Category Archives: product

A little product experiment

Ardbeg – dark, smokey and mysterious

Well, it’s day two of Covid-19 lockdown here in Scotland so I thought I’d aim to post a picture every day or so. Lockdown here essentially means staying at home apart from some very limited exceptions including taking some time outside to have fresh air and excercise whilst maintaining social distancing. I am aiming to have a daily walk and to take my camera with me. Those might offer up some shots.

Otherwise it’s a case of what can be done indoors. To that end I thought I’d share this photo of a bottle of Ardbeg (it’s a personal favourite).

My business as a commercial photographer is in hibernation until such time as the restrictions are removed or reduced to a level that allows business to resume. Part of what I offer is product photography, and I thought it would be fun to see what can be done with minimal resources. So here is the story of the shot.

Normally, doing a product shoot we begin with a client brief noting the characteristics and mood they want to convey. In this instance I was doing this for myself, for fun and experimentally. I should be clear that Ardbeg are not sponsoring this blog or supporting me in any way.

In the absence of brief I began by thinking about how I taste and experience Ardbeg and of what it evokes for me. My whisky tastes are divided between summer and winter. Summer is a time for lighter Strathspey and Highland malts. For winter I like the deeper warmth and peaty flavours of the island malts. Winter is a dark time, especially the futher north we are, and so I wanted the photo to reflect that but to contain a hint of promising light. As I reflected on the flavours I came to the conclusion that, for me, Ardbeg is dark, smokey and mysterious. Those then, were the mood cues I wanted to pick up on.

There was a lot of experimentation before I ended up with this shot. Lighting, background, staging etc. Here’s the mix of things that finally came together to produce the shot.

Background: I had tried using a black backdrop but it was just too much. After trying lots of things I settled on suing an Ordnance Survey map. Ideally it would be one of Isla but as I don’t have that map (and can’t now pop out to buy one) I settled for a coastal map just to give a hint at land and sea. I also needed that to drop way back in terms of the lighting so that it became a subtle backdrop.

Staging: I wanted to have the bottle raised and tried setting it on an elevated glass platform so that I could light from below, but I just wasn’t happy with the results that was giving me. I settled for a small wooden crate type box which I had bought a couple of years ago in Ikea s a potential prop. It would become very significant for one aspect of the shot – more on that later.

Lighting: I tried different set-ups using Godox strobes but while I could generate some degree of the dark mood I wanted, I still wasn’t happy with how things were looking though felt I was getting close. I then decided to pop a small LED light behind the bottle to create some inner glow. The magic worked when I decided to make that the major light source and powered the strobe way back so that it’s more like ambient daylight creeping in from a window. You can see the highlight of this on the bottle neck. Now we were getting there but one vital element was missing.

Back the staging: By now I felt I was getting dark and mysterious bt what about the smokey? Well, I just happen to have some peat cones, and a peaty flavour is one of the notes of Ardbeg. Those peat cones are meant to burn slowly in a room to add a peaty aroma – I’ve been known to do that of a winter’s evening while savouring a wee dram. I remembered that these things give off a little smoke as thy burn so I popped one under the box I was using for staging. That had some gaps between the wooden slats and was small enough to allow the smoke to accumulate without putting the cone out and then to seep gently through the gaps in the box.

And so the elements came together to produce this photo. There was some post-production editing in Lightroom, but it was very minimal. The camera was tripod mounted for stability and locked-off composition. It also allowed for an exposure of 1/8 sec at f8 with an ISO of 200.

Pic of the week – Friday 17 May 2019

Strawberry splash
Strawberry drops

Making a splash

This is one from the archive, albeit recently.

It’s a shot from a test set-up for a product shoot in which I was aiming for a low key look with lots of contrast to separate the subject from the background. I also wanted to get a lighting set up which would freeze the action but also be fairly even.

I achieved this by using flash positioned to the right of the subject as we look and, instead of using a reflector as fill, I used a mirror to throw back an almost equal intensity of light. I used a black backdrop and set the subject far enough in front of it to get the most benefit of the inverse squared rule to make sure I kept the background black.

Rather than put my signature watermark on the image itself, I’ve chosen to put it on a border which I think looks less intrusive in this case, I created the border by adjusting the canvass size in Photoshop then adding a white layer.

A product shot set up

Product shot - Edradour

First of all, let me be clear that Edradour are not paying me for this or sponsoring me for advertising in any way. My aim was only to experiment with a product set-up and lighting.

Before I began I had a fair idea of what I wanted the final image to look like so I planned the set-up to aim for achieving it though, as will become evident there was an alteration made during the shoot.

I was clear that I wanted a black background so set up the studio with a black backdrop which extended down vertically then horizontally along the table under the product and all the way to the camera position. I also wanted to have crisp, sharp lighting so opted for flash with no diffusion. I positioned the flash close to the product to take advantage of the inverse square law to minimise any lighting on the backdrop. If you’re not sure. the inverse square law in photographic lighting is is basically about the intensity of light radiating from a light source (strobe, flash, hot light etc) and how the intensity of that light on a subject is (inversely) proportional to the square of the distance from the light source. Therefore a light source close to the subject resulting in a correct exposure on the subject will render the more distant background much darker. And if that background is already black…

I only wanted to work with one principal light source – largely from the side but clearly needed to make sure the opposing side didn’t fall into dark shadow. Rather than use a reflector, I set up a small mirror to the left of the subject with the flash to the right. Using a mirror would help retain the sharpness of lighting that I wanted.

I also wanted to have a reflection going on so positioned a flat mirror on the table and placed the subjects on that. Because of the shooting angle, it was possible to ensure that the mirror reflected the backdrop as well as the subjects.

The basic layout in plan view looked like this:

Here you can see the flash positioned to the right right and slightly forward of the subject which is sitting on the base mirror. The arrow shows the direction of the flash. To the left of the subject is the reflecting mirror with dotted arrows representing the bounced light. At the bottom is the camera position. The flash was triggered with a remote system from the camera.

Behind the subject, I eventually positioned another light. I wasn’t happy with the initial shots and felt that there needed to be an “inner glow” to the bottle. To achieve this I set up a small LED unit at minimum power to provide the back light giving a pleasing glow to the bottle and contents.

There was some very light touch editing in Lightroom and Photoshop for colour balance and to make sure the background was consistently black. It was very light touch though with most of the work done in camera.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the result but have some slight issues with the lighting on the nosing glass which seems a little harsh despite toning that down in editing.

All in all though, a pleasing result.

A location product shoot

I thought it might be interesting to write about a little product shoot I did earlier this week which was done on location in The Lemon Tree cafe in Leven.

There are  pros and cons in doing a location shoot. Probably the biggest downside is not having use of a studio and therefore full control of the lighting. The upside, however, is that as this is food product, it was all prepared fresh and looked at it’s best.

So here’s a look at the basic set-up I used (which I shot on my phone)

camera and lighting set-up


I asked to use a table at the feature window as it would provide good diffused light to flood the various subjects. This was especially effective as the sun was at around 90 degrees to the window which meant no direct light and the harsh shadows that would come with it. I then used two artificial light sources. As can be seen in the set up above, I used a tripod mounted flash with a soft box. I balanced this with a small continuous LED which is hiding behind the camera. The LED was mounted on a Gorilla Pod for ease and flexibility of positioning.

As you an see, the flash was triggered via a cabled connection to the camera hot shoe. As there were three different light sources working together, I set the camera white balance to auto with the intention of adjusting this in post if necessary. In the end it only needed a very small adjustment.

I opted for aperture priority on the camera and set the flash to manual operation. Using a couple of test shots to get the lighting I wanted, I made adjustments to the flash output, shooting at a reduced power. The soft box was to make sure I had a diffused light which was not overpowering the background natural daylight. The LED has three output settings and, again, the test shots allowed me to find the optimum balance of light between the LED and the flash.

I shot at f8 which is pretty much around the sweet spot of the lens I was using. I wanted to have a nice sharp focus exactly where I chose and with just enough depth of field. To keep things nice and steady I used a cable release for the camera – it’s sensible when you go to the bother of using a tripod. If you don’t have a cable release, the next best option is to use a two second delay on the shutter release.

By now, you might be wondering how the shots turned out. Well, here’s one with the same subject as in the set up above:

cafe sandwich

Lemon chicken sandwich

What you might spot here is that the LED became a principal light – note the shadow from the salad – with natural daylight providing the background flood with reduced power flash filling shadows and picking out highlights.

Post production was mostly done in Lightroom. As I wanted to have a consistent feel across all the images, I created a pre-set out of the settings I used on the first one I processed and used that as a basis for all the others, requiring only minimal adjustments in each case, I know you can sharpen in Lightroom and I generally do so preferring to use heavy masking to make sure I only sharpen what I want to. On this occasion though, I sharpened the images in Photoshop using a High Pass set to 5 pixels.

If you are curious about the LED, as you can’t see it in the set-up shot above, here it is as mounted on my Gorilla Pod.

small fill light

LED light

And finally, I should say that the Lemon Chicken sandwich was delicious. If you ever find yourself in Leven, make a point of visiting The Lemon Tree. The cakes are also amazing!

You can see some of the other product shots and more here on my website.