Guitar Photography Tutorial

Jay Jillard

Senior Member
Oct 31, 2011
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Hey everyone, I thought i would share how i take my guitar photos, such as this one:

I've dabbled with photography for some time now, and actually have a decent eye for things as they are happening (nature, concerts, people, etc)

Where i struggled was product photography, and specifically guitars, since I am always in need of good photos, i knew i had to learn how to take good photos myself, paying for them all the time was not an option.

I naturally took to the internet for tutorials and set ups, and didn't find too much info related to guitars, so i began my trial and error process of getting things to look decent.

I began with what i had lying around, my moms camera, and a couple of my dads worklights. I hung the guitar on a blank wall, shone some lights at it, and snapped away. The results where a clear picture that showed the whole guitar. Great. But, it also had bad shadows, reflections from the wall, and the colors of the woods were often not accurate, figured woods didn't look like they did in real life. They just weren't good enough:

From there i moved to some better lighting, some relatively cheap LED panels ($250 or so each) that i borrowed. better, but still not enough light, and i only had two of them, so my images were flat and boring (not bad, but i wanted better):

I experimented further from there, finding more simple and cheap ways to get it done. And even if you can't get the exact set up as i am going to show, you can use these ideas to get a good shot with the guitar just lying down on a sheet, or in a guitar stand in front of a wall.

I am going to share with you the best methods i have found so far, and it should give you a decent starting point, without breaking the bank. One of my main goals was to create an area in my room where i could easily leave my lights set up all the time, so when i needed to i could put a guitar in the holder, flick a switch and start taking photos, making all my shots look good, but also consistent with eachother.

Lets start with what camera I'm using. I'm not writing this tutorial with cell phones or point and shoots in mind. These days there is generally a DSLR in the house, or at least in a friends house. Granted, these cameras (and the lenses, can vastly differ in prices) So for this whole tutorial i decided to use a simple, midrange, affordable camera, and the stock lens it came with. (lenses make a huge difference, so i wanted to prove good shots can still be made with a stock lens, but if you can afford better gear, by all means)

My camera is a Canon t3i, using the stock 18-55mm lens. We will get into camera settings a bit later.

Canon/nikon doesn't matter whatever you have will likely do a good job.

Now, onto the basic setup i've been using for several months.

In my room there is a closet, i removed the doors, put up a shelf, draped black cloth from fabricland across the back, and screwed in a wall mount. really simple, took an afternoon and 20 bucks (if that). In an ideal world, the guitar would actually be further away from the backdrop, and this setup doesn't allow for the full body+headstock shots. but hey, its a start.

the guitar hangs like so:

now, here's a shot i took my the camera on Automatic, without any lights except my ceiling fan, and the flash on.

what we get is a really flat, unattractive image. The nice thing however is our background is nice and black, since the guitar is hanging far away from the background. The closer the guitar is to the background, the more you are going to see it. Which is why i would ideally like a bit extra space on my set up, but i currently don't have the luxury.

Alright. now we need some light. The more light the better. I mentioned earlier that i had previously borrowed some nice led panels, and although they got the job done, i felt i could DIY something better, for MUCH cheaper.

Enter the filmmaker's best friend: Clamp Lights.

find them at most hardware/bigbox stores. i bought two for my simple set up, a big one and a small one,$14.94 and $12.84 respectively. These things are great. they are cheap, durable, and fit pretty much everywhere. They have a decent amount of light spread, and easily take most bulbs. I'm going to picking of a lot more of these for other set ups.

The bulbs I am using are all 23 watt CFL bulbs, which is the equivalent of about 100w of a regular bulb. When you buy your bulbs, look for what color temperature they are. Measured in degrees kelvin, the color temperature is how yellow or blue the light is. Pick whichever temperature you want, but they should all be the same, or else things will get wonky later on. My bulbs are called 'bright white' and are 3500K (pretty much in the middle, house lights are really yellow, the sunlight is really blue, these are fairly average)

Knowing the kelvin number will help when setting the white balance on your dslr.

anyways, i slapped a bulb in my large clamp light, and grabbed something we probably all have, a spare guitar stand. (clamp lights are awesome)

and i positioned it pretty much as close to the guitar as i could while still casting light on it's entire surface, and not being in the way of my shot.

i turned the flash on my camera off, i don't need it anymore. and set my white balance to as close to 3500k as i could to get my colors accurate to real life. I dropped my ISO down to around 100, since i am expecting lots of light. (lower iso requires less light to properly expose a photo, which will create less grain in the image)

I bought four of these bulbs for $19.96

For most of my guitar stuff i use shutter priority mode, i set my shutter speed to be relatively fast to reduce blur (or you could use a tripod), but i check to make sure my image is still exposing well. When i'm using a zoom lens i try to stand further back, and zoom in until my guitar fills the frame. I'm sure on the science behind it, but i think it helps make the background darker. and it also requires a higher aperture number, which means more of the guitar will be in focus)

This was the result.

as you can see, the face of my guitar is fully exposed, the color is much better than it was with just the flash, but the light is very harsh, and were getting some strong shadows behind the pickup and knobs.

To start to remedy this, we are going to diffuse the light. (spread it out and soften it)

a cheap way to do this is with wax paper and some masking tape.

and this (using the same camera settings as before) already makes a huge difference.

the glare and shadows are not nearly as intense, and the light is beginning to wrap around the edges of the guitar.

If you look at the previous image, the guitar still looks very flat and 2d. The reason for this is that the sides of the guitar are not seen. To remedy this i took my small clamp light and put it above my guitar, pointing downwards to the side/front of the guitar, avoiding putting any extra light on my backdrop.

These two photos, one with the light off, and one with it on, show just how huge of a difference this makes.

and here's what our picture looks like at this moment (still same camera settings)

I felt that my main light was still too harsh, and so was my top light. I wanted my top light to wrap into the waist of the guitar a bit more. (there is a dark spot below the horn)

so i took my wax paper and put it on my top light, but now i needed a way to diffuse my main light even more.

Bucket: $2.98

i originally bought this bucket in order to build a very large fill light using a 200 watt equivalent cfl bulb, but havn't done so yet. so for now i will use it to diffuse my current light. works well.

using these two lights i got the look i wanted for this guitar:

it's not perfect. But my shadows are nice and soft, i have some good reflections on the pickgaurd, pickup and body, and is an overall pleasing image. I mentioned before that i would ideally like my guitar to be further away from the background, that way less light would reach the background and it would appear darker.

this is by far my preferred shot from this set, and is 100% usable. but for every other guitar i tried, i needed a 3rd light.

I found an old desk lamp from my child hood, and decided to use that. I tossed another 3500k bulb in. ( another small clamp light would work just as well)

I'm positioning this light at an angle to the guitar, the purpose of it it to catch the edges of the bridge, pickups, pickgaurd, knob, frets, and the bottom edge of the guitar.

This was the result: i also think this is a pretty good shot, if maybe a little overexposed and a bit too much light from my third source ( a lower wattage bulb may have been better, or a more direct light, instead of the reflective cone of the lamp) and still my background is a bit lighter than i want.

but it worked fantastic on my other guitars, including this knock-off of a squire my brother bought 10 years ago when he played bass for a week.

exact same setup:

you get the idea. I really didn't spend any time editing these photos as i usually would, and i would usually use another lens for these shots. but you can get professional quality shots with a stock camera, and around $70 worth of lights and fabric. (better photos than when i had $500 worth of led panels and stands.)

Those of you who do photography will recognize this as basically jsut being a 3 point light set up. (fill light, key light, 3/4 backlight?) But im hoping for those of us who get overwhelmed by these sorts of things, this tutorial simplified it a little.

by no means am i a professional photographer, i just hope i can help you guys out in this small way. and if you have more knowledge than I do, please chime in. If you have any questions I can try to answer them.


Jay Jillard =]


Merry Christmas


Senior Member
Dec 24, 2007
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Cool diy setup!

You mentioned the background being still too light for your tastes. It looks pretty dark but to kill any doubt just move the setup away from the backdrop a little more.

Inverse square law says x2 the distance from the light source cuts intensity x4. Use that to your advantage.


Senior Member
Feb 16, 2008
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Nice job, Jay!

See if you can't get your hands on some light panels, if possible...or you can probably fab some of your own.

I have about half a dozen Lightform P22 panels from the 80's that I still use on occasion. Every bit as useful as either umbrellas or softboxes, yet much more convenient and versatile. I have both shoot-thru diffuser panels, as well as gold, silver, and black reflectors for indirect lighting.

I see that Lightform (used to be owned by Bogen) are no longer manufactured, but I'd be willing to bet that Chimera or Novatron, or someone similar would produce a similar product. The nice thing is that they are not directly attached to your light source, so the distance from light/flash to diffuser to subject can be infinitely varied to control the hardness or softness of your light source. (i.e. small light source for more specular lighting...large light source for softer lighting). These are basically 3 1/2' x 6 1/2' ABS plastic frames that pull apart and fold up in one 3' linear piece. The rip-stop nylon panels fold up like a t-shirt when removed from the panel frame.

If you can find them used...I'd highly recommend picking up one or two.


Senior Member
Jan 10, 2011
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Thank you Jay. Great professional results and beautiful guitars!



Senior Member
Sep 15, 2009
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Fantastic thread! It's a lot of work putting together a post like that - Jay, you've made great selections, it has nice flow and is fun to read. I'm just a terrible photographer and you really helped me out. Thank you for your time and effort!

And by the way, your builds are just lovely.


V.I.P. Member
Dec 1, 2011
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This is a fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing with us.

My builds look great in person, but it seemed impossible for my camera to capture the true sense of each guitar. I now have hope. I will DEFINITELY use your suggestions!!

Thank you x 100 !!!!


Senior Member
Jan 31, 2010
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Hey, wait a minute Jay! Are you trying to say my dimly lit shop and my cell phone camera just might not be cutting it?

Seriously, great thread. Thanks for sharing.


Senior Member
Jan 26, 2010
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I will definately be changing a few things when i shoot, Thank You!


Senior Member
Apr 12, 2012
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Hey, wait a minute Jay! Are you trying to say my dimly lit shop and my cell phone camera just might not be cutting it?

Seriously, great thread. Thanks for sharing.
What he said. :applause:


Senior Member
May 17, 2012
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Hi all

Ive set up my lighting similar to Jays and put up the background etc, however i find the shots look better on auto than other settings - and they still dont look great

Could someone provide a list of the settings you use so i can try and get some half decent photos. Ive looked all over and cant find a basic list such as

Shutter Speed
Aperture f/number

Would be a great help



Super Mod
Oct 17, 2006
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This shot was pretty much on auto (Program mode) on my Nikon, except for the exposure which was dialed down to -2.0. I used natural light in my living room for this shot. I transferred the RAW file to Photoshop and unsharp mask a bit. I think the color of the guitar came out pretty accurate.

Thanks for this photography tutorial, Jay! :yesway:


Senior Member
Sep 20, 2011
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Great tutorial with a lot of good information and tips! I need to pick up some lights and backdrop (DIY or purchased) to add to my photo gear. Those clamp lights seem awesome. Is that just some sort of generic bucket you threw over the one light?


V.I.P. Member
Feb 5, 2011
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a rather belated thank you for this thread. i too desire better pics and invested in a canon last year in the hopes of developing a knack for this, as i am not camera friendly. this will help immensely.

thanks again...and your stuff is killer, incidently. they deserve great photography.


Jun 5, 2011
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Interesting, I learned a few tips that I can adapt to my photo taking too.

Thanks OP


Senior Member
Jan 1, 2013
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Nice work. I usually prefer natural light. That usually means less light though, so slow shutter speeds. I like to keep low ISOs in order to not have grainy noise. That means slow shutter speeds in low light too. A tripod is required. I shoot manual mode mostly so I can make all the decisions. Depending on what depth of field I want, I'll adjust the aperture (f/stop) accordingly. Low f/stop numbers = shallower depth of field. Higher f/stops = everything in focus.

These were pics I took when I was selling a guitar, so I wanted everything in focus. They were shot at ISO 100, f/11, and a 10 second shutter speed in the natural light I had to work with that day - light filtering through my windows in the living room. I didn't put the guitar in direct sunlight. I didn't want glare.

Set the camera on a delayed shutter or use a remote shutter release in order to avoid shaking the camera while pressing the shutter button and introducing some camera shake into the image. I don't remember if I used a release or delayed shutter on these, but it was one or the other.

A larger aperture (lower f/stop) will give you a shallower depth of field - an "artsy" looking blur in the background. These were handheld at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/40 sec shutter, and I used a flash bounced off the ceiling to avoid a harsh glare from a direct flash.

This one was lit only by the fire in my fireplace. It was a nice warm glow, but not a lot of light. ISO 100, f/6.3, and a 30 second shutter - on a tripod, obviously.

There are lots of ways to skin a cat. :)