softbox switched off. And, because the light from each of the strip softboxes is wine_no_softboxangled forward, none of that light reaches the background, so the white softbox photographs as black. So, if you don’t want a white background and if you don’t want to show the colour of the wine, use a different background (which of course you can light selectively if you want) and use a different product base, such as a table, instead of the white acrylic.