This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments

Mar 4, 2024

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments

Mar 4, 2024

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments

New Zealand photographer and musician Charles Brooks takes you to places you’ve probably never seen before. His photographs could be the inside of a vast concert hall, the belly of a ship, or even a black hole in outer space, except that they are nothing of the sort.

Brooks specialises in taking photos of the internal and secret worlds of the most valuable musical instruments that exist. Stradivarius violins, Steinway pianos, and Amati violas line his portfolio, creating both an exotic new world to explore and technical challenges along the way. DIYP chatted to Charles about how he creates these extraordinary photographs.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments guitar
‘SIETE LUNAS’ GUITAR BY ROBERTO HERNANDEZ

DIYP: How (and why) did you make the move from being a musician to a photographer? Do you feel that your musical experience has influenced your photography in ways beyond the subject matter?

Charles: I began my journey into photography at 15 and must have shown some aptitude as I found myself teaching the senior photography class at my high school just a few months later. Despite this early flair for photography, my true passion lay with the cello, and the strenuous demands of pursuing a career in classical music meant photography had to take a back seat.

After high school, I fully immersed myself in music, leading to a series of orchestral positions in China. It was an exciting period, filled with travel across Asia and Europe, performing with celebrated artists like Lang Lang, which rekindled my love for photography as I sought to capture the beauty of the places we visited.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments cello
THE CELLO ONCE HIT BY A TRAIN

My musical journey next brought me to Chile, where the stunning landscapes inspired a love for landscape and night photography. However, when my career took me to Brazil, the dangerous environment of cities like Sao Paulo made landscape and night photography a risky pursuit. This shift in setting necessitated a pivot to portraiture, a genre that was both safer and profoundly engaging with the vibrant cultural backdrop of Brazil and the magnificent São Paulo Opera House as my office!

After two decades of living the life of an orchestral musician, the constant pressure and the high-stakes atmosphere, often like scenes from the movie “Whiplash,” began to take their toll. Seeking respite and a return to my roots, I moved back to New Zealand. It was shortly after this return that the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, catalyzing the start of a photography project that would soon evolve into one of the most published series worldwide, amassing over 16 million reproductions in news and magazine print alone ranging from the UK’s Daily Mail to the Vatican.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments saxophone
1940s Selmer Balanced Action Saxophone

DIYP: Can you tell me about how the Architecture in Music project started? What gave you the idea?

Charles: This photography series took root during the Covid-19 lockdown, a time when my usual work capturing concert musicians came to an abrupt halt. With live performances cancelled, there was little demand for portraits, and financial constraints made them even less feasible.

At the same time, many musicians opted to send their instruments for servicing or repair, creating a unique opportunity. Workshops and technicians’ spaces were suddenly brimming with instruments. I seized the chance to experiment with some of the innovative Laowa probe lenses I had been curious about.

I rented some of these lenses and explored photographing the instruments at a friend’s workshop who was busy servicing them. The images I captured were unexpectedly captivating, sparking not just a new passion but eventually steering my career in a new direction.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments clarinet
1995 Low C Prestige Bass Clarinet 2

DIYP: You use medical equipment and endoscopes to photograph the insides of the instruments. What are the biggest challenges with using this equipment and with taking these photos?

Charles: The Laowa probe lenses, whilst great, were too big for most of the work I was doing, so I started seeking out medical lenses. This was a tremendously steep learning curve as the technology is very different and extremely expensive!

The endoscopes I use have to be less than 5mm wide to get into a violin. They project a tiny image circle that only covers a fraction of even a micro-four-thirds sensor. I spent years experimenting with adapters and different techniques to turn these tiny images into photos that could be printed on room-sized canvases with extreme detail. 

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments didgeridoo
Australian Didgeridoo

DIYP: What gear do you typically use to shoot these images?

Charles: For all my photography projects, I rely on Lumix cameras, favouring the high-resolution Lumix S1R whenever possible. However, due to compatibility issues with some of the specialized medical lenses that cannot be adapted to a full-frame sensor, I use the Lumix G9ii, which is the latest model in the micro-four-thirds category. I am a Lumix ambassador. However, I would still use these cameras even if I wasn’t.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments piano kawaii
KAWAI GRAND PIANO MILLENIUM III ACTION

The pixel-shifting capabilities of these cameras allow me to capture RAW frames from 100 to 187 megapixels, this is essential as I print these images room-sized for gallery and museum exhibitions.

My collection of lenses is quite extensive: I started this series with the Laowa 24mm probe lens. This lens, despite its innovative design, proved too bulky for some of the more intricate shots I wanted to capture. To overcome this, I resorted to the somewhat unconventional method of using a heat gun to melt away parts of the lens casing, slimming it down to fit my needs!

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments piano steinway
The Exquisite Architecture of Steinway Part 3

Yet, as my projects evolved, the demand for even smaller lenses grew, leading me to collaborate with the Medical Imaging Department at my local university. Through this partnership, I gained access to a series of Storz devices, which are typically used in knee surgery, allowing me to delve into even more detailed photographic explorations.

Lighting is crucial in my work, requiring extremely powerful solutions to illuminate the instruments. I typically use a combination of 2-3 Godox AD1200 or Aputure 600d lights, these supply just about enough light, but managing the heat from them is a constant battle. The Aputures can melt the varnish off a violin in under a half minute!

CHARLES THERESS DOUBLE BASS CIRCA 1860
CHARLES THERESS DOUBLE BASS CIRCA 1860

DIYP: Which instrument was your favourite to shoot the interior of? Have any been particularly difficult?

Charles: I had the unique opportunity to photograph an Amati Viola dating back to 1619, which is impressively still played daily by the New Zealand String Quartet. This instrument was already ancient by the time J.S. Bach was born (in 1685), to give you an idea of its age.

Among all, violas and violins present the most challenging subjects. The entry points are particularly small. I’m not aware of anyone who photographed a violin before me without cutting a hole in the side or removing the entire lid (which is really dangerous).

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments violin
HOPF VIOLIN CIRCA 1880, PART 1

My technique involves inserting very small lenses through what we call the ‘button-hole’, a 5mm opening used to hold tension in the strings. I expand the image circle with special adapters, effectively working at around f/260.

This requires an enormous amount of light, but the tiny apertures through which the light must be directed also pose significant challenges, particularly with heat management. Just a few flashes from the strobe lights can raise the temperature of an instrument’s varnish to critical levels—it must not surpass 36 degrees Celsius—forcing me to proceed with extreme caution.

Capturing each image involves taking between 200 to 1000 frames to achieve perfect clarity, with mandatory cooling breaks every four frames to prevent overheating. This meticulous process is both time-consuming and demanding.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments amati viola

DIYP: Can you tell us what it’s like to photograph multi-million dollar string instruments? What precautions do you have to take on the shoots? 

Charles: The experience of working with such distinguished instruments is genuinely exhilarating for me, especially as someone who once had a career as a concert musician, often fantasizing about playing these very instruments.

On occasion, the generous owners allow me a moment to play their cellos before I photograph them, which is an absolute delight. My familiarity and expertise with these instruments stem from my 20 years of playing in professional orchestras worldwide, instilling confidence that I will handle their precious instruments with the utmost care.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments guarneri

To ensure additional safety, I always have a luthier or technician present during shoots to monitor everything closely. Moreover, I take extensive precautions to secure the environment: sandbagging every light stand, securing every table, meticulously checking all connections, and paying a fortune in insurance. I even go as far as using a stand-in instrument for setup before moving on to photograph the real thing… You can’t be careful enough, I certainly don’t want to be known as the photographer who broke a 20 million dollar violin!

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments piano fazioli
Fazioli Grand Piano Part 1

DIYP: Are you working on any other music-related projects? 

Charles: Currently, this project consumes the majority of my time, though I still manage to squeeze in the occasional portrait session and indulge in astrophotography whenever possible. Interestingly, many of the techniques I employ in this series are adapted from the precise world of astrophotography.

As the project evolves, I’m focused on fostering a more collaborative environment, seeking ways to incorporate the musicians into the photographic process and integrate these images into their performances. 

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments piano steinway
THE EXQUISITE ARCHITECTURE OF STEINWAY, PART 7

DIYP: Can you tell us more about how your techniques are similar to astrophotography?

Charles: In both my music and astrophotography, I’m trying to capture beauty in very dark environments, requiring long exposure times. This common ground between the two disciplines often presents similar challenges, particularly the issue of sensor noise.

Extended periods of camera operation heat up the sensor, introducing hot pixels into the images. To counteract this, at the end of each session, I capture approximately 30 “dark frames” with the lens cap secured, which records the pure sensor noise. This data is invaluable for post-processing, allowing me to effectively eliminate the noise from my final images.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments flute
Alto Flute

Another challenge shared by both fields is managing an extremely shallow depth of field due to the necessity of shooting with wide apertures to maximize light intake. This is especially pronounced in cramped spaces or when focusing on small details, such as the interior of a flute or the area behind piano keys, where often only a millimetre of the subject is in sharp focus.

To overcome this, I employ a technique known as focus-stacking, capturing hundreds of images with slight adjustments to the focus point in each frame. These images are then merged using specialized software to create a single, sharply focused image. While focus-stacking is a technique I also apply in landscape astrophotography, it typically requires far fewer images, perhaps five instead of 800!

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments guitar
INSIDE AN ACOUSTIC GUITAR, PART 2

Additionally, I utilize pixel-shifting, a method where the camera captures eight photographs each time I press the shutter, slightly adjusting the sensor’s position with each shot. These images are then combined to enhance the photo’s resolution.

Whether for music photography or astrophotography, these meticulous processes result in the compilation of hundreds to thousands of individual frames for just one final photograph—a practice quite familiar to astrophotographers!

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments guitar
IBANEZ ACOUSTIC GUITAR Part 2

Each week, the previous photographer asks a question to the next. This question is asked by Jaime de Diego:

What has been the happiest moment you have experienced with a camera in your hands?

Charles: Choosing the single happiest moment from my camera experiences is a challenge, as I particularly love the contemplative nature of conducting intricate photoshoots. Once all the elements are precisely arranged, the process transitions into a lengthy, repetitive act of capturing image after image, with minor adjustments made along the way.

This experience, whether it’s in a studio with an exceptional instrument and a playlist of great music or in the serene solitude of the desert under a starlit sky, cultivates a sense of Zen-like tranquillity. It’s in these moments, immersed in the art of photography, that I find a profound sense of satisfaction and joy.

This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments organ
St Marks Church Organ Part 1
This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments organ
St Marks Pipe Organ Part 2

You can see more of Charles’ work on his website, or follow him on Facebook or Instagram.

Featured Photographer of the Week (or FPOTW for short) is where we share amazing talent with our community. If you know of anyone who’d be happy to be a part of our ‘Featured Photographer of the Week Series’, please contact us here.

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Alex Baker

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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3 responses to “This photographer explores the hidden worlds inside priceless musical instruments”

  1. Dunja Djudjic Avatar
    Dunja Djudjic

    I wanna shrink and live in some of these. :)
    I enjoyed this with all my heart, soul, and eyes. <3

  2. Melony Avatar
    Melony

    wow! Great idea!!

  3. Lu Avatar
    Lu

    This is either 15-20 years old, or somebody is a copycat of something that everyone forgot. I have seen this, and if it’s from the original author, then huge respect.