Intoxicating Macro

©Ernie Button

No, you’re not drunk. These macro images of Scotch whisky do look like faraway planets. “The project started simply enough,” photographer Ernie Button says, “taking a used glass to the dishwasher.” He noticed the film of dried scotch at the bottom of his glass had a surprisingly interesting pattern. “It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results,” he says. Those patterns were primed for a photography series: “Vanishing Spirits.”


Ernie Button uses colored lights to “add life to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscapes, terrestrial or extraterrestrial,” he explains. The lines of scotch are thin with little depth, he says. “To get them to really stand out, it requires subtle movements of the lights.” He uses “a significant number” of flashlights and desktop lamps to layer in multiple colors and light beams.


He began with a medium-format film camera with extension tubes. About 10 years ago, he moved on to a digital camera with extension tubes. “Only recently have I purchased a proper macro lens,” he says. Although they may look like microscopic images, he’s never used a microscope.


Different glasses yield different results; scratches on the outside of the glass affect the final image, and uneven surfaces on the inside impact how the whisky dries. It took time for Button to settle on the right style of glass for his images. Certain whiskies also yield more interesting results, he’s found. Another challenge is how to explain to the public what he’s seeing at the bottom of the glass.


Not only does Button appreciate a fine dram of Scotch whisky more than ever, but he also co-authored scientific research through Princeton University’s Complex Fluids Group about why these patterns form. “It has provided me with so much over the years to satisfy my intellectual and artistic curiosity.”

Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.