Beauty Light

My wife doesn't like sitting for pictures. So I don't often get the opportunity. Too bad because when she does it, she rocks it!

Photogeek Talk: This was an exercise in soft clamshell lighting - a softbox in front of the subject angling down from above, and a silver reflector below bouncing light back up into her face. I also added a hair light from behind and to camera-right. Clamshell is a classic lighting technique that works really well on women and children. I've also heard it referred to as "beauty lighting" and often a beauty dish is employed instead of the softbox that I used. It's pretty easy to set up, although the last time I did it, I screwed it up and got distracted by the interesting result of the error. Anyway, it's a very flattering light if you have the face to pull it off.


A Horse Is A Horse,

... Of Course, of course, unless he has human legs.

This odd statue sits in the lobby of the Deloitte building in downtown Houston. I don't know the significance of the human legs. Is it referencing the Trojan horse from Greek mythology? Is it supposed to be a costume? Is it referencing some other story with which I'm not familiar? If you know, please comment because I'm very curious.


Moody Light

I gotta say it again. The reason I do selfies is because I'm a ready, willing, and very cheap model, not because I'm vain. Although I am vain, which is why I care what readers think about me posting selfies. ;-)

Okay, that said, the original goal was to practice beauty lighting (a.k.a. clamshell lighting). But I placed my key light too high and too close so it cast more shadow under my brows, nose, and cheekbones than you'd want with beauty lighting. (Another tell-tale clue that the key was placed incorrectly is there is not a catchlight for the key in my eyes - the catchlights you see are the reflector and the fill). But I thought it was an interesting look so I rolled with it. I added a silver reflector underneath, as well as bringing in a little light from my pop-up flash for a bit more fill. Finally I added some rim light with a speedlight behind me shining on my back and head. You can see it outlining my shoulders and neck and separating me from the black backdrop. I think this look works pretty well for a male model. For a female I think a more traditional beauty lighting would be better.


1994 Hamer Special FM

Today I present the Hamer Special FM. The Special FM is no longer made, but it's basically a slab-cut Les Paul. It has the classic Les Paul formula of dual humbuckers, mahogany body and neck, and a maple top. It varies from the formula with a double-cutaway shape and a control configuration of two volumes, a master tone, and a 3-way toggle placed on the lower bout.

US-made Hamers are great instruments with excellent woods, top-shelf parts, and superb fit and finish. The thick maple top on this one is PRS-pretty with an amber finish. In fact, I would posit that US-made Hamers have a more consistently high level of craftsmanship than Gibsons, which can be pretty spotty in my experience. Still, that said, there is a special vibe and sound with a good Les Paul that is pretty unique and hasn't been perfectly duplicated by other guitars, including Hamer.

I bought this guitar 20 years ago and as you can see it's still in fine shape. It has a few surface scratches and the pickup covers have a fair amount of corrosion (one of the drawbacks of nickel-silver). I swapped out the original pickups for Duncan Seth Lovers, which are particularly authentic reproductions of '50s era Gibson PAF pickups. They're low in output and very warm sounding, with just enough bite to be articulate. All of which adds up to a vintage Les Paul type of sound; not exactly a Les Paul mind you but definitely in the same family.

I used this guitar for some of the rhythm tracks on my first CD and they ended up being the songs that had the best guitar sounds on the record. Those tracks have a punchier, meatier sound that's missing from the other tracks. The only real criticism I have for the Special FM is that the short upper horn makes the guitar just a bit neck-heavy when balanced on a strap.

Photogeek talk. I wouldn't call working with white seamless backdrops hard, but there are some things you have to know to get "that look". It all stems from the need to expose the backdrop evenly and well so that it's actually white (or close to it) while at the same time not over-exposing your subject.

First, it's easiest if you have a lot of room. The reason is because you generally want to light the subject separately from the backdrop and you don't want the two lighting setups interfering with each other. In order to maintain that separation, you often need to set up flags to block light from going where you don't want it to go. The smaller your working area, the more likely flagging will be necessary.

To light the background evenly, you usually want to use two lights with full coverage of the background shown in the camera frame and point them at the backdrop from 45 degrees angles and pointed at the opposite side of the backdrop from where they're placed. That gets the best, uniform coverage. For my guitar photos I used a single backlight because I thought I was working with a small enough area that I could get away with it, but you can see in some of the photos that there's a gradient in the white from one side of the photo to the other. That's not necessarily a bad thing, you might want that look. But for even white all the way across, use two lights.

Next, you want the background to be well-lit, but not so much that it reflects too much light - or too big of a light - back on the subject. Otherwise, you get this "glowing" effect that you may not want. In order to do this, the backdrop should be placed at a distance so that it just fills the camera frame, but not much bigger. Then place the subject at a distance so that it is the desired size in the frame. This keeps reflected light from the backdrop from wrapping too much around the subject. Maintaining these distances is one reason you need a lot of room to work with white seamless. If you don't have that much room (and my studio doesn't) then your background lights should fully cover backdrop that is shown in the camera frame, but not too much more (you'll have to spill some light outside the frame in order account for light fall-off but just don't over-do it). Finally, light the background (without the subject) so that it's fully exposed as white but not heavily blown out. The histogram should show all the pixels bunched up on the right, but not everything on the last vertical line. Then light the subject as appropriate.


Letting The Days Go By


I ended my 365 project today. I'll have to call it my 100 project because that's how many days I completed. The short story is the cost/benefit of doing just no longer made sense in light of the other things I want to do with my time. The long story is here. It's kind of a relief, although another part of me hates to leave anything incomplete. Oh well.


Engine Room


This weekend the family went on a overnight trip with my kids' Cub Scout pack to the USS Lexington. This is our 2nd excursion to the Lexington and we once again had a blast. Without a doubt the highlight of the cub scouting year. The biggest treat is when the ship closes to regular tourists and you get to explore it without the crowds for several hours at night. Sleeping in the bunks is pretty cool too. I find Navy ships, and in particular aircraft carriers, to be endlessly fascinating. Obviously the engineering and manufacturing accomplishment is gobsmacking and the military history is extremely interesting and inspiring (the Lexington has a particularly storied history.). But I'm also fascinated by the life aboard these miniature floating cities, and I love looking at the barber shops, medical facilities, post offices, machine shops, and other things that support the military purpose of these ships. Highly recommended if you get the opportunity.


Back In Black

I got a new backdrop system today. I bought a Westcott X-Drop system with white and black backdrops. Testing out the black drop, I really like it. I can tell this is going to be a lot easier to work with than the black felt I was using because it doesn't reflect light and therefore doesn't require much, if any, post-processing to ensure it's actually pitch black in the photo. I'm excited to try the white drop as well.

I really sweated over whether to get the X-Drop or a full-size drop system. A full-size backdrop is definitely more versatile because it can be used for larger groups of people, but I decided to go with the X-Drop because a full-size system would be too clumsy in my small studio and I mainly shoot individuals anyway. I figure if I ever start shooting groups, I'll just buy a full-size backdrop system at that time. The X-Drop travels so well it would be nice to have both actually.

The system sets up and tears down very easily, it collapses down really small, and it includes a carry bag. I like that the frame stretches the cloth out to remove wrinkles so you don't need to iron it out. On the other hand, the backdrop cloth is a fleece type material that attracts lint so having a lint roller handy is a good idea (I would not photograph pets against it). It's a nice design but a little bit delicate and I wouldn't use it outside unless it was dead still because the X-Drop's light weight and large surface area make it a wind sail waiting to launch. But for casual indoor use like I do, it's pretty ideal. Westcott sells a number of patterned backdrop colors, but most of them looked cheesy in my opinion. Classic black and white are timeless so I'll stick with those for now. If I ever do want more variety, it looks like it would be a very easy thing to go to a fabric store and make my own.

Oh, and here's the photogeek info. I shot this with my 50mm lens opened up to f/2.2, so the depth of field is very shallow.  Shutter speed was at the camera's sync speed of 1/250. ISO was set to 100. Those settings pretty much eliminate any ambient light. The key light was a speedlight through a 24" softbox from above and camera-left, about 3 feet away from the subject. I also added a gridded speedlight behind the subject for the hair/rim light. That light was on its lowest setting. I've noticed that a lot of people go really heavy with hair lighting, making their subject's hair look like its own light source! I don't care for that look. I want just enough to get separation from the background and in some cases open up some hair detail. In post, I converted to black and white using Nik Silver EFEX Pro. I did a lot tweaking of contrast to get the lighting just right. In particular, I made extensive use of SEP's "soft contrast" control. That feature is amazing. It adds contrast, but with a gentle transition between dark and light. It's like the difference between hard and soft lighting. Not surprisingly, the contrast blew out my T-shirt so I used SEP's control points feature to bring back detail there.


Image Sharpness - The Critical Factors

Sharpness is one of the hallmarks of photographic competence. You can argue, validly, that we get a bit too obsessed with sharpness since some of the iconic photographs of history aren't all that sharp. Composition and emotional content win over sharpness any day. But let's consider that a given. All other things being equal, I'd rather have a sharp image than a soft one. Here's a list of key things to manage in order to get sharp photos:

  • Camera Technique. I have described before how to hold a camera in detail. You can learn how to do it in about 5 mintues and it will noticeably improve you shots.
  • Shutter Speed. This is a biggie. If you're holding your camera correctly and still not getting sharp images, the next most-likely culprit is that your shutter speed is too slow. The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be no slower than the reciprocal of your focal length. In English, that means if the focal length of your lens is X, then your shutter speed needs to be 1/X or faster. And that's just to overcome camera shake. You'll need a faster (potentially much faster) speed if your subject is not stationary. Raise your ISO if necessary in order to get the shutter speed fast enough! ISO noise can be improved in post; bluriness can't.
  • Aperture. Lenses typically are a little soft when wide open. Also, the narrower the depth of field, the more critical it is to nail the focus point since more of the picture is going to be outside the focus area. If possible, stop down the lense so that you're shooting in lens' "sweet spot" of sharpness and you're working with adequate depth of field. The challenge is that smaller apertures can run counter to using an appropriate shutter speed. It's a trade-off, but if you're prioritizing sharpness, most of the time you're better off compromising on the aperture in order to get a fast shutter speed.
  • Subject. When you're learning to shoot, it's common to take subject-less pictures just for the practice. That's cool. But the problems with that are 1) the camera focuses on whatever happens to be under the focus point, and 2), a viewer of your photo is going to have no idea what should be in focus and will therefore expect everything to be in focus (anything less and it looks like the photographer screwed up). So I recommend always having a definitive subject in photos that aren't practice. Even in a landscape, I like to place an object (a rock, a tree, etc.) at the hyperfocal distance to make my subject and focus on it.  The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which your lens (for a given aperture) can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. For landscapes, I'm often using my Tokina 12-24mm lens zoomed wide to 12mm and set to f/11.  At that aperture and focal length, I've memorized the fact that the hyperfocal distance is just over 2 feet, so I compose my shot so that there is an object about 2-3 feet away that I can focus on. For a landscape, this foreground object has the added benefit of imparting a great sense of depth to the photo. 
  • Focus Point. For people or animal pictures, focus on the eyes. If you nail that, the shot will work even if everything else is out of focus. For other objects, put some thought into what part of the subject needs to be in focus. This is especially critical when you're working with a narrow depth of field due to a small aperture, a close distance to the subject, or a long focal length.
  • Light. This is another biggie. Low light causes all kinds of focus challenges: slow shutter speeds, ISO noise, lack of specular highlighting, as well as poor auto-focus reliability and accuracy. Not only that, but low light is often ugly light. Not always, but often. People shoot in low light and their images are soft, flat, noisy, and lack color. Then they think there's a problem with their camera. It's not the camera; it's unrealistic expectations! All of the problems can be overcome by adding more light - by turning on some lights, opening curtains, or waiting for a different time of day. If none of that is possible, break out the flash. It was a watershed moment when I realized how off-camera flash enabled me to create beautiful light, instead of lucking into it.
  • Manual Focus. Of course there are situations that have to be low-light (night-time shots, for instance). In these situations, auto-focus may just not work. Put the camera in live view mode, zoom in on the focus area, and then manually set your focus. Done. If your camera has focus-peaking, you may even prefer using manual focus over auto-focus because it removes any ambiguity about what your camera is focusing on.
  • Tripod. If all else fails, break out the legs! The thing I like about tripods is that I can set my camera to optimize image quality (base ISO, aperture stopped down) and no matter what the resulting shutter speed, I'll get a sharp shot. Assuming the subject matter is stationary. If you're shooting landscapes, it's a must-have in my opinion.


ME Quatro, Revisited

As of today, this has become the new high-water mark for my guitar series. I'll give myself a little credit and say that part of it is all the practice has improved my skills. But by far the more significant reason is that this is the most ridiculously photogenic guitar I've ever shot. Just point my camera at it and half the work is done. The wood, the finish, the inlays, the hardware - the whole thing is just sumptuous.

These are photos of the PRS Modern Eagle Quatro that I featured in a previous entry. I thought I'd only shot the neck and headstock, but that turned out not to be the case. (Hey, I shot a lot of guitars that day. It's hard to keep 'em straight.) I took extensive photos of the entire guitar, luckily for me.

If you been following the series, you've undoubtedly noticed that there is a preponderance of flame maple. As I said in a previous post, that's a matter of the opportunities I've been given, although I do love a flamed or quilted top. Anyway, as a result of shooting all these guitars I've learned a few things about photographing flame maple. First, there's usually an optimal lighting and viewing angle to getting the wood figuring to really pop. Some angles just work better than others. Second, most flame maple tops have areas where the figuring is weaker than others so you want to compose your photos to exploit the strong areas. None of that applies to this guitar. It simply does not have a bad angle. It is the Liv Tyler of guitars. The flame figuring is tight, consistent, and perfectly formed across the entire top, no matter what the angle or lighting. PRS designates its most highly-figured maple tops, "Ten Tops". I would call this one an Eleven Top.

The paisley surface you see under the guitar is actually the guitar case! It's almost as much of a head-turner as the guitar. It looks like a piece of fine vintage luggage from a bygone era. Even the seams are perfectly aligned so that it looks like one continuous piece of cloth. My friend showed it to me and I just had to include it in the photos.


Gibson SG

It's been awhile since my last guitar series addition. But I finally got around to processing some as I had a day off from work today. Today's guitar is a Gibson SG in wine red - the classic SG finish.

The Gibson SG was introduced in 1961 as a replacement for the single cutaway Gibson Les Paul. Today, late '50s Les Pauls are among the most desirable electric guitars on the collectors market, but at the time they weren't selling very well. It was considered dated and receiving fierce competition from the Fender Stratocaster. The SG was introduced specifically to compete against the Strat, with a lighter design and a double cutaway. Although the SG did alright, interest in Les Pauls was renewed thanks to players like Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Peter Green, and Jeff Beck, who were playing them in the '60s. In 1968, Gibson re-introduced the single-cutaway Les Paul.  However, the SG has remained in the line-up ever since.

The SG does away with the carved maple top of the Les Paul and features a thinner, flat, all-mahogany body. They both have the dual humbucker/four control knob configuration. I find SGs to be a bit more upper mid-rangey with perhaps slightly less sustain. It's a sound that I like very much. Certainly Tommy Iommi, Robby Krieger, Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, Pete Townshend, and Eric Clapton have all done amazing work with SGs.  For my money, the quintessential SG player is Angus Young. The Gibson SG is pretty much synonymous with Angus.

One aspect of SGs that I've struggled with is how they sit on a strap. The front strap button is placed at the base of the neck (instead of the upper bout or horn). In addition, the neck joins the body at the 22 fret. These two features "push out" the fretboard toward the fretting hand a bit. As a result, you have to reach out a little further with your fretting hand to hit the same note you would on another guitar.  Unless I really watch what I'm doing, I'll naturally place my hands a whole step sharp! I could probably get used to it and learn to compensate, but I've always been afraid that would interfere with my ability to play other guitars. So I've never owned an SG.  But it's a glorious sound.


The Art of Manliness

I want to give a shout-out to a blog I've been enjoying lately, The Art of Manliness.  The title is slightly ironic.  It's really kind of like Boy's Life for grown boys.  From this site I've learned:  several different ways to tie a tie and how to choose the right one; the power of ritual; how to throw a better spiral; the right way to carve a turkey; how to build a pinewood derby car; tips on networking; and the case for regular family meetings.  Cool stuff.  Check it out.


Music and Photography

As a person whose first artistic love has been music, I find myself often comparing photography to music and looking for the lessons from the latter that I can apply to the former.  Along the way, I've made several, mostly subjective, observations about how photography compares to music.

Music Is Harder

Like music or any other art, you never really "master" photography in the sense that you know everything. There's always more to learn and room to improve.  But I do think that it is easier to get to a level of "basic competence" with photography than music.  It often takes years of focused practice to just to develop the physical dexterity or technique necessary to play a musical instrument competently.  Photography doesn't really have that particular hurdle; there are skills that must be developed but they're more about technical knowledge (which also exists in music) and not physical ability.  And with digital, photography's learning curve is now a lot less steep than it used to be.  It used to take a whole lot more time to build your photography chops because film processing meant hours or days between when you took a photo and when you could assess how it came out.  With digital, that feedback loop is instantaneous and iterative, allowing you to immediately try again if the photo didn't come out right.  I also find that music theory is a lot more complicated than photographic theory, at least what is required to reach functional literacy.  Especially for an improvising musician - in live performance, you have to be able to apply music theory in real-time to melodies that you're making up on-the-fly as a reaction to the music.  That's pretty amazing when you think about it.  But as I said, I'm talking about getting to a basic level of competence here.  Expert level mastery is a whole other matter.  Both music and photography can take a lifetime for that.

Photography Is Particularly Well-Suited to Working Alone

Although music can certainly be done successfully alone, there are many types of music that work best when performed in teams.  Musical teams are a fascinating thing.  The whole is often more, or less, than the sum of the parts.  A group of musicians with modest individual talents can make an extraordinary band (say, REM), while a band comprised of tremendous individual players can be a dud (say, Asia).  It's a little bit mystical, but when a band clicks it's a really marvelous thing.  But it ain't easy.  To assemble, organize, launch, and sustain a group of passionate artists under a common vision is difficult.  Really damn difficult.  For every band that creates magic, there are literally millions of others that dissolve quickly, acrimoniously, and having accomplished nothing.  The effort required to be in a band has really worn on me over the years.  One of the things I love about photography is that it works so well as a completely solo endeavor.  With photography, I can do an enormous amount of art on my own without having to beg, plead, fight, cajole, babysit, or compromise with other people.  It's truly special to be part of a great band and photography can't duplicate that, but it's also nice to be able to realize an artistic vision without all the mental and emotional overhead that comes with a band.

Photographers Are Knowledgeable About Their Craft

Musicians can be a very superstitious and willfully ignorant lot.  In my experience, photographers generally try to learn as much as they can about their craft.  Many musicians wear their lack of musical knowledge as a badge of honor.  Photographers tend to know their cameras, equipment, and software inside and out.  Musicians often have a very superficial knowledge of their tools.  I've observed photographers to be voracious readers and continuous students.  Musicians often think they'll kill their muse if they examine their craft too closely.

Photographers Are Savvy Business People

If you read the online discussions of professional photographers, you'll see a lot of talk about things like branding, pricing, cold calling, cross-selling, product diversification, social media, taxes, copyright law, invoicing, etc. I rarely hear/read musicians discuss such things, and when I do my impression is that their understanding of it is perfunctory.  What's alarming about it is that business is every bit as relevant to musicians as it is to photographers.  I speculate that it's due to the historical business models.  There's a long history of photographers as freelancers or photography service providers, where you have to develop a business sense to stay afloat.  Whereas the historical business model for musicians has been getting signed to a record label that handles all the business aspects on behalf of the artist (often in ways that put the artist at a tremendous disadvantage).  What's even more ironic is that the label/artist business model has really dwindled over the last 15 years, creating a lot of opportunities and challenges for musicians who have the business knowledge to navigate the new world.  Professional photography is undergoing similar changes, but my observation is that photographers are generally better equipped to adapt.

Photography Allows You To Be Artistically Prolific

This is especially true for me, but perhaps less true for others.  It takes me a lot of time to write a song and record it in a way of which I can be proud.  Weeks, months, or even years for just one song!  But I can create a nice photo in literally minutes.  Of course not all of my nice photos are truly great, but the productivity rate means I'm going to have more successes.  If, say, only 1 out of every 20 photos or songs is really good, the fact that I can produce 20 photos in a week (as opposed to the year it would take me to produce that many songs) means I'm going to be able to create a lot more quality work over the course of a lifetime.

Music Is Conjuring

One reason why it takes so much more time to produce a song is that it's just harder.  For me it is, anyway.  If you point a camera at something beautiful, you're already halfway there to a beautiful photo.  No amount of pointing my guitar at something beautiful is going to produce a beautiful song.  With photography, you necessarily start with something external - the scene - and then build an image on that.  With music, you often start with something considerably more abstract - an idea, a phrase, a couple chords - or maybe nothing at all.  It's up to you to create an initial spark that lights the fire.  It's more like conjuring something from the creative aether.  There are a lot of tricks and techniques people employ to help out with that, but I just find it a lot easier to develop a concept inspired by scenes that I can actually see than to conjure a musical idea from an abstract concept.

A Lot of Musicians Become Photographers

I'm continually amazed by how many photographers I read about are also musicians.  At this point it's probably become a bit of confirmation bias, but I really do think there is a disproportionate number.  The thing is, many of the traits you develop as a musician are highly beneficial to being a photographer.  I know in my own experience that the disciplined and structured way I learned music really accelerated my learning of photography.  And that's just with the free time that a typical, middle-aged guy with young children can muster.  If I were single and in my 20s, I'm confident I could hyper-accelerate things.  The mistakes I've made in music have also helped me. For example, I spent an awful lot of time when I was learning music focusing on instrumental technique.  If I could do things over again, I would re-focus a lot of that effort on songwriting and singing, which I think would have been a lot more useful and fulfilling in the long run.  So I've tried to apply that thinking to my photography and not allow myself to invest too much time in technical stuff and spend more of it on soft topics like composition and storytelling.


Machine Head

This collection of photos is of a PRS Modern Eagle Quatro. Why am I including so many PRS guitars in my series? Well, availability and good fortune. I own one and I have friends who own several, so they're available to me to shoot. But it's good fortune as far as I'm concerned because PRS guitars are highly photogenic, and each one usually brings something unique to the table that's highly exploitable from a photographic point of view.  But I fully intend to add more diversity to the series in the future, including guitars that are less jewel-like than a PRS and just interesting or unique.

When I shot this ME Quatro, I concentrated on the neck.  In retrospect, I wonder if I missed some opportunities by doing that since the rest of the guitar is lovely too.  But there was some logic in the decision as the neck of this guitar is its differentiating feature in my opinion.  First, it's all rosewood, a somewhat rare feature as most guitar necks are made of maple or mahogany.  Rosewood is dark, heavy, open-grained, and usually left unfinished (or oil-finished) on guitars , so it gives this guitar a very earthy, naturalistic look.  Another lovely feature of the ME Quatro are the machine heads.  A mix of satin-finished silver, brass, black, and gold which when set against the rich wood, and exposing the open gearing, gives off a kind of steampunk aesthetic.

The headstock is overlaid with cocobolo, another species of rosewood that is more reddish in color. It has an awesome, abstract inlay of an eagle (the photo above shows the eagle upside down) rendered in paua heart and mother of pearl with PRS' usual fastidious attention to detail.

The fretboard is also rosewood with the signature PRS bird inlays.  But these inlays are paua heart, rimmed with mother of pearl.

The rosewood neck is not just about looks.  It also imparts a lightning fast attack - notes fire out of the guitar like phaser bullets in Star Wars.  This is probably not a guitar you'd use to get a violin-like tone, but I could see it working really well for country or funk where a snappy, percussive attack is a tremendous asset.

Freaky Friday - Bell's


Best whiskey commercial ever.


Gibson Les Paul

You can't really have a collection of guitar photos without including a Les Paul.

When my buddy pulled this guitar out of the case, I knew that it had to be in my series.  The cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul has a special place in my heart.  It's the very first guitar I lusted after.  The one that kindled a life-long passion for guitars in general, and Les Pauls in particular.  I was a big fan of KISS back when I was 12 and Ace Frehley played a cherry sunburst Les Paul.  I wanted one in the worst way.  But of course, 12 year olds generally can't afford real Les Pauls.  Shoot, I'm middle aged, it's still a whole lot of money, and as of writing this I don't own a Les Paul (although I have in the past).

I shot these photos in front of an old Marshall amp because that's the quintessential pairing with a Les Paul in my opinion.  If it was good enough for Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, Joe Perry, Al DiMeola, Slash, Paul Kossof, Billy Gibbons, and Zakk Wylde -- it's damn well good enough for me!


PRS Archtop

Next up, a PRS Archtop. Paul Reed Smith makes some of the most beautiful and elegant electric guitars available.  And the Archtop is especially gorgeous even among their other lofty models.  The standout features are the thick hollow body which makes the guitar very resonant, and the exquisitely carved top and back.

I've never played a PRS that wasn't excellent in feel, and this one is not an exception. The neck is moderately thick and the action is about just right for me - low, but not so much that it interferes with bending.  The guitar is very light, but still well balanced without being neck-heavy. I think part of that is the fact that it has a full-size top horn, which first struck me as odd looking on a thick hollow body guitar, but I suspect it provides better balance on a strap. 

This guitar has had a couple of modifications made including blingy rosewood knobs with abalone inlays and rosewood pickup bezels. But the most interesting mod in my opinion is a set of 53/10 pickups.  These pickups strike me as being low in output, sweet, and exceptionally warm, turning this instrument into a really great jazz guitar. For rock, I think I like just a little more more sparkle and punch, but it would have been absolutely perfect when I was playing swing and jump-blues.

My friend who owns this beauty wanted to ensure that I got a shot of the f-hole from the side and for good reason:  While it's not bound, it is perfectly shaped and finished showing off PRS' attention to detail and demonstrating how the flame figuring runs all the way through the maple top.  My friend says it looks like a piece of caramel candy.  He's absolutely right.

One of the features I've always loved in PRS guitars is the sculpted bottom horn, which facilitates access to the high frets but also just has a lovely shape. It was pure luck (no planning or foresight on my part), but the guitar gave a cool-looking thumbtack-shaped reflection of my softbox that I think is kind of cool looking.

A couple of photo notes.  These were all taken in my buddy's music room, which is a converted garage.  The natural lighting was rather dim, but my guitar photos tend to be all artificially lit anyway.  For this guitar, it was my usual speedlight though a 24" softbox with a white reflector on the opposite side for fill.  The black backdrop is a couple 3'x3' black felt cloths

I've developed a pretty routine post-processing workflow for these guitar shots now.  I do basic exposure, contrast, and RAW sharpening in Adobe Camera Raw.  Then I import into Photoshop and usually do some tonal adjustment on the background to either darken or lighten it, depending on what the background is.  I then use the Tonal Contrast filter in Nik Color Effects Pro on just the guitar to bring out the texture and finish.  This is the key step because it will make flame maple, metallic finishes, and pearlescent finishes really pop.  Then I do the most time-consuming part:  Using Photoshop's spot healing brush to remove specks of dust.  No matter how much I clean the guitar or blow it out with compressed air, there's always a lot of dust when I zoom in to 100%.  It's a tedious job and the only part I really dislike about doing these guitar photos.  But it's gotta be done because the other processing I do makes the dust pop as well.  The contrast enhancements and sharpening will make the dust very obvious and distracting, especially if I later decide to do a large print (which is likely for some of these).  After the dust is cleaned up, for some photos I will then use the Dark Border/Light Center filter in Color Effects Pro to add a vignette.  And lastly I do some final output sharpening before conversion to JPG.  I don't do any sort of color enhancement.  These guitars simply don't need it.  I think in a future post, I'll walk through the entire process and show before/after shots.