Photographing Violins: The Switch to Digital

As people become more comfortable with computers in their homes, more and more photography is being done with digital cameras, in spite of the additional initial cost of digital equipment. The advantages are immediate feedback, the potential to do all processing and printing at home, easy distribution to friends and commercial audiences through email and the web, and the total elimination of expensive film and processing costs. However well-suited digital photography is for normal uses, its greatest shortcoming is its quality limitations.

The Camera

Digital cameras which match or exceed the quality of 35mm photography currently cost tens of thousands of dollars, and for violin photography 35mm represents a bare minimum quality level; virtually all professional violin pictures for certificates and publication that have been taken on film have been done with larger roll or sheet format films. All digital cameras based on the model of the 35mm box, including the expensive professional models from Canon and Nikon, offer about half the digital linear resolution of film run through digital home film scanning equipment, and if the comparison is made with high-end film scanners, digital comes out even worse.

Additionally, most digital cameras costing under $1000 are not based on professional models, but on cheap point-and-shoot 35mm cameras, often having the same type of viewfinder, for instance, that is found in $10 grocery store disposable cameras.

Finally, in some respects the capabilities of digital are limited, compared with film. Film has a very wide range of toleration for exposure and color variances, and at the far ends of the various scales film quality limits, being analog, fade off slowly (that is, for instance, a decent picture can still be printed from well-overexposed negative film). Digital imaging has definite defined limits, and once those limits are reached, the amount of information immediately drops to zero. Also, whereas film contains a wealth of information which is not always used in the final print but can be utilized for a wide variety of tonal and color corrections, digital cameras perform much of the processing of the image internally, throwing out information that could later be used to salvage something—if the information hadn’t been discarded.

I start will all these warnings not to discourage you from the digital photography of violins, but to warn you that in order to achieve the best results you will have to buy the best equipment you can conceivably afford, learn how to used the equipment you have, and use it precisely to maximize the results it can offer.

That said, there are only three main areas of specific concern for digital photographers: space utilization, exposure, and color balance.

The first is the easiest to deal with. Where with film, the photographer can afford to be sloppy in filling the film, especially with larger formats, the digital photographer must learn to fill the picture. This means cropping the image as much as possible in the camera, not later, filling the finder with the image, and minimizing useless space around the subject. Practically, that means holding the camera straight (cropping an image later to make it straight requires a surrounding margin we can’t afford to give) and coming in close. Many traditional violin photos have been shot of the entire violin from end to end, including the neck. Just a bit of observation reveals an immense amount of unused space in the photo, on either side of the neck. Digital photographers might ask themselves if perhaps just a picture of the body, cutting off the neck and effectively doubling the sharpness of the body, might be in order. If front and rear views of the head are required, closeups are much more informative, anyway, than the tiny scrolls (from a strange viewpoint, looking up) offered by the usual full shot. Whatever decision is made in this regard, fill the frame right up to the edges. In fact, you may find, when your pictures are taken into the computer, that the viewfinder shows less than is in the final picture, and you might even be able to come closer than the camera’s finder indicates! Figure out if you have this advantage, and then utilize it.

This might be a good place to mention file formats. For this type of work, use the highest quality setting your camera has to offer, nothing less. You’re already at a disadvantage against film, and anything done in the camera to lessen the quality of the file is going to severely damage the final image. There’s really nothing to discuss here! Read the manual, and find the largest pixel dimensions your camera offers, and the highest file quality, which will either be the tiff format, or minimal jpg compression.

From this point is where it gets hard. I’m writing this for someone who already knows a lot about photography, wants to do the job right, and just needs hints on how to deal with the additional problems digital equipment presents. I want you to wade through the next part, because I don’t think it will hurt you to understand how your camera works, but for those with less technical backgound, I’ll include dodges to get you around the problems without too much analysis.

The second problem is exposure. As I’ve already mentioned, film has a very large tolerance for bad exposure. Digital cameras don’t, and further, violins and bows offer special problems that can confound the automatic exposure systems commonly found in digital (and other) cameras. For violins, the problem is that many instruments are quite dark, and the darkest parts can easily be underexposed, and, additionally autoexposure systems will be thrown off by a white background, as I’ll discuss below with bows. Digital cameras deal with under exposure poorly, filling dark areas with “noise,” which looks like random bits of black and strange colors. For bows, autoexposure has the same problem, for different reasons. Most bow photography is done against a plain white background. Even more than with violins, a bow photo consists almost entirely of background. The camera will, left on its own, assume that the white background is an average, middle gray subject (the color you would get if you take all the world’s colors and throw them into a blender; it has no idea that the background should stay white. Consequently, as happens to a lesser extent with violins, it will underexpose the picture to darken the background, and the result is a nearly black bow.

The solution in either case is careful attention to exposure, which necessitates either fooling the camera by using adjustments on the camera to compensate, or in the better cameras, simply using the manual mode to take the picture, and carefully figuring out what exposure is correct. Digital cameras have a great advantage in this regard, because they offer instant feedback by showing the picture just made on the LCD on the back of the camera. For violins and bows both, I’d suggest taking test shots using the setup you will usually use (which should always be the same, incidentally, both for technical reasons, and for visual consistency), and if you wish to use the camera’s exposure compensation, experiment to figure the amount of over or under exposure required in each circumstance. Once you’ve determined this, it should stay the same with any violin or bow. Most cameras express this in terms similar to this: +.07, or -2.0. For a start, I suspect you won’t need compensation for full body shots of violins, but you may need a setting of about +1.5 for scrolls shot against white backgrounds (because of the visible background around them), and +2.5 for bows against white. I can’t tell you where to find these adjustments on your camera, unfortunately, because all manufacturers put them in different places (Well, you knew you’d have to read the manual eventually, anyway, right?)

I find manual mode, if your camera offers it (many won’t), to be easier to use and more consistent. On my camera it involves setting either a shutter speed or a lens opening, and then adjusting the other until a display in the finder shows 0, rather than something like +0.3 or -0.3. Again, your camera manual will help find the appropriate adjustments to make. Start by using not the widest lens opening your camera offers, but rather something somewhat smaller (but not the smallest). For instance, my camera offers f/2.0, but for this work I used f/4.0 or f/5.6. On many cameras the only option will be f/5.6 or f/8.0, which will be fine. Having set that, use the shutter speed to set the exposure. Now here’s where you can do something other than what the camera would do: move the camera in very close to a representative area of the violin (don’t even bother to focus it—a blurred image will work better for this) and dial in the exposure based on that; then move back and frame and shoot the picture using that exposure. This is a bit of a pain when working with a tripod, but well worth the effort. For bows you’ll need to do the same thing, but a bow is really too small for this, so you need to find something similar in darkness to the bow, and take the reading off that, holding the object against the bow, in the same position. Really, almost any “normal” (not light, not dark) thing will give you better results than the white bow background offers. The final step, of course, is to shoot a picture, look at it on the screen, and see if it’s OK. If it’s too dark, you want to move in the + direction (“+” means more light = brighter) or if the picture, as shown, is too light, move in the – direction (“-” means less light = darker).

Now for the dodge. The camera’s meter wants to see a neutral gray subject in order to make the proper exposure, so give it what it wants: instead of using a white or black background, use a neutral middle gray about the same shade as a violin or bow. Then the whole picture will be of a similarly-toned object, and the camera will properly place the exposure to put the object of interest in a proper middle-range of exposure and rendition.

Finally, color balance. Every digital camera has some way to set the color balance of the system to the light source being used. It’s important to learn how to use this, and to use it. As I said at the start, film captures everything, where digital discards a lot of information, and if you don’t have the color balance set correctly, your camera will internally discard much of the data you need, and you won’t be able to adequately correct colors in your computer unless the camera has been told to store what you need to know by knowing the color balance setting. This really isn’t complex: all you need to know is what your lights are, and set the camera appropriately. Every camera deals with this differently: read the manual, and do what it says. The easiest solution to this problem is to use a type of light that the camera ideally prefers to see, and that’s the color of daylight, so if you intend to use artificial lighting be sure to use only blue photofloods–the light source digital cameras assume. Certainly stay clear of fluorescents, even “daylight”" ones, and normal household bulbs. Both of these completely lack certain colors of light and will cause no end of color problems for you.

Getting the File into your Computer

Most cameras have software and cords to connect them directly to a computer. This approach is hard on the camera’s batteries, and slow. If you have a USB connection on your computer, I recommend you spend an extra $20 to get a USB reader for the type of storage card your camera uses. This accessory self-installs when you plug it in, and is very handy. Then you just remove the card from the camera and slip it into the reader, and the card shows up as another drive (usually E:) on your computer. You can then look at the images, and decide which to copy to your computer and which to simply delete immediately.

The Print

Once you have the image in the computer, you will probably want to do one of two things with it: put it on the web, or make a print. For printing, you will want to make a few simple corrections, and then run the print on an inkjet printer. Even really cheap inkjets make lovely prints, if the right paper is used. Remember, it’s all in the paper. The best papers are the glossy photo papers. They cost about fifty cents a sheet, but the difference is well worth it, and don’t even think of making prints on regular typing paper, even just to see what you have, because you won’t get anything like the potential even a cheap printer offers.

To prepare the images for printing or the web, you will need some form of photo editing software. Adobe Photoshop is the professional’s choice, but I don’t find their cheaper consumer version adequate. Instead, for a simliar price I recommend Paint Shop Pro, which is a nearly fully-functioned clone of Photoshop, for a fraction of the price. ( http://www.jasc.com/ ) Of course if one of the simple Photoshop versions came with your camera, as it may well have, that will do. The other cheap photo imaging programs I’ve seen don’t impress me at all, since they are really designed for making bad snapshots slightly better, not for serious photography.

It’s likely that your camera’s image will be close to correct if you followed the above instructions. Before printing, you’ll probably need to crop the image a bit to center and straighten it, and perhaps make some simple color and contrast corrections. You should also sharpen the image, and that should be done at the end, after everything else. Helping you through this depends on knowing the software you’ll use, so I can’t be of much help there.

The Web

Printers take the file as offered, and scale it to the desired size automatically, after the print size has been set in the imaging software, but for web use you need to scale the picture to fit a real monitor. Modern digital cameras offer many more pixels of information than a monitor can show at one time. For instance, your monitor may show 800X600 pixels, but digital cameras these days make pictures that are 1600×1200 or more. That means that one such picture would require four adjacent monitors, each showing one quarter of the image, to show the image. In your photo software you can zoom the image up or down, but web browsers and e-mail programs usually only show the full size image. In order to fit a screen, you need to “resample” the image to a new size. What the photo software does to do this is to refigure the image with fewer pixels, the number which you specify, either by a percentage or an image size. For instance, to show a full picture of a violin that is originally 1600 pixels tall and, cropped, perhaps 1200 wide, you need to shrink that dimension to the vertical size of the screen–600 pixels, minus the menus at the top and bottom, or to about 500 pixels tall (and about 340 or so wide). That will make the image small enough to fit, but won’t make small detail easy to see. If the detail is the most important thing, you can leave the image large, and force the viewer to pan around it with the scroll bars.

Some browsers offer a little additional help now. The one I use, Internet Explorer 6, displays oversized pictures to fit on the screen and lets you click on the lower right corner to expand the image to its large size, if desired, but you can’t count on everyone having a browser that will do that.

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