Don’t Think Of This As A Guitar Photograph
Don’t think of this as a guitar photograph. It could be a photograph of anything. The picture happens to be the headstock of a Danelectro guitar, but don’t let that fool you. It’s really just a stand-in … an example of a deliberate photograph. It’s a very deep subject…being deliberate, that is. It’s about that moment where you go from being a photographer who is completely reactionary, to one who contemplates what will appear on the screen when you press the shutter. (I used to say what appears on the print when you press the shutter but few people print these days.)
This is part of the series I started when I wrote the post on developing a photographer’s eye (https://picturemethods.com/2020/07/16/develop-a-photographers-eye/).
I am hoping to provide some insight for those of you who want to level up your photography and have come to realize that buying a new camera or lens won’t (by themselves) make that happen. But this will help you improve and quickly. You need to be deliberate in your photography. If you can, you need to see your final image before you press the shutter.
I used this guitar image because it’s a teaching slide for my new book. I am writing a book on how to photograph guitars. Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly going to be a best-seller. It’s a narrow category. But there’s information going into this book that can help any photographer and this is a taste of that.
When I design photographs (and yes I do design them) I create the image in my mind before I ever touch a camera. This is called pre-visualization. I have written about this many times on this site and others. It’s best illustrated by my image “Cranes in the Fire Mist.”
That was a picture that took me several years to make. The blessing (or curse, depending on how you see it) of being able to pre-visualize an image is that you get committed to a certain result in your mind and then you chase that.
For the image I am using in this post, I wanted to create a picture of the guitar headstock that was more than a mundane, straight-on, simple image, documenting what the headstock looks like. I was out to do something other than to make a documentary record of the instrument. I wanted to create something more complex, and at the same time, I wanted it to look simple and effortless.
People who are extremely accomplished at their craft tend to be able to make the results they produce look effortless. Simplicity of thought seems to be behind all great art. One concept, carefully illustrated, designed to convey a story, or a feeling or an emption. That’s a lot to unpack. Don’t worry about all that now, just pick one thing you can work on with your photography to help move you in this direction. The rest will come. So let’s start with being more deliberate.
Professional photographers aren’t professionals because they get paid, although most do. They are professionals because they are PROFICIENT. The dictionary says to be proficient, one is well advanced in an art, occupation, or branch of knowledge.
I like to think of it as being able to regularly, routinely, at beck and call, being able to produce reliable, consistent, DELIBERATE results. In other words, moving from hoping the picture “comes out” to making a deliberate image, designed in the mind’s eye, before a camera was ever involved.
This is a completely foreign concept to newbies. I used to be a newbie too, so I know. It might be hard to wrap your head around what I am saying, but stick with me. I’ll illustrate my points by describing this rather routine guitar headstock photo.
I have lots of guitars and lots of headstocks to choose from. I am a big Danelectro fan so I picked this one. It has character and I like the vintage tuners. I wanted the tuners to play a bigger part in the photo than they might otherwise if I just concentrated on photographing the headstock shape or the logo, etc.
As inspiration, I looked at literally hundreds of guitar photographs by professional photographers who work for the big guitar brands. The goal is not to copy them. It is to just sort of (to use a musical expression) riff off something they do that is interesting, intriguing or different. I saw a couple of images where the photographer was playing with reflections. That gave me an idea.
Once I selected the guitar to photograph and thought about the image I wanted to make, I cleaned the instrument. This is an important step and where proficiency comes in to play. If I were new at this I might not realize that the tiny specks of dust, etc. that fill the air will show up big time in the final picture meaning LOTS of repair in post. I don’t like to spend any more time in post than I have to so I cleaned the guitar as well as I could. (See this image closeup to understand what I mean about dust!)
Then I brought the guitar to my home product studio, and placed it on a table using a black paper background. I then used two constant LED lights as a light source, mounted behind the guitar, pointed towards the camera which was flanked by two large white V-flats. The V-flats pump the light back onto the subject. I used barn doors on the lights to make sure that the light doesn’t land directly on the lens.
Then I had to deal with the reflections. It’s always reflections. Reflections, reflections, reflections. If you don’t believe me, try photographing any guitar. Then look carefully at the image, enlarged on your computer screen. You will see them. The reflections are always there. Like the IRS, they lurk.
The trick with guitar photography is dealing with those reflections. Guitars are essentially mirrors. I could curse that or embrace it. I decided that I needed to take advantage of the reflections. Instead of just trying to defeat the reflections, I decided to incorporate them. Well, some of them. I wanted to position the guitar so the tuners would reflect on the headstock. This meant positioning the guitar so the light hit it just right. For expediency’s sake, I used my iPhone’s camera to make some quick test shots to see where the light hit and where the reflections fell. This process took about 20 min. When I found the right position, I set up the camera to make the final image. I spent another 20 minutes covering the guitar from multiple angles just to make sure I would get the reflection just right. Each frame I made was only a few degrees off the one before it, but the positioning needed to be just right and I didn’t want to chance it.
Then I imported the image into Luminar 4 (which I use instead of Lightroom) to make basic corrections. Then I moved the image to Photoshop where, despite the time I took cleaning the guitar before I made the picture, I still had 30 minutes of clean up. Note, I am not certain that the image is even completely cleaned up but it is enough so to show it here and to use it to illustrate how much thought goes into being a deliberate photographer.
The result is exactly what I hoped for. Now, I am not saying it’s a good photograph. That’s not for me to judge. My job is to deliver predictable results. The benefit of my experience is that I was able to attain that goal. The rest is up to everyone else.
Whether or not you like this picture, try to focus on the concept here. Are you being this deliberate about your photography? Do you give thought to every detail? I actually did this short and sweet for the blog post. I spent more time (in my mind) just conceiving of the image. That meant looking at lots of published guitar photos, thinking about what I wanted MY version of the head stock to look like, etc.
Then the prep work, the execution, and the post work. At every stage, you should strive to be deliberate in your actions with a clearly defined goal. When you hit your stride, the images you end up with match the ones you saw in your mind’s eye.
If you want to level up your photography, regardless of your subject matter…spend time being more deliberate. I bet your images will improve.
I’m rooting for you.
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