So just about everyday i get one of two questions regarding our photo taking process. Allot of people contact us asking “How do you make your photos look so good?” while many other ask “Can you send me pictures of that guitar with your phone? Those photos cant be accurate.” While this is often perplexing, and can be frustrating considering the amount of time we put in to assuring our photos are as accurate to the guitars as possible, there are a number of variables that we cannot control that can change what you the viewer are seeing on your computer. I thought i would briefly cover our photo taking process and touch on the technical issues we run into that can effect the end photo that you are viewing.
So as we were deciding how to shoot photos we had one major issue we had to deal with. We are located in Wisconsin. The best we to get accurate photos of how a guitar looks is by shooting it is direct sunlight. Sunlight is what is referred to as “Full Spectrum” light. It includes all visible light plus UV and infrared light. Under this “full spectrum” of light is the one way you can accurately show what the guitar looks like and have it be consistent. If you look at the guitar under incandescent light or iridescent light its color and grain pattern will look slightly different due to the fact that those light bulbs are only releasing a partial spectrum of visible light and normally have a weighted color temperature. (If this isn’t making sense, just hold on. I will tie it back around) The biggest problem with this is that A.) When your store is in Wisconsin you only have about 4 months in a year you can take guitars outside to photograph them because of weather. B.) When your shop get in as many as 40-50 guitars a day you can’t really cross your fingers and hope that mother nature is going to cooperate with you so that you can get your guitars shot.
So we have to figure out a way to take the photos in a consistent manner, that doesn’t consume to much time due to the large volume of guitars we deal with, and that gets the colors as accurate as they can be. Enter the Photo Gear.
The Photo Setup
(Photo gear nerd out disclaimer: If you dont care about the technical aspect of taking photos skip to the next section.)
The Gear is a pretty standard setup. Cannon 7D being remotely triggered through Adobe Bridge. 3 Paul C. Buff Alien Bee 800watt strobes set at about 50%. The two with softboxes are set at 45 degree angles at about a 30% pitch, the 3rd is reflecting off from a white panel on the ceiling. (this is mostly to light angled headstocks.) All photos are directly loaded into Adobe Bridge and then pulled into Photoshop CS5. The RAW files are adjusted to match color profiles in Camera Raw and then minor adjustments are made in Photoshop.
For those wondering what the adjustments we make to the photographs are, this is the Basic Workflow:
Minor Contrast and Clarity Adjustments to match the guitar as sitting on the desk under a UV Full Spectrum Light > Color Temperature adjustment if needed > Curves adjustment to assure that background is true 255 White > Crop > Resize for web >Save.
We shoot on a white background simply because it is A.) Easier to get consistent 255 without color clipping on white then pure 0 black. B.) There is a phenomenon that is known in art and color theory where surrounding an image back black actually increases the contrast that the eye sees. It is obviously an illusion and completely subjective to how the image is edited but if you take the same image and drop it on a white background and a black background the latter will appear to have more contrast.
This is obviously not a “Best” and “Always” solution, but it made the most sense for the majority of our guitars and our workflow.
So Are Your Photos Accurate?
This is the million dollar question. The best that i can answer is: As far as we can tell, yes. You might ask why the ambiguity in the answer? You are one of the largest guitar shops in the nation. Shouldn’t you be sure your photos are accurate? The answer to that is Yes. We do take great care to assuring that as we see the photo on our calibrated monitor they appear as accurate to the guitar as possible. However there are a number of variables that we cannot control that can effect how you see the image on our website. The most significant one of these is your Monitor and its calibration. From someone who has spent years in photographic training and years working as a computer tech trust me. This cannot be understated. This has a HUGE impact on how the photo appears to you.
Our main photography monitor has been calibrated to the sRGB IEC6 2.1 color profile. This is the “standard” in color profiling but many monitors can be calibrated in Adobe RGB, PhotoPro RGB, ColorMatch RGB and Apple RGB just to name a few. The Age, Brightness and Contrast settings, and color tone settings on a monitor all have a major impact on how the photo shows up on your end and most computers, even brand new ones, don’t come with the software need to complete a full color calibration. You normally have to buy a very expensive Software/Tool combo to assure that your monitor is correctly calibrated. These are all of the technical issue you have to deal with when working with digital photographs. The best example of this is some of our monitors in the shop. When a photo is viewed on the one used to actually take the photographs it will be perfectly accurate. Proper colors and temperature, the binding will be clearly visible, the flame and grain appear to be perfectly accurate to the guitar. However when it is viewed on some of our older computers it will appear that the contrast is way to high, the binding will appear blown out and the guitar will be to dark. So we have to make the decision on how to edit the photograph. Per standard practice in commercial photography you always edit to the Calibrated monitor as that is the “Industry Standard”.
So many of you might be wondering what the differences in the light temperature and spectrum that i was talking about earlier really is. Well here is a guitar that i shot outside in full sunlight, in the shop under florescent lights and the image that we took of it in our photography setup. The first two were taken with my iPhone, the last was taken with our photosetup:
As you can see each photo has a different aspect of it that is accurately represented. This guitar, as it is sitting on my desk, has a super heavy flame that aspect of it is most accurately represented in Studio image, however the color and burst are most accurately represented in the outdoor photo. The photo taken under the florescent lights doesn’t accurately show the flame and the colors are not accurate either. You can now see the issue that we deal with when photographing guitars. This problem is worst on Les Paul’s as the burst and flame can change greatly depending on what angle you are looking at the guitar at and how you are holding the guitars. If i turn the guitar on my desk 30 degrees now the studio photo looks to most accurate to color and burst. This issue isn’t prevalent with double stained guitars such as PRS because the flame doesn’t move and obviously Single color and non-flamed guitars are much easier to photograph.
So the big question is what can we do to assure these guitars are as accurately displayed as possible. As i have explained we take great care to assuring that this photographs are as accurate as we can. As i sit on this computer the studio shot and the outdoor shot look dead on close. Is the studio shot 100% of what the sunlight shot is in terms of color representation? No, but its about 98% and it is a more accurate representation to what the flame looks like. The photo taking process is complex in nature and has so many variables in it that it is impossible to assure 100% accuracy. Especially with Les Paul’s. We understand here that you really can’t know what a guitar looks, feels and plays like until you get it in your hands and that why we have our 48 approval period. But the bottom line is we use all of the tools that we have here at the store to assure that we a representing our guitars accurately and hope that it transfers well to your computers. Unfortunately we just can’t know what they are going to look like to you.
As always your comments are appreciated.
P.S. As any technically trained commercial photographer knows i will mention there is a constant battle between making a photo look awesome and accurate. We always try to make these photos look as good as possible without compromising accuracy but if the occasional one slips through that is leaning a little more towards the “awesome” side then “accurate” we apologize. We are always happy to snap a couple quick pics on a phone and email them to you if you are seriously interested in one of our guitars!