In our Food Styling 101 series, Lisa Bolton offers up food styling tips for conveying the stories you want your food to tell. Her advice will help you create food photography that entices readers to make your recipes and read your articles. This month Lisa welcomes the return of warm weather with pro tips for food styling summer cocktails for the camera.
When Mother Nature decides to turn up the heat, you know it's cocktail season. Nothing screams "summer's coming!!!" like a frosty glass with something sweet, sparkling and refreshing. As you plan your editorial calendars to feature those summer cocktails, this article will help you with both some inspiration and advice on how to style those delicious drinks so appealingly you'll have people running to grab their seat on the patio.
How Can You Style Cocktails with Ice?
Styling a summer cocktail has some similarities to food styling ice cream. This is due to the desire (or not) to capture temperature-sensitive styling elements like ice and condensation.
For cocktails that require ice, there are definitely artificial ice cubes available through online retailers like Amazon. Depending on how often you need to style with ice, this may be an investment you want to make in your food styling prop cabinet.
The two main advantages to styling with fake ice are:
- It takes away the time pressure of melting ice; and,
- If you travel to food style, it's a lot easier to travel with fake ice than it is with a cooler of ice cubes.
There's a wide range of quality among artificial ice cubes, so I recommend if you're going to spend the money, invest in the good stuff.
Most refrigerators these days make ice. Depending on the shape and size your refrigerator dispenses, this may work well. I prefer to use silicone ice cube trays of various sizes because I find the edges are sharper and more defined, and they come away from the tray easier.
- TIP! — If you want to have clear ice cubes, simply boil the water first before freezing and they'll be clear as glass.
Flavoured or decorated ice cubes are very beautiful in summer cocktails. The options are almost endless. Rose petals and pansies make beautiful floral ice cubes. In addition, herbs like thyme and mint, or sliced cucumbers, berries or lemons will all freeze well into ice cubes and make even the simplest vodka soda pop with colour. Just add the flower, herb or produce to the top of the water in the ice cube tray before you freeze them.
Styling Cocktails With Condensation
Condensation can be a desired style element for a cocktail shoot. The two easiest ways to achieve this are to freeze the glass you'll be using for about 30 minutes prior to shooting. Alternatively, you can use a fine mister to gently spray the outside of the glassware or pitcher with water shortly before it will be photographed to create the illusion of condensation.
Should You Add Garnishes to Cocktails?
Cocktails need a garnish. Always.
Garnishes add texture, colour, height and layers. If you think of a lasagna or a salad, there are multiple elements going on: layers of cheese and pasta and sauce or in a salad different shapes of vegetables and fruits.
Many summer cocktails — perhaps with the exception of sangria — are one colour. Garnishes are a very important part of styling the cocktail.
Citrus is the most common garnish. Consider slicing small round citrus like lemon or limes in whole, thin circles. (Be sure to remove any seeds.) This gives you interesting styling options from both a straight-on perspective as well as overhead.
If you want the look of citrus circles on the inside of the glass, simply cut them very thin with a very sharp knife. Before you add the ice or liquid, press the citrus up against the edge of the glass. You may need to wet it a bit to make it stick. Then add the ice followed by the liquid.
A green garnish with a summer cocktail is the equivalent of fashion's "little black dress" – it works with everything.
The most obvious green garnish is herbs. Mint is going to be an easy addition to summer cocktails and mint leaves have a lot of interesting lines and textures within them. Tear — never cut — the mint leaf from the base of the stem, leaving the full leaf intact.
Always start with more than you think you need. An oversize herb garnish will translate better in a photo then a minute one (and you can always make it smaller, never bigger).
Consider adding savoury herbs to summer cocktail styles as well. They balance the suggested sweetness of the drink, and when you find them in a flowering state (often at a local nursery) you add both greenery and floral to the set, a beautiful summer combination. Flowering lavender, thyme and basil would all work well.
A way to add greenery without adding herbs would be to take the your set outside. Summer is synonomous with al fresco dining, so set up your shoot with flower beds, grass or shrubs in the background.
Fruit is the other garnish most often found in cocktails. Like citrus, berries are another staple for a summer cocktail.
Consider leaving the greens on strawberries for a more natural look. If you're skewering berries across the top of the glass, they shine brighter on camera if you mist or paint them with a bit of water just before capturing the image.
Style Outside the Drink
One of the easiest ways to invoke emotion or a more human element into a cocktail shoot is to create the illusion of a gathering. This is best achieved by adding more than one glass to the set. Whether it be multiple empty glasses or a large pitcher of the cocktail next to the glass, it creates the illusion of a party.
- TIP! — Remember, if your cocktail contains a clear alcohol such as vodka, tequila or gin, you can replace it with water for purposes of the shot.
Extra empty glasses stacked up, multiple straws off to one side or the liquor bottle, a cocktail shaker and some of the drink ingredients scattered around are all elements that, when placed in the foreground or background, will convey more drinks are being made for this gathering.
Setting Up the Shot
There are a few tricks to ensuring a styled shot stays that way when you're ready to photograph it. First, as I discussed in the ice cream article, use a stand-in, in this case even just an empty glass stuffed with parchment or a dish towel to ensure your lighting. When you get around to pouring the cocktail, especially with real ice, you want to capture the shot quickly. A stand-in ensures everything translates through the lens as you envisioned it.
Always bring the liquid to the set — do not attempt to walk in with a fully styled cocktail. The easiest way is to have your cocktail in a container with a spout and pour it through a funnel into the glass. This way any drips don’t make marks on the inside or outside of the glass.
And consider handling clear glassware with a tea towel or gloves. Fingerprints will show up very prominently in a bright summer shot and you want to avoid having to edit those out in post production.
If you're looking for more tips on photographing cold drinks, be sure to check out Tessa Huff's article on Photographing Cold Beverages.
- Food Styling: Styling Eggs for Breakfast or Brunch
- Food Styling: Tips for Styling Eggs
- Food Styling: Tips for Styling Sandwiches
Lisa Bolton is food stylist, recipe developer and creator of beautiful food boards. You can find her work at lisadawnbolton.com. She lives in the Lower Mainland of BC. Her first cookbook, On Boards, (affiliate link) is due to be released by Appetite by Penguin Random House in October 2018 and is available for pre-order. You can reach her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.