LJC’s unique guide to vinyl record photography
(last updated August 14, 2016: – creating crisp readable text)
Taking photos of 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. I have found little useful advice beyond the obvious, and none dealing with black reflective surfaces like vinyl. So welcome to the LJC School of Record Photography.
This is a detailed guide to getting results like above, which seeks to capture faithfully the authentic LP cover artefact, fully readable text, viewable at full screen size of 1800×1800 pixels, with a file size jpg of less than 2mb to deliver acceptable loading speeds on a desktop PC. Then there’s the label and etchings.That’s a little more complicated, but it’s worth it, if you persevere, to produce unique reference images like below.
Compare “looking” at the vinyl etchings with people trying to use words to describe what they can see and you can’t. Double click the image above to view full screen to see if you don’t agree it’s impressive.
For text in liner notes to be sharp, and fully readable like the above, a little enhancement is needed.
A “real” camera
There are many parallels between the quality of images and the quality of sound. In both cases, good equipment is an important investment, in the case of photography, a single lens reflex with an array of manual control functions. (Forget automatic face recognition). Consumer compact cameras are less suited to this kind of photography, they are hard work, but you can still borrow some of the ideas. As for camera phone – best stick to selfies.
I use an SLR (single lens reflex) – my choice, the Canon EOS 5D Mk2, which has a full size 35mm sensor, capturing 5616 x 3744 pixels – a chunky 21mb image in RAW or 4mb in large JPG. The image size is many times more than you need to view on a monitor, but allows you to work with very high resolution images and finally scale down for screen/web output, for better results. As a life-long amateur photographer, I should add I own this equipment already, long before this kind of product photography.
Macro lens – Canon EF 50mm f2.5 Compact Macro.
It’s the glass that matters most, and the ability to go close up only a macro lens offers. Initially, I used a Canon EF 100 L IS macro telephoto, however I have just recently switched to the Canon EF 50mm f2.5 Compact Macro, who’s shorter working distance to subject is more practical for this purpose.
Tripod – essential for long exposures
In theory you should shoot down flat onto the floor, with something like a Manfrotto tripod capable of holding the camera face down, but I find it more flexible to shoot upright at table-top height. With long exposure times necessary to maximize depth of field with a macro lenses. e.g. six seconds at f22 – a good stable tripod is absolutely essential I use a Calumet own-brand 4-section metal tripod, with 3-way tilt head. For greater stability, two very heavy door stops are hung as weights from the tripod head.
Shooting square and level
For shooting square and level, this inexpensive little hotshoe mounted two-way spirit level helps keep the camera basically level
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 fixing slight perspective issues.
Lighting – continuous light source
“Available light” – a mixture of domestic indoor lighting and window light – makes it difficult to get faithful and consistent results due to their differing colour temperatures. I recently invested in a more consistent lighting system, based on a pair of Lastolite RayD8 5600 fluorescent heads. (There are cheaper options with Home Depot -type table top kits popular with Ebay sellers)
Each head provide a 450 watt continuous source of light and produces virtually no heat (unlike tungsten) and are daylight balanced at 5600 kelvin, and mounted on a full height stand. They lack any form of control, other than distance from subject, and a “shower-cap” is necessary to soften the light, however they are among the cheapest light sources, and unlike flash, you see what you get.
A light tent, with transluscent sides, provides the optimum flat lighting environment. Calumet’s 16″”x16″” inexpensive portacube is ideal for “product photography”. which is basically what shooting records is.
A controlled lighting environment makes the photography workflow quick and efficient and gives you consistent predictable results. There is some initial outlay obviously, but the time and effort saved makes it easily worthwhile, and fun rather than frustration.
Managed White Balance
A few other tools make the process more reliable, the most important of which is managed “white balance”. Despite the lighting system being balanced for daylight, the filtering of light through light tent walls and shower-caps has a tendency to introduce colour casts and tints. I use an Expo-Disc to set the in-camera custom white balance.
Managed white balance delivers neutral white, whatever the mix of light. Blue Note remains truly Blue. I also include a small black/white/mid-tone gray exposure balance card in the corner of the picture frame, to make exposure levels and white balance correction in Photoshop a snap.
To minimise grain, set the camera sensitivity to the optimum 100 ISO.
By experimentation, you need to find the best combination of speed and aperature settings which allows you to stop down the lens aperature to just short of its smallest size and still give a well exposed image. I aim for about f22 which with my lights, about six seconds exposure gives a good image result. Use manual exposure with these settings, preferably saved as a preset so it saves you time and delivers consistent output between shots.
You can use the camera lens set on autofocus, but ensure any image stabilisation is turned off, as this interferes with tripod-steady shooting.
A few other settings are needed to ensure sharp results. Set a self-timer delay of whatever your camera offers – 10 seconds is ideal – to trigger the shutter only when you are out the way, everything is stable, and you are not bouncing on the floorboards. To further ensure sharpness, apply mirror lock up, as the mirror of an SLR flipping out the way as the shutter curtain opens tends to take the edge off sharpness, which especially affects the sharpness of text.
If it is available, use a camera preset to store all the above settings registered to camera, so you can reuse them every time, without any effort.
FINAL ESSENTIAL: Photoshop! – either full professional, or the cut down SE, which does more or less the same thing at a fraction of the cost. However much care you take over the process, there is a need to fix things, adjust colour values, correct geometry, rescue detail in etchings, resize images, add text, all things a camera can not do.
THE COVER SHOOT
Now to the mechanics of shooting covers and vinyl. First, the cover, then the label and etchings, a separate exercise, requiring different settings.
LP cover – mounting and background
A record cover is a physical artefact and it is important to include the edge of the record cover all round, which means including a small margin of background in each shot. LP cover art has varying colours, light and dark, and I have found pure white paper (from any art shop) gives the best background on which all covers will stand out. Any element of colour in the background surface (especially wooden surfaces like floors and desktops) will contaminate the edges of the LP in the picture. The focus should be the record, not the background.
A mounting board to hold the LP sleeve is set up inside the light tent. The album cover is seated on the points of two drawing pins pushed through the back of this large white sheet of mounting board, which is held in its upright position by being secured to an L-shaped large book-end. A white mounting stand like this means the cover can be isolated against a white background all round, retaining a natural drop shadow that keeps the record looking solid and “real”.
Final retouching cover shots in Photoshop
However hard you try to keep everything square, there is often a very slight tilt in perspective in one or more planes of the cover photo, This can be fixed more easily in Photoshop in final processing (select all, distort, drag corners) than by fiddling with camera positioning. At the same time, you can Photoshop out the drawing pin points on which the LP cover is seated, without losing the natural drop shadow this method creates.
Advanced Photoshop technique
Advanced User Tip
The most satisfactory image creation requires a real camera shooting RAW file format, and performing most of the necessary adjustments to colour fidelity, white balance, and geometry during RAW conversion. I recommend DxO photo-processing software, for its highly sophisticated management of picture geometry, colour balance, lighting and batch processing abilities.
This remarkable RAW conversion software package (DxO Pro Elite 8 edition) has been at the heart of my general photography workflow for some years, so the investment is spread over a wider range of uses and time.
CRISP READABLE TEXT
What you want to achieve is crisp readable text on the liner notes, particularly because cover detail, such as corporate address and copyright date can be useful in establishing provenance. No matter how good your lens is at resolving fine detail, text needs an extra lift.
When you have completed photography and final resizing of the back cover to around 1800 pixels wide, your final action is to sharpen and improve contrast of the text.
Make a duplicate of your final photo of the back cover, layer positioned exactly over the original.
Sharpen the upper layer in Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask, the maximum available, which is around 500%. It will look grossly oversharpened but there’s more to be done. Adjust the sharpened layer’s blending mode from normal to darken. This merges the underlying text with the sharpened text layer without affecting the paper white values, increasing contrast and sharpening up the individual letters.
If there are photos on the liner notes, cut out and delete the photo on the sharpened layer to reveal the unsharpened photo on the layer below. If the results seem a little dark, experiment with reducing the upper layer opacity. When you are happy with the result, merge the two layers, job done: crisp readable text.
The RECORD LABEL AND ETCHINGS: ALL-IN-ONE
(This technique assumes working knowledge of image editing in Photoshop)
The most effective way to view the label AND the runout detail, is simultaneously, so you can discern the size and relative position of the etchings as well as the detail. This is visually very efficient but requires a quite advanced technique.
First it is helpful to build a jig which will hold the vinyl non-injuriously but firmly square and upright, and without inserting a pencil into the spindle hole (horrid Discogs habit). I made one out of a stiff sheet of cardboard, with two soft rubber stops to sit the vinyl on, and a cardboard retaining strip at the top to just snag the vinyl edge, preventing it from falling forwards. The jig is held bolt upright inside the lighting tent by being attached to a small metal bookend. Simple but effective, and next to no cost.
Mount the vinyl on your posing jig, and reposition the camera closer (around 9″) to shoot the vinyl record label and run-out groove etchings, with the outer bounds of the run-out area filling the camera screen. Two differrently exposed pictures are taken sequentially from the same tripod and subject position, so they can be brought together in Photoshop layers. The first picture is to capture the label, the second to capture the runout etchings. Save the settings to camera for the label shot as Pre-set 1, for the etchings as Pre-set 2.
The label shot is simply a correctly exposed shot of the label, without any regard for etchings -which will be captured in a separate shot. The only requirement is that the camera aligns with the spindle hole, shooting square-on and level. Any circular rotation of the label out of true level can be fixed later in Photoshop.
Immediately after the label shot, take the etchings shot, without moving the record or camera, (switching from pre-set 1 to pre-set 2) Camera settings for etchings should be black and white shooting mode – you don’t want any colour distraction. Set exposure to over-expose by around three to four stops (about eight seconds at f16 works for me). You want to capture the light reflecting from the etchings as highlight, which will blow out the shadows, which you will restore to a good black later with shadow/highlight adjustment in Photoshop. Initially, the two shots should look like this:
(Always include an 18% grey/white card in the corner of each label shot, so you have some reference tones to work with)
The vinyl land is a black reflective surface which gathers specular reflections from roomlights, reflecting the photographer and the camera tripod head. Effectively, you are “photographing a mirror”, so it is essential to control these reflections. The best solution is to blackout the open front of the light tent with an A1 sheet of black 5mm foamboard (from any art shop). Cut a round hole in the foamboard just big enough to poke the camera lens through at the camera lens position (dead centre on the spindle hole). The runout should now show the recessed etchings and the trail-off groove catching the lighting at an angle, and a detail-less black surface reflected back from the black smooth vinyl land. And unfortunately, some dust.
Open the label photo in Photoshop. Go to Levels, and use Photoshop Levels grey sampler tool to click on the grey card in the corner of the shot, which neutralises any colour cast. Then drag the right hand white point slider to the right to stretch the histogram to the edge, giving you a good white point without burning out any highlights.
This should give you a full colour faithful picture of the label without any distracting detail in the vinyl. Use the circular selection marguee tool to create a layer for the label in the final composite ( SHIFT + ALT + [ / ] )
THE VINYL ETCHINGS
Now its time to work up the overexposed shot of the etchings. Open the photo in Photoshop. Use the circular selection tool again from the tools panel to capture the label and runout area out to where the grooves end. SHIFT+ALT+[ / ] with the circular selection creates a perfectly round selection, which grows from its centre. Use the left and right square bracket key to resize the circle out from the spindle hole unti it covers the required area, as a perfectly circular selection, arrow keys nudge position, and copy it onto its own layer, sitting above the original shot. This is the layer you will use to work up the etchings. The layer below will be the black background (IMAGE / ADJUSTMENTS / EXPOSURE and set to black)
The runout etchings layer is then adjusted using the “shadows and highlights” tool IMAGE / ADJUSTMENTS / SHADOWS AND HIGHLIGHTS to bring out the highlight detail in the etching while restoring a good black for the vinyl.
There are ten variables in the tool – by trial and error I settled on these settings that gave the best results.
The grossly overexposed runout is restored to black whilst retaining the etching detail. These settings are saved in Shadows and Highlights for reuse on future etching shots, and simply loaded from file to adjust correctly. You can also carry out some local contrast adjustment to strengthen just the etching detail using Curves. Machine stamp matrices restore very nicely (Columbia, Decca EMI) ; etchings scratched in the lacquer with a fine pin (Some US Riverside) however can prove very difficult to restore other than through local micro-contrast adjustments.
CREATING THE FINAL COMPOSITE of LAYERS
The final label and etchings picture is made up of a composite of three Photoshop layers: the label, the etchings, and the background.
Drag the circular marquee selected label as layer 1 onto the highlight adjusted runout layer 2, and bottom layer 3 the vinyl below the runout detail set Exposure to -4 which should leave just enough groove detail to look convincing (it’s a vinyl record, not black velvet) but not add redundant distracting detail, specular highlights.
Result – all in one label and runout detail, and everything in the picture is there to contribute useful information, with no wastage of screen pixels on redundant information (acres of uniform black vinyl, background table-top colours, reflections of the photographer, colour-cast from blue window-light green fluorescent or yellow tungsten room-light, blurred text, ghastly perspective of record at a jaunty angle on turntable, all the hopeless stuff)
This is not a record-player selfie, this is the most pure form of visual forensic information.
You may want to do a little dust spot removal, or further accentuation of contrast in the etchings with local adjustments in CURVES. When satisfied with the result flatten the layers into one ready-for-web jpg at 100% quality.
Now it is time to repeat the performance with the B side of the record photo, to have photos of side one and two ready to be brought together in one final composite, with a white margin between them.
Wait! record run-outs are different sizes each side! What do I do now, LJC?
There is one situation which you are going to encounter – when the shorter tracks on one side give you a larger run-out area on one side than on the other side. It is very important that both labels remain in exactly the same size in the final picture! Don’t take liberties with the scale – you must compare like with like. You should ensure your original photo includes all the larger run-out in the shot, and you have some redundant black vinyl in the second side shot. Here’s how you go from there.
With Side One final layer on screen, drag final Side Two to float over it. Adjust its transparency to about 50%, so you can see both labels clearly. Reposition the floating layer until the two spindle holes and label edges align exactly. Match label sizes if necessary by Edit>Transform: Resize. . Find the widest of the two run-outs, and crop the image square to that. As a result you will have two layers which have identical size labels, but which includes all the runout spiral groove and details of the largest.
Enlarge the canvas size of the lower layer in white to the right to double the current canvas size. Then reposition the floating Side 2 layer to the right over the white canvas below. True up the image to allow a small strip of white lower canvas to show through to separate the two images. Restore Side Two layer transparency to 100%, and flatten the whole image, which you can now crop to final viewing size, 1800 pixels wide. Save for web at 100% quality jpg, rename as required, and save to a “finals” folder.
After a bit of practice, the whole thing takes just three or four minutes, making maximum use of presets, photoshop scripts, shortcuts, and LJC know how.
That’s great for the web, LJC, but what if I’m shooting for print medium?
Simples. Web pictures are satisfactory generally at a standard 72 dots per inch in jpg. Small file size, good load speed, acceptable detail sharpness. Print/press is much hungrier, 300 dots per inch or more. No jpg compression, shoot in RAW, output to TIFF lossless 32-bit to save image data in CMYK colour space used in presses. Massive file sizes but that is what print quality is about. . All other processes are the same, except you may want to add a little sharpening in the final stage of RAW processing. That’s basically what I did in supplying many photos for the Thames and Hudson Blue Note 75 book.
ADDING THE MUSIC
Don’t forget the music!. In the early days I used a really budget solution, the Numark USB PC01 portable DJ type turntable with EZ conversion software to MP3 (at 160 kbps), with I-Tunes as library storage.
Around three months ago I started to use the full Avid/Linn/World Design hi fi system to make a rip from the tape-out sockets on the back of the Linn amplifier via a USB converter. I use the Citronic AC1-USB audio capture device, output into Audacity software running on a laptop.
Audacity is pretty simple and free, but you need to do a number of trial rips as the gain (loudness) of every LP is different. You need to stretch the sound histogram, just like the photo histogram, the provide the maximum dynamic range before it overloads.
The final rip is exported to the cloud, which becomes the source to upload to WordPress embedded player. You are hearing the output of the real hi fi system, as best these various digital sampling systems can render it. It is not as good as analogue, but then….