Beer on film

Ferment regular and award-winning photographer Matthew Curtis gives his top tips for getting the very best out of your beer photography.

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The best camera you own is the one in your hand. This was the first advice given to me when I decided to take up photography as a hobby and it is still the best advice I’ve been given on the subject to this day.

Sure, if you have spent a couple of grand on a nice new DSLR then, absolutely, you have a great camera in your hand. It also reminds you the value of whatever tools you have at your disposal. And these days we all pretty much carry a world-class camera with us at all times in the forms of our phones – but it’s how you use it that counts.

I’m frequently asked for advice on how to take better photographs, so I thought I’d use this article as an opportunity to answer some of the most common questions I get. Hopefully this will set you off on a beer photography journey of your own.


Shooting with a phone

The most common mistake people make when shooting with their phone is pulling it out of their bag or pocket and taking photographs right away. You’ve likely been handling it frequently, so before you take a photo wipe the lens with your t shirt or a soft cloth. You’ll be amazed how much better your images look when they’re not blurred by finger grease.

Most phones typically come fitted with a wide angle lens. This means that the camera can fit more into its image sensor than the naked eye. Phones are great for landscape shots because of this, but less useful for close up shots like portraits, or bottles and cans of beer.

When framing a shot with your phone make sure you get close to the subject to compensate for this. You should always be conscious about what’s in your frame. Sometimes taking a couple of steps back and taking in more of your environment can add context to your image, but never at the expense of your main subject. It’s also important to avoid quirky angles—keep that horizon straight, as this naturally helps the eye focus on the main detail of the image. Avoid using the phone’s built in zoom (unless you’re lucky enough to have a phone with a proper optical zoom) as this will result in a loss of quality, making your images look grainy.

Remember to use light to your advantage. Clear, clean light will give you extra contrast, naturally sharpening the image. In a dark room try to use available light sources to your advantage and ensure that your subject is as well-lit as possible. Nothing beats an image of a frothy, golden beer illuminated by golden sunlight however, so aim for shooting in daylight if you can.

Editing on the fly

Phones may take pretty great images these days, but they can be quickly and easily made even better with some quick edits. Apps like Instagram or Twitter come with a few basic tools that help add definition to the image, plus a few fun filters which can add character if not used too excessively. However, there are much better editing tools out there that’ll make a big difference to your finished shots.

A couple of my favourites are Snapseed and VSCOcam, although there are loads available, so make sure you use one that works the best for you. Both I’ve mentioned are free, easy to use (once you get the hang of them) and will make a big difference to your finished images.


Buying a Camera

When buying a camera, remember that price isn’t everything. There are some amazing cameras out there for every budget. Of course, if you do want to take images in a similar vein to some of your favourite photographers, you will need to invest the big bucks.

It’s really important to try out lots of cameras before you buy one. I also recommend doing plenty of reading about the latest makes and models so you can get your head around some of the terminology.

There are a few different types of camera on the market these days. Point and shoot models are portable cameras where the lens is built on to the cameras body and cannot be changed. DSLRs are large, professional cameras that come with a range of interchangeable lenses. Mirrorless cameras are essentially modern versions of DSLRs that replace the mirrors inside with a digital sensor. This means that they are more compact, but still with a professional level of image quality.

I’d suggest going with the one that feels most intuitive when you’re taking photos. Another important consideration is weight. Do you want to take a heavy, bulky camera with you on a brewery or taproom visit? Sometimes getting something more portable for the sacrifice of a small amount of quality is advantageous. Especially when you can always improve your camera at a later date by upgrading your lens.

Choosing a Lens

There are two main types of camera lens: zoom and prime. Zoom lenses are all purpose and will give you everything from a wide angle to a close focal range in one convenient package. Most interchangeable lens cameras come with one of these, often referred to as a “kit lens”, but they’re typically in the lower end of the quality spectrum. High quality zoom lenses are typically quite expensive.

I shoot almost exclusively with prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length. This means that they cannot zoom. There are numerous advantages to using this type of lens. First and foremost, they make you work to get the best images, making you a better photographer in the process. Instead of standing still and casually zooming in and out, you’re moving around, trying to frame the best shots you can instead of relying on a zoom.

Prime lenses tend to be sharper than kit zoom lenses, and usually give you excellent depth of field, allowing you to achieve the same attractive blurred backgrounds as the pros. Importantly, they also typically have a wide or ‘fast’ aperture, increasing the amount of light reaching the sensor, which makes them perfect for low-light environments such as bars. A 50mm prime has the same focal length as the human eye, which means you’re shooting almost exactly what you can see normally. For me, this makes it easier to visualise your shots before you take them.

If you want to take wide angle landscapes, try a lens that’s 35mm or less. And if you want to peep on people from the other side of the bar, try something that’s 70mm or greater. Experimenting with the kit that works best for you is one of the many enjoyable aspects of photography.


Light and framing

Just as with shooting on your phone, having a great light source is incredibly advantageous, as this will help you produce sharper, and more detailed images. Clear daylight will almost always give you the best results. You may also enjoy shooting during “golden hour”. This is how we describe those fleeting moments of low angle light just after sunrise and just before sunset that will bathe your images in a beautiful golden glow.

Just as with your phone, it’s worth avoiding using a flash unless you’re going for a particular effect (or on assignment for Vice.) Most modern cameras and lenses work well in all but the darkest conditions, but good light sources are always your best friends.

When framing your perfect shot, consider the image. Do you want a close up of your freshly-iceman poured beer, showing off the perfect curve of that hazy, yellow meniscus? Or do you want to give it context, perhaps showing off your freshly grouted kitchen tiles? Try moving around to get the best angle for your shot. You’re telling a story with your photo, after all.

The rule of thirds is an incredibly useful tool when it comes to framing images. Imagine the frame divided into nine, equally sized boxes, splitting the image into three groups of three. Aligning your subject with the lines that intersect these boxes should result in an aesthetically pleasing image. Some cameras will even have a setting that allows you to see these lines on the viewfinder.

And finally — avoid quirky angles. Keep those lines nice and straight.

The Power of the edit

As good as any camera or lens is, your photos are only as good as your finished edits. The free apps I mentioned earlier can also act as powerful editing tools for photographs taken on a high-end camera. Mastering software such as Photoshop or Lightroom can make a huge difference to the final quality of your images. Or, if you don’t want to tie yourself to one of Adobe’s annual subscription packages, alternatives like Affinity Photo offer a powerful multi-platform editing solution for an affordable one-off payment.

If you find yourself taking your photography more seriously, learning to get the most out of your software is more valuable than even the most expensive new lens.

Shoot, shoot, shoot!

I’ll end this short lesson the same way as I started, by reminding you that the best camera you have is the one in your hand. So get down to your local pub, brewery taproom, or in the garden with your latest haul of beers. The best way to get better at photography is to practise it often. And make sure you share it too. I’m always up for a bit of photo-chat over Instagram. Find me using the handle @totalcurtis.

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