How To Photograph Guitars

Michael Kelly Guitars 1957

Whether you need a photo of your guitar for an eBay listing, to show off your new acquisition on your favourite guitar forum, for social media or even a magazine article, you owe it to yourself and your guitar (and maybe your editor or boss) to take the nicest photos possible. Photos that show the instrument in its best light as an object of aspiration. Now, I’m not a trained photographer at all and I don’t have pro-level equipment (my camera is ‘prosumer’ quality), but I do like to research stuff, and I’ve found a few ways to bring out the best in my guitar pics whether they’re for my blog, Instagram, Facebook or a magazine article. Here are a few tips which should hopefully help you out no matter what you’re shooting with, if you’re an amateur like me. A lot of these are “Don’ts” that I’ve observed from way too many years of seeing poorly shot guitar pics online, rather than “Do’s” which tell you exactly how to set up a shot, but sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that really make the difference. These also apply to things like pedals, amps, product boxes and accessories.

Framing

Personally I’ve found that there are a few particular angles that look really nice for guitars. Here we see a few of them:

photographing guitar mayones

photographing guitars futura

I like these close-ups because they show the viewer enough to get a sense of the instrument but they also make them want to see more… which you can them give them with a wider-angle shot. Aim for an angle that’s visually interesting and which also shows off the topography of the guitar. Does it have a carved top? If so, can you make it out in the photo or does it look flat? Then you can hit ’em with the full-length shot:

mayones

Setting

Look, white sheets just don’t make a great background for guitar photos. I’m lucky that our home has floorboards which happen to look pretty good in photographs: if we still had a place with carpet I’d probably have developed a totally different photographic style somehow. But whatever you chose to use as your background, make sure it doesn’t distract from the subject unless you’re going for a very specific effect. A psychedelic blanket or sheet can be kinda cool. A crumpled white duvet cover just doesn’t cut it.

photographing les paul

Reflections and Shadows

Sometimes you have to move around a bit before you find an angle where you can’t see a reflection of yourself in the guitar’s finish, or the pickup’s chrome cover, or a mirrored pickguard like the Ibanez Universe pictured here. But these visual distractions can really ruin a photo, so it’s crucial that you avoid them.

Photographing a guitar with a mirror pickguard

What Else Is In The Shot?

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Sometimes we can be so wrapped up in the subject of our photo that we don’t notice the other things in the frame. Ever go to take a photo of an amazing sunset only to realise you’ve taken a photo of an amazing sunset obscured behind a whole bunch of power lines? The same kind of selective attention can result in all sorts of stray items making their way into your guitar photos: socks, shoes, keys, wallets, pets, dust bunnies, TV remotes and who knows what else.

Lighting

My strictest rule when it comes to my own guitar photos is this: always use natural lighting. Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’re a professional photographer with all sorts of pro-level remote flashes and filters and screens and all that fun stuff. But if you’re an amateur photographer like me, you need to make the best of what you have – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good guitar photo taken with an iPhone flash. It messes with your colours, screws with your focus and makes fingerprints and spots show up where previously they might have been invisible. If you have a proper camera at your disposal you can experiment with adjustable flashes which you can bounce off the room so that your subject isn’t being bombarded with direct light. But I haven’t personally done that stuff yet because I’ve been happy enough with the results I’ve been getting with natural light.

Lenses & Aperture

If you’re not familiar with camera aperture, F numbers and depth of field, here’s a quick primer, but the short, overly simple version is, lower F number settings mean wider apertures, which means more background light getting smeared all over your image, which can mean nice sharp foregrounds with fuzzy backgrounds. That’s overly simplistic, but it’ll do for now. When I first got my camera (a Canon EOS 700D, also known as a Canon Rebel T5i), I found myself using a lot of very open, low aperture settings because I really enjoyed the way it imparted a sense of depth to my shots, making the strings go out of focus the further along the neck they travelled. But after a while I started to realise that although that’s a fun technique, it obscures too much visual information about the guitar and forces the viewer to see it only from a certain perspective, which might not be the perspective they need to see, especially if it’s a guitar for sale. So although it’s certainly fun to create images with a wide depth of field, don’t zip right down to the lowest aperture available to you and blur out your backgrounds just for the sake of it because you could sap the life and power right out of your images. I have a cheap Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens which shoots some great shots with a very liquid feel to the light at certain lower f-stop settings combined with just the right distance from the subject, but you have to be extremely careful that you’re not blurring out most of your image in favour of one detail. Here’s an example.

les pauls

I’ve also noticed that I often get nicer results by setting my camera further back and zooming in, rather than getting up close. I’m not sure of the reason for this – perhaps one of the professional photographers out there reading this can provide an answer – but to my eye it seems to give a more balanced light which helps to even out unwelcome details.

Image Editing

I rarely ever edit my images beyond a little bit of brightness adjustment in Preview. Having said that, lately I’ve taken to using the healing brush in Photoshop just to edit out little spots here and there, particularly spots of ‘pick dust’ on the pickups. Stuff like that might not necessarily be obvious to the naked eye when glancing at the guitar right there in the room, but once it’s on a screen and blown up to five times the size you’ll notice all sorts of stuff that you don’t want to be there. Don’t go nuts and edit out every tiny detail or reflection – and don’t just Smart Blur everything and loose the finer details in the guitar’s finish. But a little bit of image editing will help to present the guitar as nicely as possible.

If you look really closely at these two pics, you’ll notice a few little spots on the top one (unedited) that aren’t present in the bottom (edited) one, particularly on the neck pickup but in a few other little spots as well (like on the pickguard near the ‘8’ of the volume pot). I didn’t want to alter the look of the entire picture, just make it a little neater.

rg unedited rg edited

So if I was to break it up into dot points – cos everyone loves dot points – I’d say:

* Use natural lighting. Flash is the enemy.

* Make sure there’s nothing in the shot you don’t want to be there (reflections, objects).

* Look for angles that make you want to pick the guitar up.

* Image editing is okay but try to get as much of the shot naturally as you can.