If you are trying to sell an instrument, promote your wares on your website, or simply document an instrument for insurance purposes, photographing a lute is something many of us will sometimes need to do, so I offer here a few tips to help you get useful pictures. A little background: my Ph.D. involved a lot of photography of theorbos in museums, and a large part of my work for the last fifteen years has been digitizing historic musical manuscripts. I’ve been dealing with challenging photographic subjects for a long time, and I rarely get to work in a dedicated photography studio. For present purposes I assume that you will be using a phone camera in a domestic environment with little or no specialist equipment or software, and uploading the images to the Internet. The big problems—as is clear from innumerable advertising photos—include poor light, distracting backgrounds, distorted images because a photo was taken at an odd angle, having part of the lute cut off or out of focus, and some curious choices of view that tell the viewer very little.
To be useful to a potential buyer, photos only need to accurately convey the details and condition of an instrument. Full front and back views are the basic minimum requirement. A side view and an end view looking straight at the endpin) are useful to convey body shape. Most buyers want to see the rose. All of these images should be shot square on to the camera. For decorated instruments, close-ups of details such as carving and inlays are useful, and any wear or damage such as a crack should also be shown in close-up. All pictures need to be adequately lit and with good focus over the whole image. If your lute has a color varnished back or notable wood grain, color accuracy is important.
For insurance and secondhand sales purposes, a photo of the internal label may be needed; legibility is the only requirement here. These basic images should take priority over more artistic “portraits,” i.e., those shot at an angle and/or in “mood” lighting. Such images can be attractive extras if advertising space permits, but only include them if they add information. That tempting view of a theorbo’s pegbox disappearing into the distance actually tells us very little. . . .
Finding the best light in your home for photography is usually the biggest challenge, and what’s available will depend on your geographical location, the nature of your home, the time of year, and the time of day. Daylight is best, and cameras like lots of it. A room that appears bright to your eye will be seen as relatively dim by your camera. Try to avoid artificial light, which is usually much weaker than daylight, and can give a strong color cast (especially halogen bulbs, which will make your lute appear more orange), while some lights such as fluorescent tubes also flicker. Most phone cameras appear to cope with low light extremely well, but when you zoom in the images appear speckled and blotchy, especially in dark areas. This is digital noise, and its presence is telling you that you need more light. If you are lucky enough to have a bright room with big windows, aim to work in front of a window, when the light is bright outside but not when your window is in full sun. You want good light levels, not a shaft of direct sunlight on your lute. Place the instrument so that the light falls on it at about forty-five degrees. Side lighting will give a very uneven result, back lighting will give an over-bright background and a dark subject—or worse, a silhouette—and frontal lighting will have you fighting your own shadow. If the part of the lute farthest from the window is dark in spite of your efforts, consider using a reflector. This can be a large piece of white cloth or paper (and this can be shiny) positioned to reflect light onto the darker side of the instrument; prop it or hold it up just out of shot, or crop it out of the final image. Reflections or hot spots are almost impossible to avoid on shiny lute backs; try to position the instrument so that reflections highlight a curve or showcase a flawless finish. You don’t want the entire configuration of your window’s glazing bars or the pattern of your lace curtains reflected on the back of the lute. If this is a problem, move out of the direct light, diffuse the light with a sheer curtain over the window, or choose a different time of day, with less direct sunlight.
If you don’t have a suitable spot indoors, you may have to consider photographing the lute outside; weather permitting, this will almost always give a better result than photographing in artificial light. Avoid direct sunlight, which is photographically harsh, and the extreme ends of the day, when the low sun angle gives heavy shadows. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon are likely to give the most useful light, and a broken cloud cover will give some natural diffusion. Obviously, in some climates one doesn’t have much choice, but consider all options and select what you think will work best. You’re extremely unlikely to achieve studio quality lighting at home, but you can significantly improve your images by making intelligent use of the available light.
A neutral background will improve your shots as much as good lighting. This can be a piece of card, cloth, or paper, taped, draped, or held by someone. A sheet or quilt cover can work perfectly well as long as it is clean, plain and ironed. Avoid shiny fabrics, strong colors — they can give a color cast on the instrument — and distracting patterns. (The same, incidentally, goes for floors: if you have no option but to photograph the lute on the floor, try to avoid heavily patterned carpets, technicolor rugs, and busy parquet.) Figures 1 and 2 show how the lute will fight for attention against a busy background.
Positioning the Instrument
When you have done your best with light and background, consider how you are going to support the instrument. Many people put the lute on the floor and shoot directly downward. Apart from the obvious danger of dropping’s the phone onto it, some views are really difficult to shoot in this way without distortion, especially for longer instruments. For front and back views I recommend finding some way of safely propping up the lute vertically. A dedicated instrument stand works well—some guitar stands will fit many lutes. If the lute is leaning against a wall or a piece of furniture, you may need to put some supports to stop it toppling sideways. If it’s against bookshelves, pull a couple of substantial books a little way out and rest the lute’s neck between them. This is particularly effective with a theorbo. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the setup looks as long as it supports the lute safely—unwanted objects are easily hidden by the background cloth, or cropped out. Side and end views are best taken with the lute facedown on a table or worktop, against a background cloth. Obviously, if you can’t safely support the lute upright, lay it flat: never risk your instrument for a better shot. The advantage of having the lute—especially a longnecked lute—upright is that it is much easier to photograph it square on without distorted perspective. Kneel or sit to get your camera level with the center of the lute. Beware of differences between your eye’s and camera’s viewpoints—if you hold your phone at chest height these will vary significantly. Most important, match the angle of your phone screen to the angle of your lute’s soundboard as nearly as you can. If the lute is leaning against a sofa back or a wall, it will probably be leaning slightly away from you, so angle the phone accordingly. For the side and end view, get your camera level with the midpoint of the instrument and hold the phone with its screen vertical. (It can be in landscape or portrait format—just don’t tilt the phone!) Note that for side and end views your eye/camera level will need to be much lower than you might expect to accurately convey the lute’s shape.
Optimizing Your Camera: Basics
Let’s now consider the phone itself. The following small details can make a significant difference to your pictures:
- Clean the camera lens, especially if the phone normally rattles around uncased in your bag. Use an air blower if you have one (available for a few dollars online or from a camera store— buy a good big one like a Rocket Blower, as the little ones are almost useless). Follow up with either a clean, soft (artist’s) paintbrush (not a children’s paintbrush with hard plastic bristles!) or a clean cotton tissue, folded to create a soft point.
- Remove your phone from any case; some cases create a vignette around each image, or trap grime around the lens, while others make it hard to hold the phone level. Beware—the naked phone will be much more slippery than you are used to.
- Zoom in as much as you can to inspect each photo before moving on. Almost every image looks good when it is the size of a postage stamp; poor focus or heavy digital noise is only revealed when you enlarge the picture.
- Turn off your flash. It’s unlikely to be sufficiently powerful to give a well-lit image, but is perfectly capable of causing overexposed spots and flare on the varnish.
- If you have one, use a phone holder clamped to something stable, to avoid camera shake. If not, sit on a firm chair or stand squarely on both feet, keep the elbow of the arm holding the phone tucked close into your body, hold the phone very firmly, and make your screen taps as light as possible. These steps will save you a lot of blurred pictures when you’re shooting indoors.
This article is not the place for an explanation of photographic technicalities: for those interested, there is abundant information available online and in print. Here, I will simply try to translate basic technical aspects into phone- and lute-specific instructions.
Always use as much of the camera’s available resolution as possible. This means finding out and understanding what cameras your specific phone offers. Ignoring the front-facing “selfie camera,” some phones have just one outward-facing camera, whilst others have several. These will have lenses of different focal lengths, and usually offer different resolutions. This can seem quite bewildering, but my advice is to select the camera offering the most megapixels, and aim to fill the frame with your subject as much as possible. Dedicated close-up and wide-angle lenses are often connected to lower-resolution sensors than the main camera, plus the wide-angle lens may give significant distortion. If in doubt, use the main camera and zoom with your feet; fill the frame by stepping closer or farther away from the lute. Never use the touch-and-spread fingers technique on the screen to zoom in; this uses only the middle portion of the sensor, thus reducing the resolution significantly.
The Main Controls: Exposure, Focus, and Color
One problem with phone photography is that the point-and-tap action is so simple that many people don’t explore further and never discover the useful controls and aids available. Virtually all smartphones offer a grid to help frame your subject—line this up on the middle strings or soundboard joint to get the lute straight and centered. On my iPhone the grid is accessed in settings on the home screen, not via the camera screen itself. You can select your focus point—usually by tapping the screen at the relevant point in the image. You can also alter the exposure by the same method— tap the darkest area to brighten the image, or the brightest area to darken it. How you separate the two actions so you can adjust exposure and the focus point will depend on the model of your phone; on mine I tap the screen to select the focus point, and adjust exposure via a sun icon slider next to the focus box. A long tap-and-hold will bring up a bigger focus square than usual, and locks the focus at that point: I can then move the phone to recompose the image, and the focus will remain locked on the original point. Note that the phone must remain at the same distance from your subject —this is not a tracking autofocus—so this is only really practical with the phone braced against a firm support.
Exposure adjustment on most phone cameras is very crude, and sometimes you may have to choose between too bright or too dark. Always choose the darker image, which will preserve more information than an overexposed one. Some editing fixes are available on the phone; for example, opening an image in my iPhone brings up an Edit option in the top right of the screen, giving access to exposure adjustment, color balance options, and other tools less useful in this context. Alternatively, you can open the image on a computer and adjust the exposure. There’s no need for expensive graphics software; the simplest built-in image reader will offer some basic tools. For example, in Apple’s Preview, go to Tools—Adjust Color—Exposure, and move the slider to the right to brighten an image. When you have edited any image, save it. Phones’ default file type is a jpg file, which is a heavily edited and compressed format; if your graphics reader gives you a choice, save your edited file at the highest quality to avoid even further compression.
Other controls are often available via the camera screen —mine has a small arrow on the edge of the screen, which when swiped reveals a whole menu of controls. A particularly useful one is the color balance, which on my iPhone is a little icon shaped like a triple rose. Many different color balances are built in. Avoid the “artistic effects” extremes and select the one that gives the best compensation for your lighting; for example, if you have to shoot in very yellow indoor lighting, select a color balance that gives a cooler, more daylight-oriented result, and compare the result with the instrument in daylight before you post the images. If you’re shooting in good daylight, select the color balance where what you see on screen matches what you see live. If there’s a big problem with color, the phone’s edit function or a basic graphics program will offer some simple adjustment; for example, in Preview as above, go to Tools—Adjust Color—Temperature, and move the slider left to tone down the color cast of halogen lighting. These measures are very primitive in comparison with what a professional camera can do, but they can significantly improve the color accuracy of pictures shot in artificial light.
As extremely three-dimensional objects, lutes benefit from paying attention to your camera’s depth of field. This term simply describes the range of distances from subject to sensor where the subject is in focus. Lenses deliver focus both a little in front of the chosen focus point and somewhat more behind it; exactly how much depends on the lens. Phone cameras have relatively wide-angle lenses which offer a lot of depth of field. Using this to your advantage simply means focusing not on the nearest point of the lute, but a little farther away, so you are not wasting the front of your depth of field on thin air. For example, if you are photographing the back of your lute, don’t focus on the deepest part that is closest to you; focus farther along the ribs where they curve away to meet the neck. The depth of field should still deliver focus on the nearer parts while giving you better focus on the parts farther away.
Close-up images are recommended for the rose, any other important details, and the label. You want light falling on the rose at about forty-five degrees, to bring out its modelling without strong shadows. One problem is that the camera may focus on the strings rather than the rose itself: make sure that your phone is parallel to the soundboard, then tap for focus on a part of the rose that is not under the strings. If all of the rose is under the strings, get as close as you can without cropping or shadowing the rose, then a delicate tap with your smallest fingertip will usually select the desired focus point. Inspect the result at full magnification; if the rose details are in focus, the strings should be slightly out of focus.
Photographing your lute’s label is surprisingly straightforward. Stabilize the lute in its open case. Turn on your camera and gently slide the relevant corner of the phone under the strings until it “sees” the label. This can be dangerous if the strings are really close to the rose, or if there is any curvature of the soundboard at this point; if that’s the case, gently part the strings enough to allow the camera a clear view, and move the phone around until the camera points through a hole. You can also hold a flashlight (or the flash light from another phone) close to the rose area to brighten things inside the lute. The resultant image will be relatively dark and noisy, but the label should be legible.
When you have taken your images, inspect them all at full magnification, and reject any with poor focus. Be prepared to crop them tightly to reduce file sizes and remove extraneous background, which will only distract from your instrument. Always try to view them on a screen bigger than your phone, since this is what most potential buyers will do!
There are many free or cheap apps available which will expand the photographic possibilities of your phone; they work by image editing, since they cannot change the photographic hardware built into your phone. These are changing all the time, and many are platform- or model-specific so there is little point in me mentioning individual apps here, but do explore what’s available for your phone. Beware—many are mere gimmicks, and others simply repackage features already available with the native cameras app; worth seeking out are a less clunky means of independently adjusting focus point and exposure, a more precise exposure adjustment, and additional white balance controls. Obviously, your need for any of these will depend on what native controls your phone has to start with.
The images in this article were all taken indoors on a cloudy day in central England, using a handheld iPhone SE, with basic image processing (cropping, rotation, exposure, and color temperature adjustment) made in Apple’s Preview. The backgrounds are quilt covers draped over a sheet of cardboard. The lute is supported between books, or on its closed case.
Article used with permission by Lynda Sayce, originally featured in LSA Quarterly Volume 55, Nos. 3 & 4 – Fall & Winter 2020