The Kiwi cocktail at Urban in St. Louis.

Dramatic Cocktail, Dramatic Lighting Technique

At the end of June and the beginning of July, I worked on a large project for Feast magazine which involved about sixteen individual shoots all over St. Louis. It was a whirlwind of shoots in a very short period of time (about ten days including the July 4th holiday) and so each shoot had to be short and sweet. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to carefully plan out each shot and test lighting schemes. I had to arrive on location, get set up and get the shot. Fast.

I ran into an interesting challenge while photographing the Kiwi Cocktail at Urban in St. Louis. I arrived for the shoot at around 6:30pm, and the setting sun was streaming in the window. It was beautiful, but I didn’t think sunset was exactly the sort of lighting I needed for Urban (which is more of a nightclub). I had to come up with a plan to make my cocktail shot look like it was taken at midnight on a Saturday.

Urban’s decor is kind of eclectic – it’s got sort of a world lounge feel – low chairs and couches, blue stucco walls. Not at all like the sleek silver and glass style nightclub I was expecting. I walked around the space for a few minutes trying to decide on a surface and background to shoot the cocktail and wasn’t coming up with anything that would read very well on film. I really liked the blue walls, but the tables and bar weren’t doing it for me. Then I noticed the wicker seats on the bar stools. Perfect! Now how do I light it?

The awesome thing about beverage photography is that you can push light through liquids in ways that you can’t with more solid subjects. When I was thinking about “nightclub” cocktail shots earlier in the week, I’d been thinking that I would put a gridded speedlight directly over the cocktail, to light it sort of like a spotlight. But when I saw the wicker bar stools I decided to turn my plan upside down: instead of putting the speedlight above the cocktail … I put it underneath and fired it through the holes in the wicker. A second speedlight to camera right provided the fill light. It was a bit of a gamble, since I hadn’t shot a cocktail in this manner before, but I was very pleased to see the dramatic effect that the light below provided. As an added bonus, the lower light also illuminated the background and gave me some interesting texture and color on the blue stucco wall.

Kiwi Cocktail

Moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and try something you haven’t done before. It’ll push you to make new and exciting images instead of the same old safe ones.

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