When I completed Strobist as a project in 2021, I promised to check back in when I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to do for traveling photographers what Strobist always tried to do for lighting photographers.

Thanks for giving it a look—and for your comments and feedback.

On Assignment: Flavored Vodkas

They run a regular drinks column at The Sun, which means that I get plenty of chances to shoot ... beer. Just in the last few months, I have shot illustrations for Octoberfest, wheat beers, beer glasses, etc.

So I was relieved to hear that we would be doing vodka shots this time. And shooting pictures, too! (Ba-dump, ping...)

No, no. We didn't drink any of the vodka. As far as you can prove, anyway.

We have a nice photo/design groove going with features right now. Which means that ideas and comps are being preconceived, but with enough flexibility left in the process to call an audible at the last minute.

Example: A couple of weeks ago we shot this tightly comped tableau-style "Live!" cover on how to break into the big leagues as a rock star. At the end of the shoot I shot a throwaway-type of a detail, and the designer swapped it out for the cover shot and ran the original shot inside as a lede. It never occurred to me that it would have been a cover when I shot it, but it looked great in the end.

It's a positive vicious cycle, really, when you get a little synergy going between departments. People are willing to experiment, take chances, change ideas, leave the door open for someone else to make a last-minute change - whatever.

It just comes down to what looks best on the page. Leave the bruised egos at the door and be open to a new idea from anywhere.

It is in this spirit that the designer had loosely comped the idea for flavored vodkas. She wanted to have the "flavor" items in the vodka-filled glasses, but left it open from there. She also had some neat, tall shot glasses (from Crate and Barrel) that were the exact sort of thing I would have gone for, given the opportunity.

I knew I wanted to backlight the glasses to create a strong, repetitive pattern and include a partial reflection to have the repetition created on a second axis. I also knew this meant I would have to light the shot on two different planes, to have lighting control just on the contents of the glasses.

So, we're talking about a basic, two-speedlight deal: One on the subject and one on the background.

I stretched the setup out, shooting with an 80-200 lens (at about 200mm) at the glasses, which were about 10 feet away from the camera. The background was another 8 feet away.

This meant that I could position the "food" light close in and not affect the background, and vice versa.

I put the glasses on a sheet of white acrylic and lit a sheet of white seamless paper behind them to create a silhouette, as shown here:

Why white acrylic? Because that's what we had. I would have preferred black, as it would have reflected the background just fine and not contaminated my glasses reflection a little as did the white.

But this ain't Madison Avenue. So we use what we have, we work quick and we improvise when needed.

I liked the graphic quality of the photo, but I did not like how high the horizon (the curvy, refracted back edge of the acrylic mid-way up) ended up in the glasses. This problem was solved by moving the glasses closer to the back of the acrylic, which brought that curvy line down some.

Next, I built a little "room with a skylight" for the glasses out of a Boise Cascade copy paper box. These things are darn-near ubiquitous in any office. And right in my price range.

Here is the setup from the back, which shows the whole, massively complicated lighting scheme.

Rule Number One, for reverse engineering: Always assume "simple," until proven otherwise. It's like reading a mystery. Until it is shown that the butler could not have done it, assume he probably did it.

My skylight-soft-box was simply a box with a hole cut in the top, covered by a sheet of paper. This way, I could have made the "food light" any shape - strip light, square, oval, whatever.

Heck, I could have even put a sheet of black paper on the white paper with holes cut out for each glass - a set of mini soft boxes, if you will. I then could have made each light brighter or darker, (by adding more layers of paper over the individual holes) for custom control over individual-glass lighting for the darker-themed glasses.

The point is, I had total control, right down to the square inch. As it was, I snooted the flash, to avoid spilling light past the box onto the front of the acrylic. I also moved the "hot spot" around the paper until I liked the effect on the food.

Now I have complete control, not only between the background and foreground, but down to the micro level of the foreground. Not bad for a couple of speedlights and some throwaway office supplies.

Speaking of the speedlights, they were on manual. If I remember correctly, they were both on 1/8 power, but that should not matter to you.

The light-tuning process goes like this:

1. Adjust the power of the background light until you get a reasonable aperture for the tone you want. Which for me was about 2 stops over middle grey. Nothing fancy. Just chimped it.

2. Bring the second light in on your foreground objects. Working at your pre-determined aperture, adjust the light until your foreground stuff is as bright as you want it.

If this sounds complicated to you, it's not. Just try it. The key is having your subject and background far enough apart to where you can light them on separate planes.

Next, we moved on to the mechanics of the shot. You never know where your curve balls are gonna come from. This time the toughest parts of the shoot were (a) getting the glasses filled to (nearly) exactly the same levels, and (b) getting the internal spacing as close to exact as possible.

Shown here is the designer, (who I assure you has a perfectly normally shaped head and only two eyes) using a funnel to rough in the glasses. We used an eyedropper to fine tune.

Funny thing - we had to use real vodka and not water. The latter has a completely different viscosity and would have looked totally different at the edge of the glasses and around the food.

What is neat about this shot is how different it looks, given that the background light is blocked from reaching the background. This shows that (absent the designer being there) the background light - and its reflection - sets the tone for the whole photo.

When she moves away, we are right back to glasses floating on a sea of light tone. Same lighting scheme, but a totally different look because of a light modifier (the designer.)

Just something to stick in the back of your mind for later.

Here's a photo with the box included, straight on. I just cut the sides out to make a little pass-through tunnel for the shot. Total cost: Free, with a bonus (also free) customizable soft box in the ceiling.

Here's the fancy-pants mini soft box from the top, with paper. I use printer paper on almost every small product shot I do.

As Velvet Jones would have said, "What could be simpler dan dat?"

And for those of you, say, recovering from surgery in a hospital somewhere, still under the hazy influence of some really good pain pills, here's the patent-pending, $500 Micro Vodka Studio topless. Just to be as clear as possible.

Before I tear down, photo in hand, I always try something different.

Here, I dropped my aperture a couple of stops to see if I liked it with more of a grey theme. If I would have liked it, it would have been a simple matter to dial my front flash up a couple of stops to bring the food back up to the right exposure.

Those raspberries would have popped, lit against the grey. But I liked the white theme better, so I went with it.

So, were you close on the reverse engineer? My guess is if you missed it, you missed it by over-complicating it.

NEXT: Light the Details


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