How the photographic images on LondonJazzCollector are made
Shooting records is easy. They don’t move and you don’t have to get them to smile. But if you want to go beyond the average Ebay seller’s blurred camera-phone snap, there is a little more to it.
Full Frame SLR
I have long had an interest in photography as well as HiFi, and there are many parallels between the quality of images and the quality of sound. Cutting my teeth as a teenager on a fully manual Zenith B - the cheap Russian copy of pre-war Leica - graduating through a Canon manual SLR and my own film and print home darkroom to the luxury of a modern full frame digital camera, the Canon EOS 5D and prime L series lenses. (Nikon owners might want to look away at this point and spit) It has a full size sensor, not a crop sensor, and captures 5616 x 3744 pixels 21mb per image. It also shoots 1080p HD video, should you feel the need to video your records.
The essential macro lens
It’s the glass that matters most, and the ability to go close up 1:1 that only a macro lens offers.I use a Canon full frame 100mm macro telephoto, which is also outstanding for general use. This little baby pokes its nose into the run out for those matrix code engravings, just an inch from the vinyl, which your camera phone won’t. To shoot records you switch off all the toys, the auto focus, the stabilizer, everything and shoot fully manual,
Most photos are shot at an aperture of around f22 – f27 to maximize the very shallow depth of field, with a 1 to 3 seconds exposure.
They say amateurs argue about camera brands, enthusiasts argue about lenses, professionals argue about tripods. A decent stable heavy tripod is absolutely essential with these long exposures. I use a Calumet own-brand 4-section metal tripod, with 3-way tilt head. In theory you should shoot down flat onto the floor, but I find it more flexible to shoot upright at a wall.
I use an old Interfit 3200 light stand fitted with a 150 watt tungsten photoflood lamp pointed at an A1-size white card bounce board reflector (not at the record!) which bounces soft even light from above to illuminate the record surface, the label and runout detail. White boards either side reflect a light back onto the record from both sides, giving fairly even coverage as a result. You can buy professional “light tents” for the same effect but this DIY setup gets good results for only a few pounds.
With record covers it is important to include the edge of the cover all round, it is a physical artefact, not a CD, and that means a small margin of background will be included in each shot. Cover art has varying colours, light and dark, and I have found mid-tone grey gives a suitable neutral background on which most covers will stand out well. Any element of colour in the background surface (especially wooden surfaces like floors and desktops) will colour-contaminate the edges of the LP in the picture. The focus should be the record, not the worktop.
Managed White Balance
A few other tools make the process more reliable, the most important of which is managed ”White Balance”. I use the mighty Expo-Disc to set the in-camera custom White Balance for the mix of sources present in the room (photoflood, general tungsten, and daylight).
Managed white balance delivers neutral white, whatever the mix of light. Blue Note remains truly Blue. I also include a black/white/mid-tone gray exposure balance card in the corner of the picture frame, to make exposure levels correction in Photoshop a snap. (Levels>white sampler>click white patch> done.)
Dialed in manual exposure around 8 seconds, self-timer delay to trigger shutter, mirror lock applied, ISO 400, custom white balance, single-point autofocus for covers and manual for macros, all settings registered to camera as a custom set for one-click availability.
Shooting square and level
For shooting square and level, this inexpensive little hotshoe toy gets you to the right angle
Shooting square means labels stay round and covers remain square, however hip the record. The more you get the alignment square the less time required in Photoshop truing up horizontal and vertical edges.
Finishing touches in Photoshop
For finishing, Adobe Photoshop – I use both full CS4 and scaled down Photoshop Elements 10 – running on a media PC with 8gb of RAM and a colour-calibrated Dell 24″ monitor . Here you fix and blend and adjust the final result. It is used to resize images to full screen width 1600 pixel wide, and resample the original photos from print scale (300 dpi) to web scale (72dpi) delivering high quality images of file sizes at 1mb for acceptable page-loading speed, instead of the original 20mb monsters
The hard stuff
To capturing the etchings in the run-out I use two techniques – one to capture the etchings close up in macro – greater than 1:1 size, the other to capture the etchings in their natural position around the label, which is technically much more difficult.
1. The Macro detail shot
To get a good display, angle the record in window light, backlighting the engraving, and find the record angle at which the vinyl base is black shadow, and the engraving is caught in highlight. Shoot from a tripod, using setting exposure to maximise depth of field (f22+) and focus manually, setting white balance for daylight (not auto!).
Use shadow/ highlight adjustment in Photoshop to expose the highlights, and then levels adjustment to selectively restore the black..
To align the A and B side engraving, float one layer over the other with reduced opacity, line them up at the same size and angle. When you have got a good match, crop and reposition as two pictures on an enlarged canvas. Flatten and then rescale the to 1600 pixel wide at 72 dpi for full screen viewing.
2. All-in-one Label and Runout
This technique assumes working knowledge of image editing in Photoshop
The most effective picture is to see the label detail in high resolution AND the runout detail, simutaneously, so you can asses the size and relative position of the etchings. This is visually very efficient but requires a carefully managed technique involving manual camera settings and advanced Photoshop image editing.
Two pictures are taken sequentially from the self same tripod and subject position. The first shot is the usual to capture the label, flat , head on, manual exposure and focus, at around f27 for 1.5 seconds. The second picture is to capture the runout detail, for which the SLR is switched to Black and White shooting mode, and exposure speed set to over-expose by around three stops (about four seconds at f22). The two pictures are then brought together as layers in Photoshop ( PS Elements is fine for this)
The first label picture is trued level and exposure corrected, and then layer copied using the circular selection tool to select just the label, which is pasted onto the black and white picture as a floating independent top layer over the black and white label below.
The Black and white layer is used to select the runout area with the same circular selection tool which is copied to its own layer, sandwiched between the base viny and the label on top. This can now be managed independently of the label and the vinyl base layers. The runout image is then adjusted using “shadows and highlights” and “curves” tools, bringing out the highlight detail in the etching while restoring a good black for the vinyl. It can be a bit fiddly, and in the worst case, you can select just the tiny detail to its own layer and work it up independently before merging it back
As a final touch, it is almost always necessary to rotate the label a little to ensure true horizontal and vertical alignment. Photoshop’s “horizon levelling” tool is a snap. Tools>Ruler>draw line on label design which is to be true horizontal> image rotation>arbitrary> enter Job done..
When you are happy with the result, which consists of three independent layers – the vinyl, the runout and the label – and it looks “natural” (abolutely nothing natural about the process!) it is time to repeat it with the B side of the record.
After a bit of practice, the whole thing takes just three or four minutes, in which the two final images are brought together side by side, and the end composite flattened and rescaled down to 1600 pixels wide for full screen viewing
Adding the music
Final task is of course to add the music. For this I use a really budget solution, the Ion usb turntable with EZ conversion software to MP3 (at 160 wadjamicallits) with I-Tunes as library storage.
It’s not “hi-fi” but does the job for the blog, fitness for purpose, and cheap. My high-end audio system is too good for the low resolution files streamed here.