One of the most elusive endeavors for me has been to try to photograph my instruments lit correctly to get the real-life color of the varnish to truly come through the photo. Early on in my working career, I was strongly influenced by photographs of great instruments and used those as my guides for the color direction of my varnish. What else did I have? I had no access to real Strads and Guarneris. Of course, I had heard that people such as Charles Beare were extremely particular about how well photographs of great instruments resembled their real versions, such that one of his books was apparently delayed in publishing by having the photo plates reprinted until he was satisfied they were right. Still I underestimated how much difference that could make.
As a violinmaker, who for many years lived far away from the more concentrated populations of great Italian instruments, I believe I, as well as many of my colleagues of that time, relied upon photographs to show us how those instruments looked. It was my belief that if I could make my instruments look just like the photographs, then they would be close to resembling classical style. Increased exposure to these real “flesh and blood” [wood and varnish] instruments over the years, when I held them in my hands and saw more of the real thing, led me to better understand the serious and dramatic differences. As the author of “Classical Italian Oil Varnish”, Geary Baese wryly observed, “The eye is a treacherous organ!” And so I began to relearn what I thought I knew.
My own personal experience grew from the practice of having my finished instruments professionally photographed. This process taught me a great deal over time, as we strove to find the way to get the lighting to reproduce an accurate image of the original. As I began photographing my own instruments outside of a photographic studio, I struggled with my inability to reproduce an accurate representation of the “in-person” color that I perceived when holding the instrument myself. After a considerable number of attempts to achieve the natural color, it became apparent that the most realistic color was obtained by using natural light. The trouble with that is the best way to photograph an instrument is with specially aimed lights coming from a steep angle at the side to minimize the reflection from the rise and fall of the archings. As far as I know, there simply is no good way to control natural light to accomplish a well lit instrument photo. Of course, many complex filters are available for cameras to try to compensate in the exposure to the film what the artificial light creates. Digital cameras have settings which are supposed to compensate but while the result is an improvement, is still not the look of the real thing in person.
Below are three instruments which are photographed in both natural light and artificial light using no filters on the camera – a viola, a cello, and a bass. The images on the left are lit with an artificial light and those on the right are lit with natural light. I bring all this up because when viewing photos of instruments, it can be so deceptive to try to preceive the actual color of the varnish of an instrument from the image. If you had seen a photo of the original and were presented in person with the original, in some cases, you might not recognize it. Perhaps in comparing the images of each instrument side by side below, it will offer some insight for future viewing, which will enhance the viewer’s ability to be more discerning. Many of the images in my casual snapshot gallery were lit with halogen lamps, thus causing them to appear redder [or oranger] than in person. Halogen lamps are touted as having extremely neutral and very white light. I do like them very much for my work but they still show the varnish much redder in a photo than it looks in person in natural light. It is something additional to consider when viewing photos of instruments and even helpful to consider when viewing real instruments and holding them.