Beverage alcohol ecommerce sales grew 42 percent last year, according to the IWSR. Online wine sales alone ballooned from $600 million in 2019 to nearly $2 billion in 2020. With so much brand building and selling occurring in the virtual realm, bad product photos are a liability. Whether you’re a new brand, a small retailer, or an established producer seeking to improve your customers’ online shopping experience, upgrading your bottle photography can have a big impact on your bottom line.
“Photography is such an incredible way to do the non-verbal storytelling,” said Brie Koenigs, the director of marketing for E. & J. Gallo Winery’s heritage luxury brands. “The bottle takes on a persona, it becomes the hero. And it’s really the visual interpretation of the personality of the brand.”
Get the Right Gear
Figuring out the right tools depends on the kind of shot you’re taking. Bottle photography falls into two distinct categories: Traditional bottle shots that feature only the bottle, often set against a neutral background, and lifestyle shots that can be set anywhere—in the vineyard, at a restaurant—that seek to convey emotion, experience, and craftsmanship.
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The brands Koenigs works with are “really steeped in a lot of history and tradition,” which is why she chose to invest in images of bottles contextualized in Talbott’s Carmel-by-the-Sea tasting room and its lush Monterey County vineyards in California’s Central Coast. “There is a key sense of place that we’re trying to communicate to consumers about where the brand lives and where it’s from.”
Even an iPhone camera can produce dramatic results that can approximate high-end cameras. Apple’s newest model, the iPhone 12 Pro, boasts a triple-lens rear camera with depth-sensing imaging technology called lidar, which improves image quality in low-light situations. Other phones like the Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel also offer impressive camera tech.
It’s a whole new world for amateur photographers, but taking great phone photos isn’t always a simple point-and-shoot affair. Take the time to think about composition and lighting, and get to know your phone’s camera features. This Wired article does a great job breaking down some nifty iPhone tips and tricks.
The best images should “make sure the bottle comes to life in such a way where—especially with higher-end wines and luxury wines like the ones I work on—you can see some of the nuance of the packaging choices you made,” says Koenig. In that case, you may want to graduate to a digital single-lense reflex camera (DSLR).
Modern phone photos are often impressive because of their digitally-simulated bokeh, a term that refers to the appealing out-of-focus area that makes an image look artful. But even the best of the bunch are easily pegged as digital. DSLRs don’t rely on algorithms and software to produce images, and therefore create a more realistic bokeh. These cameras take practice; Nikon’s rundown of photo tips is a great place to start.
Pro Tip: Make sure to declutter an image’s background, which places greater emphasis on the subject and lessens the need for retouching later. When in doubt about the best photo composition, follow the rule of thirds: Mentally divide an image into thirds, and place your subject along where those thirds intersect.
Light It Up
Professional-level images all have one thing in common: Good lighting. If you’re shooting lifestyle shots, natural light is nearly always the best option. MasterClass has a great rundown on how to best utilize natural light, along with some tips from famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.
For instance, you’ll want to time your shoot to coincide with the type of natural light you want, whether that’s soft light at dawn, drenched in hues of orange and yellow, or bright midday light with tones of blue. You’ll also want to steer clear of shooting on cloudy days, which can diffuse light so much it makes images appear flat and lifeless.
If you’re taking bottle shots, it’s worthwhile to invest in lighting gear. A reflector, which can cost as little as $10, bounces sunlight toward a camera’s subject and ensures they’re always better lit from the front than the back. Useful, too, is a studio light box, a tent-like accessory with semi-transparent sides that diffuse light. Light boxes can range in price from as little as $7 to upwards of $270, depending on the bells and whistles, but even a basic model can yield good results. When light is shined upon an object placed inside, the studio light box creates a virtually shadow-less background. It’s perfect for capturing traditional bottle shots.
That’s what James Rahn, the winemaker and founder of James Rahn Wine Co., found after growing dissatisfied with the quality of his iPhone photos. “We had my assistant buy a light box, and I had an old DSLR,” Rahn explains. The whole kit cost around $50, and Rahn’s team configured it in a dedicated attic space without any competing light. It’s always set up and ready to take photos on a moment’s notice. “I wouldn’t call it ‘professional,’ but [the photos it produces] look pretty damn good,” Rahn notes.
Master the Editing Basics
Although the best images are ones that don’t require much editing, even the most talented photographers rely on editing software to make their images pop. Free iPhone and Android apps like VSCO and Snapseed are excellent, with a broad range of preset filters designed to emulate styles of film from Fujifilm to Kodak. Adobe products like Photoshop and Lightroom, which begin at $9.99 a month, give even greater editing flexibility.
REI’s breakdown of photo editing basics is an excellent starting point for editing newbies. From adjusting white balance, which can better calibrate an image’s colors to suit its specific lighting conditions, to adjusting exposure to brighten an image, there’s plenty you can do in post-production. Just make sure you’re shooting in RAW image format, which gives you the most editing control.
Pro Tip: Have a well-shot image of a bottle, but need to give it a better background? Try this Photoshop technique:
- Using the elliptical selection tool set to minimal feathering, select the bottom of the bottle to produce a clean, round line.
- Invert the selection and select the erase tool.
- Drag the cursor along the bottom of the bottle to remove the background adjacent to the bottle.
- Re-invert the selection and use the polygonal lasso tool and trace the straight sides of the bottle up to the bottle’s shoulders, adding it to the original selection.
- Switch to the magnetic lasso tool and add the shoulders, neck, and top of the bottle.
- Finally, invert the selection again, hit delete to remove the background, and resize the canvas to a standard dimension used for your other bottle shots.
Take Images to the Next Level
Mastered the basics? It’s time to up your game. For ultra-polished bottle shots, pay attention to small details, like achieving a highlight on a bottle’s shoulder that doesn’t look like a lamp. You can do this by using a diffuser, a semi-translucent material that’s placed between a light source and the bottle. You’ll also want to block competing light, whether that’s setting up a studio in a windowless room or investing in blackout curtains.
It’s also helpful to study tutorials from resources like Workphlo, an educational photography channel on YouTube. In one video, photographer Dustin Dolby explains the small but important details essential to cleanly lighting a wine bottle. Shoot tables, for example, can wildly affect a final image. “The shooting table is going to play a big role in how the light renders our bottle,” he emphasizes. Narrow tables help light both sides of a bottle and create a full, intact highlight.
There are also differences to consider when photographing white wine compared to red. For instance, you’ll want to light it from the back, so that light can penetrate the bottle and create a glowing effect. Photographing bottles against a black backdrop requires a different set of lighting skills, which might include using white Plexi, a special type of plastic, to strategically reflect light upward onto the glass. Shooting empty glassware is another challenge—it might benefit from specialized lighting called a stripbox, a thin, rectangular lighting device that controls where soft light falls on a subject.
Nail the Tech Details
These days, it’s not enough to simply capture a quality image. They also need to be in a digital format that’s easy for wholesalers, third-party ecommerce platforms, and social media managers to access and use. Vertical images should be correctly sized, at least 1000px in height and 300px in width. (Have an option with the reverse specs—300px in height and 1000px in width—to accommodate those who prefer horizontal shots.) It’s also helpful to be descriptive when naming your image files—for instance, label a photograph of a Malbec bottle’s front side “front Malbec” with the brand name.
Across the board, image resolution should be at least 300ppi, which ensures print-quality photos with crisp, sharp details. Traditional bottle shots should also have an option without a background, something you can edit in a .psd format. (This Inside article has a great tutorial for this.) Other other images should be in a .png, which don’t lose quality if they’re re-saved (unlike .jpg photos).
When and How to Outsource
Many brands choose to hire outside talent for some or all of their photography needs. You can search for local photographers in your area or connect with a marketing firm like Vinbound Marketing, which connects clients with photographers that fit their wine-related photography needs.
Pricing can largely depend on the scope of work, a professional’s experience, and the location of the shoot, but generally a photographer’s hourly rates range from $100 to $250 per hour. You could also hire a company like Outshinery, which specializes in bottle shots and offers pricing plans that range from a one-time $230 per month fee to $6,360 a year, or Sonoma Bottle, which charges $80 per bottle shot. More major commercial photo shoots can cost upwards of $10,000 when factoring in licensings fees.
No matter how much time or money you choose to invest in great bottle shots, it’s important to realize that having subpar images may be worse than having none at all, believes James Rahn. “If I’m shopping around, I’ll look at their website first,” he says. “If it’s just the goofiest, most terrible website I’ve ever seen, it loses credibility.” Consumers are no different, he explains. “I think it offers a level of credibility directly from the consumer. That will eventually be sort of an indirect push of sales.”
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Rachel Tepper Paley is a food, travel, and lifestyle content writer and editor based in New York City.