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Seven rules of drinks photography

Max Ottignon of Ragged Edge explores the seven key rules to drinks photography

Max Ottignon Ragged Edge

For a drinks brand, photography is crucial. A carefully constructed photograph creates desire, transporting us to a time, a place and a lifestyle that we aspire to. And it places the drink at the heart of that experience.  

Take Le Grand Fizz, a cocktail launched by Grey Goose two years ago. Working with lifestyle photographer Michael Hefferman and drinks specialists Wilma, we created a collection of global images that transported consumers to the Côte d’Azur, inspiring them to try Grey Goose’s iconic summer serve.

It’s the refreshing, perfectly balanced quality of the serve that has led to its success, but the evocative photography has played a fundamental role in encouraging people to try it.  

So, how do you get it right? Here are our seven rules of drinks photography. 

1. Get your priorities straight

The best drinks images communicate a clear, simple message. That means it’s important to define what you want to say before you start. Is it the drink or the bottle you need in focus? What’s the occasion you’re trying to communicate? And what do you need to show to bring that to life? 

For global brands, where images will be used in multiple markets, it’s often hard to distill complex requirements into a single-minded brief. One image can’t do everything, so you’ll need to make some tough decisions early on. This often involves the marketing team pushing back against colleagues who want every box ticked. But it’s better to have those conversations early, and to start off with a tight, achievable set of deliverables.  

The best briefs map out a clear visual hierarchy. They define one hero element, then possibly a second and third. And most importantly, they align with the brand strategy. 

2. Trust the specialists

Drinks photography is a real art. A food photographer might do a good job, but a drinks specialist will bring something extra. The best ones know all of the tricks of the trade – whether it’s backlighting the glass to create that appetising glow, getting the condensation just so, or creating that consistent, smooth pour you see in drinks ads (in case you were wondering, slice off the bottom of the bottle using twine and fire, and then pour through a funnel).

On an outdoor shoot for a new soft drinks brand, we were worried that the ice would melt. The quality of the ice is fundamental to how a drink looks so our photographer, Laura Knox, commissioned artificial ice. It was an essential expense, but one only someone with the right experience would know to suggest. 

So for the best results, commission a photographer who knows the category, and its secrets, inside out. 

3. Preparation, preparation, preparation

The success of any photoshoot is in the planning. There are an almost infinite number of variables you need to think through and prepare for: from how each model’s outfit will complement the others, right though to having enough of the liquid to experiment with. You’d be amazed at how often you come close to running out. 

Getting the preparation right relies on establishing a relationship with everyone involved. On a shoot it’s not unusual for there to be up to 30 people on set: the photographer and their assistants, various stylists, art directors, models, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and so on. It’s worth getting everyone working together as soon as possible – pre-production meetings are a good way of doing this – and an open dialogue throughout is essential. 

The tighter your plan, the more time you’ll buy yourself to improvise and experiment on the day. 

4. Understand the journey

To deliver an effective set of images, you need to understand the customer journey, and the different requirements at each stage. 

Broadly speaking, the closer a consumer is to purchase, the more you want the marketing to focus on the product itself. At the beginning of the journey, in comms and out of home, it’s all about the lifestyle. This could mean capturing more people-driven shots with tantalising glimpses of a cocktail. And towards the end, in point of sale materials, the drink needs to be the star. 

Corona’s This Is Living campaign executed this beautifully. The sun-drenched beach photography captured the feel of the brand so perfectly that it was possible to remove images of the bottle from out of home ads without losing the strength of the message. In-store, the focus was on the bottle, but the photographic treatment remained consistent.

5. Tell a story

The best photographs tell a story that people can relate to. A recent shoot we did for Martini aimed to capture a range of occasions, from formal – arriving late at a Christmas party – to relaxed – friends enjoying aperitivo hour as they get ready for a night out. Shot in Cape Town but made to look like Capri, the images sought to show a moment in time, giving the viewer a sense of the moments before and after they were taken.                        
We worked closely with photographer Laura Knox to define a deliberately loose, reportage style. The aim was ‘perfectly imperfect’. In fact, one of the most used images was a photograph of the models chatting as we were setting up. It’s that sense of authenticity that draws the viewer into the story, giving it richness and depth. 

6. Learn the rules

The legalities around alcoholic drinks photography are intimidatingly complex. Different countries all have different rules around what is and isn’t allowed. This means you often need to create different versions of the same image according to specific market requirements. For example, in ‘dark markets’ such as Russia, no people are allowed in alcohol ads.

Even the suggestion that people were there – say with a jacket draped over a chair – is problematic. Whereas in France you can show a bartender, but it must be a real bartender, not a model.

 So the challenge becomes; how do you convey lifestyle without showing any life? Images without people can easily start to feel eerie, cold and deserted. Solving it takes a skilful team who know the rules, have some clever solutions up their sleeves, and have built them into the plan for the shoot.  

7. Edit with an open mind

Editing is a real art. You need to have a good eye to pick out the right image: the one that delivers your brand’s messages while creating that all-important consumer desire.

To do this, it pays to take an open mind into the editing suite. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking for the images that best match the scamp, but these aren’t always the best ones to use. In the past, some of the most successful photographs we’ve selected have been happy accidents capturing an unexpected moment. And just to complicate matters, there’s every chance the best image will end up being a combination of two, three or more.  

There are few categories where photography is as important as it is in drinks. Getting it right requires a painstaking balance of planning, technical expertise and creativity. And the bravery to go with your gut. But when it all falls into place, a photograph can turn your drink from a product into an aspirational lifestyle that your consumers want to be a part of.

30 January 2018