It was Super Bowl Sunday and the game was at that point where the excitement levels off. We had seen a couple great ads and now the ads were not so good, making the commercial breaks seem longer. The snack table was starting to become less exciting too, the sad and depleted trays of food now half-gone and beginning to dry out. I was at Rocco’s apartment—he’s a friend who happens to be a designer, photographer, and fellow creative—and we were in need of a little creative jump start.

That’s when Rocco shared some new website mockups for a passion project of ours, The Art of Cooking. We had collaborated successfully on photoshoots for this project twice already, so we were inclined to follow up with another—but with a new twist.

The Art of Cooking aims to celebrate classic recipes in the form of a cooking anthology: photo essays accompanied by stories and recipes that paint a beautiful, poetic tale of the world’s most beloved foods. Rocco’s next plan is to create a sister project, The Art of Mixing, aimed at achieving the same goal for mixology.

Each of us already had an old-fashioned in hand for the big game. We looked at each other and nodded; we knew what today’s creative adventure was going to be.

Neither of us are experts on mixology or cocktail history—but we wanted to create some sample content, a trial run, for The Art of Mixing’s website mockups. The cocktail itself wasn’t super important, so we went with what we had.

Every creative project—especially impulsive ones like this—comes with a unique problem (that’s the best part, right?). Together, Rocco and I were able to identify that the issue here was creating an authentic scene for this historic cocktail in his contemporary one-bedroom apartment. We needed a strategy.

The old-fashioned is both the first cocktail created in the 19th century, and the drink of choice for 1960s men in suits (as made very clear by 1960s revival TV shows like Mad Men, Pan Am, and The Playboy Club).

We decided to go with 1960s bar: bright flashy neon, contrasted with a dark background. The mood needed to be dark and there needed to be a grainy, retro, lo-fi quality to the images.

To simulate this 1960s bar look I needed three things:

  1. A fluorescent-like fill light
  2. A dark background
  3. A neon key light

We used a single Canon EX-600RT flash with softbox at the left rear of the subject. I actually just laid the flash and softbox right on the table, behind the old-fashioned glass, and faced it toward the camera. The main goal when setting up the fill light was to angle it away from the background that we wanted to be dark.

To darken the background, we hung a dark brown seamless backdrop. Obviously, black would have been a better choice, but brown was all we had. Making something darker doesn’t require an actual black background; you can make a light colored wall look dark simply by keeping the ISO low and keeping the light off the areas you want to be dark.

We started at ISO 100 and the flash at its lowest power (1/128) and everything was underexposed and dark, including the subject—which was right where I wanted to start. Now it was time to introduce our brightest and most important light: the neon.

Faintly lit scene featuring a double rocks glass and bottle of Angostura bitters
Background completely darkened

To simulate the neon, we used a lamp with a Phillips Hue™ color changing light bulb.This presented a new challenge: a continuous light source like a light bulb has much less power than a strobe light. Mixing strobes and your basic continuous light bulbs is difficult, because the strobes tend to greatly overpower the other lights. Here, we wanted the neon to be the brightest, so that required the flash to be very, very low—and it was already on its lowest power setting.

Double rocks glass and bitters in fainly lit bar scene
Philips Hue at full power, but it’s overpowered by the fill light

We had to diffuse the light even more. Since this was an impromptu shoot, we had to get resourceful and use something we had around the apartment—so we took a roll of paper towels and laid them in strips over the softbox. About 20 paper towels later, we had brought the neon light and the flourescent-like light to about the same level.

Philips Hue light at full power with the fill light softened

Once I had the two lights evened out, I bumped up the ISO to 800, to make sure that I had enough light to work with in post-production. It’s easier to darken the image later than it is to lighten it; just make sure there aren’t any hot spots.

The result is exactly what we set out to create—and for an added bonus, there was a natural graininess from shooting at the higher ISO in the dark environment, which added a vintage feel to the images.

By the time we finished the photoshoot, the game was well past over, but now we had several “outtake” cocktails to finish. Cheers!

Adding Angostura bitters and simple syrup into a double rocks glass
Adding Angostura bitters and simple syrup into a double rocks glass
Adding the rye whiskey
Adding the rye whiskey
Singing an orange peel to bring out the natural oils
Singing an orange peel to bring out the natural oils
Rubbing the oils along the rim of the glass
Rubbing the oils along the rim of the glass
The finished cocktail
The finished cocktail