Every once in awhile someone asks me what kind of camera I use, so I thought I’d post a write-up to save me the time of putting something together for each request. I also thought I’d include a few tips that I’ve picked up over the years for taking pictures of beer. I should also note, these tips are really intended for pictures you want to share, not just some quick shots, if like several of my friends, you just want a pictorial record of what you drink/brew. I'm not an expert, but I know enough to be dangerous.
For the last year I've shot with a Canon Rebel T3 with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens. Not the priciest combo available (~$450 together on Amazon today), but it does everything I need it to for beer. The lens is non-zoom, which has its pluses and minuses. It means that the distance away from the subject (glass) is relatively fixed, but it is an intuitive distance for portrait shots, which is essentially what beer photography is. However, for the price its optics draw rave reviews for their sharpness compared to much more complex/expensive lenses as a result of the simple design. Do you need a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera, probably not, but it’s like all-grain brewing, having more control over the process gives you creative freedom and allows you to learn.
The most important lesson of photography is that the subject is important. It’s much easier to take a great photo if the beer and location are pretty. No matter how well a beer is brewed, it won’t look spectacular in a dirty pint glass on a white background. Interesting glasses are a big help, and if they are spotless so much the better. Make sure the inside of the glass is clean too, you don't want ugly patches of bubbles stuck to the sides. With the number of pictures on this blog I’ve had to become pretty creative finding new photo shoot locations in my house to avoid the feeling of looking at the same picture on every post. I've shot next to the barrels, in the attic, outside, and on just about ever table and shelf I own. Props, like ingredients, can be nice to add, but usually it looks a bit too staged for me.
I don’t like flash photography for beer. Unless you’ve got a diffuser the reflection off the glass is annoying. As a result I try to shoot in good lighting conditions. Naturally light ideally, but I make do with interior lights when I don't make it home from work early enough to take advantage of the sun. If the lighting is poor, a tripod will really help by allowing slower shutter speeds (the longer the shutter is open the more light can enter the camera, but it can be difficult to avoid motion blur).
In most situations I prefer a wide aperture (low f-stop) for taking pictures of beer, usually 1.8/f or a click or two higher. This reduces the depth of field, meaning there will be a smaller range of distances in focus. This causes the beer to pop out by blurring the background (meaning you also don’t see the mess in my house). With a lens with an even wider aperture (1.4/f or even 1.2/f) you can get the depth of field so shallow that you won’t even get the entire glass in focus. This can be gorgeous, but my preference is to see the whole glass.
The wide aperture has the added benefit of allowing more light into the camera, making it easier to avoid using the flash in poor lighting conditions. Otherwise I just try to ensure the ISO (sensor sensitivity) is low enough that the picture isn’t noticeably grainy, and the shutter length isn’t so long that the image blurs when shooting hand held (1/80 of a second or higher). Although I recently purchased a tripod so that I can shoot longer exposure pictures without blurring. Check the light meter or LCD display to ensure the shot is bright enough. You may be happier with a slightly brighter or darker shot, so take some darker and lighter shots and see what looks better.
I’m not an expert at photo composition, so my basic rule is “take a lot of photos.” It’s digital so you don’t need to be too careful with making each shot precise. Move around, change your angle, and fiddle with your settings. Often it seems like the shot is best from an angle where I'm the least comfortable. The further the distance between the subject and the background, the more out of focus the background will be when the subject is in focus. I'll often take a few shots before I open/pour the beer so I can get some good shots before the head starts to sink (a race with most sour beers). When you get something that starts to look good, that’s the time to start dialing it in. Check your white balance, make sure your focus is perfect etc. My lens/camera has trouble with automatic focus when shooting transparent beers, so I tend to shoot in manual mode.
I’m not a big believer in severe image editing in this case. Maybe a slight rotation, crop, or white balance adjustment with GIMP, but I tend to avoid more intensive post-processing. Same goes for filters, they can be fun to play with, but for the blog I try to make my photos an accurate representation of what the beer looks like. As with my tasting notes, I strive to be honest about the results.
Hope this help someone out there! If you’ve got any tips to share please post a comment. I've been slowly working my way through the lecture notes from a digital photography class at Stanford, interesting reading if you want to get nerdy.