5 Tips for Better Instagram Cocktail Photos

This Gin Basil Smash is eye-catching because of contrasting colors and shapes.

This Gin Basil Smash is eye-catching because of contrasting colors and shapes.

One of things I get questions about all the time is how to take better cocktail photos for Instagram. Being a photographer and having studied fine art photography in college, it’s something I’m always excited to help people with! The following mini crash course is an excerpt from my new Ultimate Guide to Instagram Growth. Find more tips on improving your social media content here.

Left: underexposed / too dark overall. Right: overexposed / too bright overall.

Left: underexposed / too dark overall. Right: overexposed / too bright overall.

Exposure & Lighting

The first priority when creating a picture is your exposure. Exposure refers to how bright or dark the image is when it’s taken. A good photo is not too bright and not too dark, and you know this because you can see details or texture in both the bright areas (highlights) and the darkest areas (shadows). Sometimes, we shoot to intentionally under or over expose our images, for stylistic reasons, and that’s totally ok. But generally speaking, especially if you’re new to photography, aim for a properly exposed image with a well-let subject. If at all possible, use daylight! Indoor lighting at night combined with cell phone cameras rarely produces great results. If you’re not able to use daylight, pick up a set of inexpensive continuous photo lights with softboxes on Amazon. You will immediately improve your images by using lights that you can easily control that are a cooler color temperature. When lighting your subject, think about how light interacts with it. Is it highly reflective? Is it transparent? Would it look better if it was backlit, side-lit, or lit from above? Experiment until you figure out what makes your subject look best. If you’re shooting food or beverages, I highly recommend first trying lighting with only one light and placing it so that it is to the side and slightly behind. This will give drinks a glowy vibe and will let most food look natural and appetizing.

What angle and lighting makes your subject look its best?

What angle and lighting makes your subject look its best?

Composition, Angle, Focus

After lighting and exposure, the next most important element is the composition, or arrangement of your image. How are the objects situated in the frame? Is the main subject placed in such a way that the viewer can immediately identify it as the most important object? Is the entire subject in the frame, or did you cut parts of it off? If so, is it intentional and stylistic, or is it distracting or confusing? Always think about what you want your image to be conveying, and try to arrange the objects or people in the image in such a way that they tell that story. When shooting, look all around the frame to make sure that nothing is cut off or that anything superfluous is in the picture. When arranging the objects in the picture, make sure that the angle of your camera is the best for the subject. What angle will make your subject look its best? Head on, top down, from the side? When setting up your shot, ask yourself if the angle and composition are what truly make the subject look best. Don’t be afraid to try multiple setups until you find the right look. Even as a professional photographer, I sometimes find myself trying many different setups and tweaking small details until the shot looks just right. And taking the time to do that will really pay off.

Lastly, put a lot of thought into the focus of your shot. A lot of the time, the best looking shot is one that has a very shallow depth of field. What this means is that the main subject is sharply in focus, while the background and foreground are blurry. This instantly draws our eye to the area that is sharp, and makes for a very natural, visually pleasing image. A lot of cell phone cameras have a Portrait mode that allows you to create this effect, but it’s also completely possible to create it artificially with editing apps (more on those later). If using a manual DSLR camera, you can create a shallow depth of field by using the widest aperture / F-stop option possible. Even if you’re not able to play a lot with depth of field in your images, make sure that the focus of your shots is clear. A viewer should immediately know what object you want them to look at and it should grab their attention.

A final word on composition - choose one aspect ratio and stick to it. This means go with either square format images or portrait (vertical) images. Square is the IG classic format, but honestly it’s not ideal. Squares are limiting and are notoriously more difficult to compose within. I now always post vertical 2:3 size images to Instagram because I find it looks better with my content, and most importantly, it gives you greater visibility. Have you noticed that vertical images on Instagram take up nearly the entire screen when you’re scrolling? Take advantage of all that visual real estate in your follower’s feed and use vertical images. I recommend against using landscape images if at all possible simply because they are presented so small on phone screens and can be so easy to scroll past.

What is the story you’re telling with you image? What do the objects in the frame tell us about the scene that’s unfolding?

What is the story you’re telling with you image? What do the objects in the frame tell us about the scene that’s unfolding?

Styling & Storytelling

Next we need to ask ourselves, what is the story we’re telling with this image? What do the objects in the frame tell us about the scene that’s unfolding? Styling is one of the most fun (and also most challenging parts) of food and beverage photography, and it’s something that you will continue to get better at the more you do it. A great place to start is to go study some beautiful images by or others in your field or niche. What is it about the images that works? It can be really helpful when getting started with styling by emulating the work of others, and practicing recreating their compositions so that you can understand why it looks good. I’m definitely not saying that you should go out and start copying other peoples’ photos. Rather, use them as a starting point and a template that can make your own images better. I like to spend time now and then browsing some of the most popular images in food hashtags on Instagram. Quickly, you start to see patterns and trends that are making for really eye-catching images.

Styling is all about telling a story through visual cues. Each object that you place in your image should have a role to play and a reason for being there. Eliminate all clutter from your compositions and only add items if they add value to the story being told. An example of this is shooting a cocktail that’s being poured. The glass and cocktail shaker are key to the image, and having a few other objects around them, such as ingredients or other tools, reinforces the story. But having other random bottles or miscellaneous bartop items in the shot isn’t necessary and can create visual overwhelm. Simplify, whenever possible. The smallest details can give us a ton of information. For example, a prop could be the cork from a wine bottle rather than the whole wine bottle. It’s giving us the same information but in a smaller package. Also consider color when you’re styling. Use similar colors, or maybe contrasting ones - but don’t overdo it. In food and beverage particularly, you want the main subject to be the primary source of color and it’s often best to use neutral colors or subtle accent colors for your props so that they’re not competing with the main subject. Once you’ve decided what objects are important to your story, the next task is to arrange them in a way that looks best to the camera, not necessarily to your eye. I shoot with a tripod most of the time, and this allows me to work on a setup and then check the frame on the camera, back and forth until the image looks right. If you don’t check with your camera periodically as you’re styling, it will be much harder to visualize how the final image will look. The first step is to decide on the placement of your main subject, and then choose positions for any additional items by considering the foreground and the background. A nicely balanced foreground and background will help to offset the main subject. Another great technique is to use when styling and creating your composition is leading lines. This means that you arrange the composition in such a way that props or other elements subtly point or lead the eye to the main subject.

Notice how the buds on the plant on the left are ‘pointing’ to the main subject. These are subtle leading lines. The plant is also helping to frame the subject.

Notice how the buds on the plant on the left are ‘pointing’ to the main subject. These are subtle leading lines. The plant is also helping to frame the subject.

Attention to Detail

Now that you’ve successfully composed and styled your image, give it a good once over for any small details that are out of place or need some adjusting. For me, this means inspecting the parts of the table in the shot for dust or marks that will be distracting in the final image, and looking for reflections or condensation or the positioning of my garnish. How does your main subject look? Is it being captured from the best possible angle? Is it clean and looking fresh? Is there a glare or unappealing reflection? Make sure that you double and triple check all the details to avoid having to reshoot later. Always give the final image a good inspection before moving on. I shoot dozens and dozens of images when I shoot. Don’t be afraid to take plenty of extra shots to make sure you’ve got at least one good one!

Edit Your Images

Now that you’ve put all this work into making a great image, it’s time to make it even better. No matter how good of a photographer you are, or how great your camera is, all images benefit from post-processing. I use Photoshop (and sometimes Lightroom), because that’s how I was trained in art school, but there’s really no need to buy any expensive desktop software unless it’s your thing. There are a ton of great photo editing apps out there. I also always use the Instagram editing tools (not the filters) when posting an image. No matter how perfect the picture is, whenever I post an image, I always (bypass the filters) and tap Edit, and then use Adjust, Brightness, and Sharpen. Use Adjust to make sure the picture is sitting in the frame correctly and maybe zoom in a tiny bit. It’s all about getting the framing just right. Next is Brightness. When posting to Instagram, set the brightness on your phone at max, and then adjust the Brightness option in Instagram until the picture looks it’s best. This will drastically improve the chances that your picture looks great on any device it’s viewed on. You can go ahead and adjust things like Highlights and Shadows, or add some stylistic blurring with the Tilt-Shift option, and when you’re done, head to Sharpen and add at least +10 just to give it an extra punch of sharpness. No need to overdo it, just slide up a bit until it looks its absolute best. My favorite app for editing photos on the go is Snapseed.

For more about improving and optimizing your content for Instagram, check out my Ultimate Guide to Rapid Instagram Growth.