I get asked to photograph some pretty interesting things, and sometimes these things create some unique problems to solve. Here I’ll take you behind the scenes of a recent shoot for a violin maker and show you how I photographed this series of a violin in a way that is both a document of the instrument and also a beautiful wall poster.
I count myself as very fortunate to be able to work with some incredibly interesting and creative people, and professional violin maker Lukas Strnadel from the Czech Republic is most definitely among them. Lukas hand makes violins using the same ancient luthier techniques used by famous 17th-century Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari himself.
A few times a year Lukas brings the violins he’s made to be photographed for documentation purposes, meaning that the instruments are officially logged with photographs to prove that they are made by him. There are very strict parameters that we have to stick to when photographing the instruments in order to show them as accurately as possible, and they need to be in line with how other string instruments are shot for magazines such as The Strad and for museums. However, the final images are beautiful and could almost be a work of art in and of themselves. Here’s how we shot them.
Lukas explains that he needs 3 shots of each instrument: front, back and scroll (that’s the curly bit at the top which is traditionally where the luthier can be a bit creative. Some have carved lion’s heads for example instead of the usual scroll). The images have to be shot correctly in-camera for insurance purposes, we cannot rely on fixing things in Photoshop. Aside from cropping, background clean-up and sharpening we have to get the image done the old-school way. Which is kind of fun!
The instrument first needs to be cleaned of dust as we are going for minimal work in post. We then hang the instrument using invisible fishing thread from a backdrop stand in front of a backlight.
The lighting is relatively simple, just 3 lights. The light at the back is placed inside a large 4 foot octobox which acts as a sort of lightbox to keep the background pure white. I have experimented with using a solid white background lit separately, and alternatively a scrim with light behind it, but because the size of the violins is small enough I have found this method works the best and has the most even spread of light. I’m using a 50mm lens on a FF mirrorless camera.
Two additional lights in softboxes are placed on each side of the violin, equally lighting up the front. The difficult part is not getting any highlights showing up the front of the violin. They are allowed on the black parts (the chin rest and tailpiece) but not on the wood part as this would affect the appearance and colour of the instrument. It’s a unique problem, most of the time in photography we play with shadows and highlights to create form and interest, but here we must work to eliminate both of those as much as possible.
Because each instrument is hand made, it is not 100% perfectly even on each side, so the light on one side is in fact in a very slightly different position to the one on camera left. Some experimentation is involved, particularly for the curved front of the violin, and this is really where we have to remember the rule “angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection”.
Once we have all the lights in the correct position we then used a passport checker to make sure we have an accurate rendition of the colour and we can replicate it for each image.
After that, it’s all fairly straight forward and we take the required images of the front, back and scroll, making sure we adjust the height and angle of the camera to ensure that the hanging instrument appears straight onto the lens due to the angle that it is hanging. We also used a white reflector underneath the instrument to fill out some of the shadows on the chin rest at the bottom, being careful not to add highlights to the body of the instrument.
Post-processing the images is very minimal, having tried to get the photos correct in camera as much as possible. Some minor tweaks in ACR, then I take the images altogether into PS: crop, clone the background to white, increase the blacks slightly on the black areas using curves and a mask, and finally sharpening. And that is it, no messing about with the colour.
That’s pretty much all there is to it! Of course, if this is just for fun or to create wall art you could certainly have fun playing with some colour grading to your own liking, but for our purposes, this was all that was required. Here is the final image of the front.