A bit high strung

Guitar photos boost forum hits
By T Martin

For the record, I’m not a big guitar fan. I’m a mellower sort who enjoys piano, jazz, gospel and some R&B. I have friends, cousins, even a brother who play guitar, perhaps contributing to my need for diversion, but I’m not big on guitars.

Even so, when my best friend asked me to photograph his guitars for some quick photos to post on eBay.com last May, I grabbed my Minolta DiMage 7 and headed to his house for some fun. I left unsatisfied with the results of the shoot, but he was elated and the pictures served their purpose.

I’m a social photographer. It’s in my blood. It’s what I do. Inanimate objects are not a problem, but the fact is that people are my specialty. But I’d sound kind of weird yelling, “C’mon, more animal… more backbone!” to his guitars.

Looking past the posts
The biggest challenge I encountered in shooting guitar photos in Chris’s room was the clashing of colors. The magazine clippings were very colorful, and I couldn’t avoid the glare that the direct (on-camera) flash produced. I depended on viewers to look beyond the pictures posted behind the subject and concentrate on that purple spot and golden neck in the middle of the picture!

The photo at left was taken using the Dimage 7 in 1/45th of a second at f/3.5 and ISO 200. The photo at right was captured in 1/90th of a second at f/3.5. At the time, I had gotten away from a lot of manual features due to the lack of TTL focusing and other manual features I had gotten used to with my 35mm SLR. I knew I’d replace the camera, so I didn’t take the time to experiment with its full range of features.

Chris and I agreed on two points, however. Based on the positive reaction he got from friends he e-mailed the pictures to or showed via links to the eBay page, the photos definitely showed some potential. On the other hand, there were some flaws that I couldn’t get over as a photographer, and in several conversations about the photos he heard me say, “Just wait till I get that digital SLR. Nothing beats TTL focusing!”

Last year, I got that D-SLR. In fact, I bought two. Almost a year after buying the second one, though, we finally got around to photographing his guitars again. This time I displayed greater confidence from the start and for several reasons.

First, I was encouraged by the positive feedback he gave me from others who had viewed the first photos we took of the guitars.

Second, the purchase of a D-SLR led me to explore a lot of technique that had been swept under the rug by ease-of-use of automatic features of my first digital camera, a 5.2 megapixel workhorse.

Don’t get me wrong!
I’d be remiss to say that the Minolta Dimage7 failed to live up to my expectations as a first digital camera. I was disappointed in its focusing performance. It only offers EVF (Electronic View Finder) to focus, and I had become accustomed to TTL (Through-The-Lens) focusing as a 35mm photographer. I made no secret about wanting to upgrade from the EVF, but I’d be wrong to say that the few shortcomings I found in the camera made it a bad piece of equipment.

I wanted to sell that camera a short while ago, but in recent weeks I just can’t part with it. Part of this is sentimental; it’s my first digital camera. The other thing is purely mechanical; it’s just a terrific little piece of equipment! I love the size and weight, the convenience, CompactFlash, and more. Currently, I use the camera to teach basic photography at a local middle school.

One element that I used but didn’t like is my own fault. I didn’t like the on-camera flash for some situations. The obvious glare and occasional “washing out” irritated me. I also didn’t like the white balance at times, but never took time to learn to use the custom white balance feature. Overall, the Dimage7 performed well during its tenure, but SLR world was calling me back.

These were among the final serious images I captured with the camera before giving its space in my camera bag to my second D-SLR. The above photo was captured in 1/45th of a second at f/2.8 (wide enough? another reason I kept it) and ISO 200. This image, at left, was shot in 1/90th of a second at f/3.5 and ISO 200.

Third, my photography was more widespread by this point, and I had worked so hard to live up to the higher expectations of the professional industry, that I wouldn’t take ANYTHING less than the best.

Finally, Chris said he really wanted some nice pictures to post online because he was planning to sell another guitar. If he wanted to sell it, I knew my photo had to do the job. So on Wednesday, February 25th, I was on my way back to his house with my Canon EOS 10D, a great source of photographic joy for the professional and enthusiast alike.

All grown up!
I’ll be honest. When I took the first guitar photos for Chris with the Minolta Dimage7, I could well have been shooting with the new Canon I had finally received the month before. However, I hadn’t had time to play with it, and I knew I couldn’t produce great results until I had experimented with techniques I had long forgotten since my 35mm SLR days. He understood.

The above photo was taken with the Canon EOS 10D, using a 28-80mm Canon EF lens. I zoomed to 48mm and shot in 1/60th of a second at f/4. The photo at right was zoomed to 55mm and shot in 1/45th of a second at f/4.5. In both instances, I bounced flash from a Canon 380EX (a carryover from my Canon Rebel 2000). The bounced light produced even lighting, but the rose walls of the dining room weren’t so kind to me. I had to use Photoshop’s curves to take a bit of red out of the pictures. So sue me.

Ringing the doorbell, I started unclamping the camera bag with my free hand so that I could just set the bag down and start shooting when he answered the door. He came to the door, and I greeted him with professionalism, indicating how seriously I took my work, even as a favor for a friend.

“So, somebody called a professional photographer?” I asked.

He said, “Yeah, but I guess you’ll have to do.” Typical Chris humor.

And so went another guitar photo shoot. We changed a few things this time around. Previously, we had shot in the particularly cramped confines of his bedroom, where there wasn’t much space to move around, and all too many Van Halen magazine photo clippings to distract from the subjects. This time, he opted to display the guitars on the dining room table, where the rose walls were free of distractions.

Another difference was that I had previously shot for color every time. Having always been a fan of black-and-white photography, the advent of a D-SLR in my hand meant shooting for versatility in black-and-white. This time around, I was looking for ways to capture the images so that they’d translate as well in black-and-white (for my purposes) or color (for his eBay posts).

Back to black
I only regret one thing about that guitar shoot: that I didn’t have more time. I wished for more time to “pose” the guitars. I wished for more time to really experiment with the camera settings. (I mean, I published two previous articles on the subject!) I wished for more time to shoot using only available light and a tripod for some of the shots. I wished for time to sweat over the minute details that make photography fun.

The only thing to which I paid close attention, however, was composition. I wanted dynamic photos for every one of the guitars laid out for me, but there wasn’t time. Instead, I viewed each photo as a black-and-white photo before I took it. If I didn’t think it would reproduce well in black-and-white, I recomposed the shot and then captured an image. I had become well accustomed to shooting images for black-and-white, my favorite medium, and I gave this shoot equal portraiture treatment.

The top photo, in black-and-white, was zoomed to 66mm and shot in 1/45th of a second at f/5.6.I didn’t bother tweaking the color using Photoshop curves because I intended to produce the image in black-and-white anyway. Instead, I let the rose hue that tinted several of my images just stay there, and I made the conversion through lab colors to black-and-white. The focus was the symbol on the front of the guitar, so I was careful to bounce the flash again; direct flash would have produced glare, killing the image altogether. I was already dealing with the dining room lights just overhead.

The sepia images, both detail shots of the same guitar depicted above, required no tweaking either; they were immediately converted to sepia images after transfer to the computer. The second image (left) was zoomed to 80mm and shot in 1/45th of a second at f/5.6. The third, at right, was captured using the same settings, including the flash bounced at about 60 degrees.

I also took an ego break on these photos; I gave him “copyright-free” photos. Of course, all images are my copyright, but I didn’t optimize the images with the copyright information superimposed this time. This gave him cleaner copies to post and share online.

There was one other interesting point that made me realize the power of well orchestrated, professionally rendered images: the much stronger reaction to these photos.

We made a run to the corner store on Friday, March 12th, about half a month after I took the last guitar photos. Just before I departed for an interview that evening with college student and local popularity magnet Rebecca DeJesus, Chris wished me good luck and added, “Oh, yeah! Those guitar pix* you e-mailed me? I posted some on this forum where I’m moderator, and the hits went up to over 1,000 since I posted it!”

Granted I don’t know how many hits the forum had before (could have been 990 for all I know), but his excitement at the thought led me to believe that the pictures had some impact on forum members and visitors.

So I’m hoping this article is a help to both photography and music enthusiasts: the power of some well-shot photos goes long way.

*Also for the record, this is the reason I’m NOT inclined to talk to guitarists: When I say “pix” I mean pictures, but they always interpret it as “picks” which they use to strum their instruments. And they never forgive you for taking that word in vain!