When I completed Strobist as a project in 2021, I promised to check back in when I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to do for traveling photographers what Strobist always tried to do for lighting photographers.

Thanks for giving it a look—and for your comments and feedback.

SLC-0L-02: Shiny Object, Using an iPhone and the Sun

Whether photographing people or objects, how you approach your lighting is far more important than what camera and lighting gear you use.

To illustrate, today we are going to photograph a complex, mirrored surface—an alto saxophone—using just an iPhone for our camera and the sun as our light source.

I'm selling my alto sax (decided to stick with my tenor.) So today I am photographing my Yamaha YAS-62ii to put it up for sale. (Interested? Hit me up.)

As a subject, a sax can be considered to be a convex—and complex—mirror. It's going to see pretty much everything in the 180 degree hemisphere surrounding it. Which, depending on how well you understand lighting, will either be a nightmare or the clue that tells you exactly how to frame your approach.

How to Photograph a Saxophone

Let's approach it the wrong way first, the way I see most saxes listed on eBay. This is physically painful to look at.

Here it is, cased, shot with a professional camera and direct flash. Our complex mirror is taking our harsh light and throwing it right back in our face. It's a mixture of off-the-scale specular highlights and dark areas. Noice.

I see this a lot on eBay, both from private sellers and from music shops. And every single person who does this is leaving money on the table.

Pro tip: If this is you, and you got here from a Google search on "how to photograph a sax," (see what I did there) you can easily improve this photo greatly by lighting the ceiling instead of the sax. Shoot it in a room with a plain ceiling, point the flash up (i.e., bounce flash) and let that mirrored sax "see" the ceiling.

Trust me, it'll look way better:

In fact, this will even look much better than lighting your sax with a fancy, off-camera flash and an umbrella. Because with the umbrella, you are still trying to light the sax. You want to light the environment, and let the sax see (and reflect) the environment.

Let's Take This Outside

So, given that it's the environment and not the price tag of the lighting gear, let's swap out our environment. Also: From here on, I'm ditching the pro camera, and just using my iPhone.

So, here it is, outside in open shade, sitting on a piece of white foam core posterboard:

Um, nope. Clean background, but the environment is pretty bad. We are in open shade (in my driveway, in the shadow of my garage) so the sky is pretty overexposed.

Also, because of that 180-degree reflection thing, you can see trees, sky, driveway, etc. And as a result, the sax is way too contrasty. And the color is all screwed up, because it is reflecting a multi-colored environment.

So, if this is all about a bad environment, let's change the environment by surrounding the sax with white poster board. Now, it should instead reflect something clean and white:

That's better. The white walls surrounding the sax and an old white sheet above (translucent, to let in light) erase much of what sax sees, and the result is that it's starting to develop a clean glow.

It's even a little undereposed here. But cropped and tweaked, it now looks like this:

But it could be cleaner without the instrument stand. And the background is catching some diffuse and stray reflected light. And there is a seam in the background as well. Let's clean this up a little more.

Putting the sax down on the ground supports it, cleans up the background (no seam) and ensures the background is in even light. (Especially when I drape material over that whole opening and shoot from above, which I will do next).

Now, when I shoot straighrt down at it (with the iPhone camera stuck through a little slit in the sheet up top) I have completely controlled the environment. Which in turn controls with the sax sees, and thus all of those pesky reflections.

Result, one creamy, glowing sax:

So we have used the sun (indirect, shot in open shade) as our light source, and used posterboard to control the "room" that the sax sees. As in, we pretty much erased the room. It's basically a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi set in there.

Which is why, even though shot on a smart phone, the final photo looks pretty good.

There is one thing. My sheet was not long enough to over the top and all of the way down the side. And the little gap of raw environment peeking through (visible in the reflection at the very bottom of the sax) shows you exactly how much difference the controlled environment is making in this photo.

After shooting the iPhone pics for this post, I cleaned up that light leak by blocking it with another piece of cardboard. Then I made this same shot with a real camera—a Fuji X Pro-2. You can see that version, here.

But bottom line, this picture goes to show that quality of light often trumps gear.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, No Lights


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