The photography of violins and other similar instruments is surprisingly uncomplicated. Photographers will probably immediately recognize the principles of copy photography, rather than more artistic forms. When copying, the essential parts of the job are to avoid reflections and illuminate the subject evenly. In violin photography these objectives are accomplished exactly as in copying.
Before you can shoot photos, however, you have to have a place to work and a set on which to position the instrument. For the place I recommend a dark room. This will eliminate any possibility of reflections from unintended sources. You’ll need about ten feet of length, and about six of width. At one end you’ll need a background, and in front of it a way to support the instrument. I advise that you use white backgrounds only. They’re easier to light, and with modern digital printing methods can be easily cleaned up and changed to any other color.
Ideally the background should extend beyond the instrument no farther than necessary. I use a sheet of white foam-core board, cut down to an appropriate size, because the color is good and the board is self supporting. Since a violin is about eight inches wide and 24 long, a piece 14 by 36 should be just fine. The background will be placed only a foot or so behind the subject in order to benefit from the same lighting as will be used for the instrument.
There are several possible ways to support a violin. The way I like the least, but the easiest to implement, is to balance it on the edge of a wide water glass. The shape of the mouth of the glass allows you to eventually find a position in which the subject will balance and stand upright. My dislike of this method is proportional to the value of the instrument, for reasons you will see when you try this trick. For my own work I’ve made a bracket which is held on a rod projecting forward through a hole in the background which holds an upright piece of wood from the ends of which four brass fingers project. These grip the edges of the instrument at the ends of the body—two at the bottom, on either side of the tailpiece, and two at the top on either side of the fingerboard. I use a tether of dental floss so that if the fingers fail a violin worth several millions of dollars won’t crash to the ground.
Another clumsy, but safe, alternative is to hang the violin from a loop of dental floss suspended from above, and then pull the instrument into the upright position with more floss. This works, but strikes me as inelegant. You won’t see the difference in the photos, though, since the floss will blend with the white background. The disadvantage of this method is getting the violin to stop moving before you take the picture.
The camera is supported on a tripod, of course, and is leveled so that the film is perfectly parallel to the edges of the instrument—not looking up or down at it. Adjust the violin’s position in the viewfinder by cranking the camera up and down on the tripod, not tilting it out of parallel. The left-to-right orientation can be checked by making sure that the visible corners on the side of the instrument away from the camera peek through the c-bouts evenly on either side.
Be sure to fill the viewfinder as much as you can. If you’re using 35mm, you’ll need every last bit of quality you can drag out of it, and so you won’t want to crop. A short telephoto lens—85 to 105mm—is the best length to use and single focus lenses are preferable to zooms for this job. I shoot violins on 6x7cm film, and find the difference from 35mm well worth it for my purposes. Four by five inch isn’t necessary; for various technical reasons I’m not even convinced it is capable of doing as good of a job as 6x7cm.
For film I recommend black and white, or a color transparency film. Black and white may be the best, given that anything that anyone unfamiliar with violins will do printing color for you will be hopeless. Color transparency film makes it possible for the printer to at least know a bit about how the subject is supposed to look, and this is something he won’t be able to do if you use negative color film. If you’re sure you will be the only one who ever prints your film, the film of choice is color negative. Though many people prefer foreign films for their vivid color, I stick with the good old yellow box for violins. You will find the things people like about the other films (heightened contrast, saturation, and extra red sensitivity) will be working against you with violins. Ignore this advice at your peril.
For lights you need the cheapest hot lights (non-flash) you can get, but from a photo source, not a hardware store. The ideal light is the appropriate photoflood (250 or 500 watt large-sized special photo bulbs—get the right type for the film you plan to use—they come in three different color types—the obviously blue ones are for daylight type slide film) mounted in a 12 inch spun aluminum reflector. Don’t waste money on fancy lights. Old familiar names are Test-rite and Victor. Do not buy quartz lights (the little things with doors that fold up over the front). They throw the wrong kind of light pattern, and it works against you. The cheap lights project a bright center with the surrounding light fading out as it gets to the edges. In violin photography this works for you, as you’ll see.
You need at least two of the nice reflectors, but if you want to buy cheap hardware store work lights and fit 250 watt mushroom shaped photo lights into them for the other two, that’s fine.
The two good lights, armed with 500 watt bulbs, are used as your main source, from about the level of the scroll (you bought stands for them, too, right?) The other two lights are pointed up from the bottom somewhere as yet undetermined, and have 250 watt bulbs in them so they don’t overpower the main bulbs and make your violin look like it’s a prop in a Bela Lugosi movie.
Set the main lights first. Turn them on and start moving them around. They should both be kept the same distance from the instrument, on opposite sides (this is where photographers will start to recognize copy work techniques). Alternately moving the lights and looking through the camera, move them as far forward as you can without seeing any reflections off the front of the instrument. This probably will be about 30 degrees or so forward, but different instruments will start to reflect at different points. Keeping the lights high permits you to bring them out farther; if they were level with the body you’d start to get reflections very quickly.
When the lights are set right you’ll see a black tongue projected on the front, coming out from under the board. If the lights are properly balanced, the tongue will be symmetrical and about an inch long. Since the center of the field of light is the strongest, aim it at the lowest part of the instrument, near the tailpiece. This way as you get towards the top of the instrument it will be closer to the light, but will not get too bright because the fringes of the light are less bright to compensate. Those of you who spend hundreds of dollars on quartz lights will have to settle for burned out white scrolls, or figure out a way to cut the light near the top of the instrument, perhaps by buying scrims, holders and stands to diffuse the light.
The bottom lights are used wherever you please to fill in the shadows that the top lights make. Sometimes I put them directly under the instrument looking up, sometimes I move them up around and out a bit. If you do this, watch for reflections on the tailpiece. Sometimes you can even move them up to bridge level and point them a bit downwards to fill in the bottom. This works best for shadows, but might cause reflections on some violins. You really don’t want reflections, and this whole exercise is centered on not getting them, so be careful.
I haven’t said anything about lighting the background as a traditional photographer would. If it’s close enough to be lit, but not so close as to cause shadows, it’s fine.
It’s time to take the picture. Use the meter in your camera as a guide, but don’t believe it for a moment. Take lots of pictures, moving away from the exposure the camera suggests in half-stop intervals for at least two stops on either side of the recommended exposure. For the best sharpness and depth of field, try to keep the lens opening around f/11. Next time you can bracket less, since you’ll have a better idea of how your camera works (if you keep notes!) Film is cheap, and you really don’t want to set this all up again to do the same thing all over.
I haven’t said anything about digital photography. I’ve been involved with it for about four years now [as of 2001], and so far it’s not come far enough to use for anything but casual violin photography. If you’re going to go to all the effort to set up a proper situation, don’t waste your time by using a digital camera. Thirty-five millimeter is, in my opinion, about 75% of what you really need to do a good job, and the best digital cameras do about half that. They’re just not good enough. After you’ve got film, that’s the time to switch to digital for the rest of the process, and for violins that’s where digital shines. Get scans of your film, or do it yourself, learn some Photoshop, and you’ll have the potential, at least, of doing better violin prints than you could have ever gotten from a professional photo lab, at a much lower cost. In particular, Epson printers, even the non-photo basic models, will make prints that will make your lab cry. But that’s meat for a different article.