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This Is How to Up Your Cocktail Game on Instagram

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The lighting of this Falling Behind cocktail (made with The Walter Collective gin, Salers gentian apéritif, elderflower liqueur and honey syrup) adds an air of drama. (image: Jordan Hughes / High Proof Preacher)

In the age of Instagram, a cocktail influencer is a real profession. These drinkstagrammers flood feeds with stunning shots of drinks poured into spectacular glassware, all perfectly engineered to move your thumb to the heart symbol. And though cocktail photography has veered from hyperniche to mainstream, most feeds seem equally as rife with dimly lit, out-of-focus images.

For the average bartender, should a knack for capturing your creations be a priority? It sure doesn’t hurt. Posting an image of a cocktail and tagging the brand can often warrant a repost, directing attention and customers to your profile and bar program.

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But seeing as most of us aren’t kitted out with professional lighting, lenses or photography degrees, how exactly do you take a decent cocktail photo? A powerhouse PR team can aid in stocking good shots, as can working for a big-time hospitality group with an in-house photographer. For everyone else, we’ve rounded up top social media savants to share their crash course in cocktail photography.

1. Check Your Lighting

“When it comes to taking good photos, lighting is everything,” says Jordan Hughes, an industry photographer and Instagrammer at @HighProofPreacher. “If you have good lighting, it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting on your smartphone or a fancy camera.”

Natural light is ideal—by a window during the daytime is the sweet spot—but cocktail bars are notoriously devoid of daylight. For dim lighting, Hughes keeps a small hand-held LED light ($30). It’s relatively unobtrusive to patrons and small enough to fit in a coat pocket.

Once you find your light, whether natural or artificial, consider where it will hit your cocktail. “When I’m shooting a transparent cocktail (especially one with fancy ice), I like having some light coming from behind the drink. It makes the cocktail glow and pop,” says Hughes. “If I’m shooting a drink that is more opaque, like something with cream or egg white, I like to shoot it with the light coming from one side. It creates more depth and texture to the drink.”

The light from the left adds depth to Jordan Hughes’ St. Hubbins Flip. (image: Jordan Hughes / High Proof Preacher)

2. Work Your Angles

Photographing in portrait mode is a reliable way to get the shot, but think beyond shooting straight on. Brenton Mowforth, of @CheerstoHappyHour, flips his phone upside down to shoot from below the cocktail for a more dramatic angle. If the bar top is particularly fascinating, Hughes shoots from above to capture it, or he shoots from a 45-degree angle to show reflections on the surface of the drink.

Choose how you shoot based on what you want the focal point to be. “Keep in mind what you want people to be drawn to when they look at the image,” says Hughes. As a rule of thumb, the garnish is a solid focal point, but if you’re looking to build a relationship with a brand, try highlighting the bottle or logo.

This Negroni was shot from a 45-degree angle to capture the bar top. (image: Jordan Hughes / High Proof Preacher)

3. Treat the Cocktail as the Hero

After all, it’s all about the drink. “I see a lot of people trying to jazz up a shot with props,” says Mowforth. “It just detracts attention from the hero here, the cocktail.” If you’re going to include bells and whistles, each one should add to the drink, not distract from it. Flowers, opulent trays or a full array of ingredients placed beside the drink may seem visually pleasing, but you want to viewer to focus on the cocktail.

That also means avoid deterring backgrounds, even the unintentional. A dirty dish towel, an empty glass or a spot of spillage can lead the gaze away from the cocktail.

You can, however, jazz up the cocktail itself. Instagram’s users are far more scrupulous than your average bar patron. “Sometimes you need to overproduce the cocktail a little bit,” says Mowforth. “Overpour the cocktail so it has a better wash line, or put more work into that orange twist.”

The overly stylized background draws the eye away from Brenton Mowforth’s Blackberry Rhubarb Sour (made with vodka, Cointreau, blackberry purée, fresh lemon juice, rhubarb bitters and egg white). (image: Brenton Mowforth / Cheers to Happy Hour)

4. Skip the Pro Camera

Pass on investing in a professional camera; a smartphone will do just fine. Hughes recommends turning on the gridlines on your smartphone camera, which will help you compose the image better than a naked eye can.

Alternatively, try shooting with a third-party app. Hughes vouches for Moment or VSCO. “This might sound redundant at first, but there are camera apps that provide a lot more settings and overall control compared to the native camera app that comes on your phone,” he says. For instance, some allow you to adjust exposure, focus and white balance before you even take the photo.

Apps like VSCO and Snapseed can also help fix off-kilter lighting, undersaturated colors or dull hues. But exercise restraint. “You don’t want to over-edit; similar to making a good cocktail, editing a photo is all about balance,” he says. “I also see a lot of photos that are way over-sharpened or that have artificially high contrast. Instead of enhancing the photos, these edits end up being distracting.”

Shooting below in portrait mode for the image of the Rye Old Fashioned on the left gives the cocktail regality and makes for a great Instagram story. The image of a cocktail made with Seedlip on the right performed well thanks to its organic background and simple composition. (image: Brenton Moworth / Cheers to Happy Hour)

5. Express Your Brand

One of the benefits of Instagram is that the platform can act as a visual portfolio, chronicling new menus, specials, competition wins and career milestones. But if you want your Instagram to be an extension of your craft, curate your content accordingly. “I don’t post random photos of my dog or a recent home improvement project on there. I know the people that follow me are interested in spirits and cocktails, so that’s what I focus on,” says Hughes.

Tagging brands or publications (Liquor.com’s tag is #LiqPic) invites reposts, which exposes your work to a wider audience. Insta-fame aside, the exposure can open up networking opportunities and direct more drinkers through your doors. Today, guests are just as likely to look up the Instagram of a bar before reading through a Yelp review, and Instagram can be a preview for what a visit to your bar will offer.

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