#340. A thing or two Guitar Heroes can teach us photographers (a.k.a why lab rats will never be artists)

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Mar 29

Some people think of them as scruffy beer guts with tattoos and long hair but what rock guitarists really have is an artistic instinct that most photographers lack. In fact, could it be that all photographers need beer guts, tattoos and long hair to improve their craft?

Probably not, but I’m quite convinced that learning the guitar would help.

A Gbison Les Paul Studio guitar photographers in shallow depth of field with a Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Dream Machine – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Not convinced ? Let me make my point πŸ™‚


HiFi ain’t art

Photographers fall in the same gear acquisition syndrome as HiFi nuts. There’s always something better in the shop, there’s always something greater in the mag.

And choices are very often made in the same way: a reviewer (with fancy lab equipment and test ancillaries worth several fortunes) writes an article with eye-poppingly good graphs, circuit analysis, component detail, whatever is needed to make us open our wallets, and we always fall into the trap.

Technically perfect and ... so boring - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Technically perfect and … so boring – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

But HiFi ain’t art. Don’t get me wrong, some manufacturers are creative artists, but the HiFi world in general, not. Quite the opposite, in fact.

HiFi is all about recreating a sound with the greatest possible fidelity. A lot of measurement is implied. The most linear components are needed, the cleanest circuits, the lowest distortions. HiFi is engineering.


Guitar, on the other hand …

Electric guitar making and guitar playing couldn’t be more different from HiFi.

Guitar - first interpretation

Guitar – first interpretation

When creating a tube amp for HiFi, tubes are selected for their linearity and used in their least distorted range. Guitar almost take the opposite approach. Distortion is not only tolerated but actively sought. Blues and rock guitarists very rarely use their amps in the “clean” mode that simply amplifies the sound from the Guitar’s pick-ups. They generally prefer the crunchy, distorted zone. Not for the sake of entropy, but in search of a pleasant sound!

Guitar - interpretation 2

Guitar – interpretation 2

Beauty trumps fidelity. Emotion trumps rigor.

And this has profound implications, not only in the R&D departments of manufacturers but also – most importantly – in the jamming garages of suburbia.


Guitar – interpretation 3

Learning to play the guitar involves learning chords, moves, picking, fretting and as many other boring techniques as most other musical instruments. But what is encouraged by all teachers is to play songs. Basic finger strengthening exercises and memorization techniques are inevitable for absolute beginners but, as soon as conceivably possible, students are encouraged to play the songs of their favourite bands and replicate their sound.


Guitart – interpretation 4

Sound is what qualifies a guitarist as much as technique. The Yardbirds sounded different with Jeff Beck than with Clapton, for instance. And no one would mistake Mark Knopfler and Jimmy Hendrix.

And guitars / amps are sought out not for their exquisite measurements in a lab but for the quality of their sound. When Les Paul was designing guitars for Gibson, Fender stole his thunder by creating a less polished design that gave the world a different sound. When Fender were thinking of retiring the Stratocaster, that had fallen out of favour, along came Jimmy Hendrix, with aΒ sound that no one had heard before. Sales of the Strat went through the roof.


Guitar – interpretation 5

Today, manufacturers such as Paul Reed Smith work hard trying to produce a high-quality alternative to the Gibson / Fender duopoly. And tiny operations such as Chapman Guitars take care of the needs of guitarists wanting an even more distinctive sound at a very reasonable cost.

Then, there’s “Hot Rodding”, which is all about changing components on a guitar to tailor its sound to your personal tastes and playing technique.


Guitar – interpretation 6

And that’s just guitars. I haven’t even started talking about amplifiers, amp heads, pedals, cables …

All this to say one thing: the guitar world is far more obsessed with aesthetics and finding a personal style than with lab results.


Guitar – interpretation 7



Photographers are guitarists …

… but they think like HiFi enthusiasts.

Carpenter - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Carpenter – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Good photographers have at least one of two qualities: a strong world view and a strong personal style.

And beginner photographers most often begin on the right path, inspired by a master or simply photographs found on forums such as 500px. But early along the learning path they fall prey to a world that is far less positive than the guitar world.

Pont au double, Notre Dame, Paris - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Pont au double – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Musicians, and guitarists in particular, think in positive terms: what can I add to my sound and technique ?

Photographers too often think in negatives: what gear can I buy to remove aberrations and obstacles ? A faster AF so as not to miss that fast-moving object, higher ISO capabilities so as not to miss the low-light opportunities, high quality lenses so as not to suffer from chromatic aberration or vignetting … Sound or, rather, look, plays second fiddle to what corporate marketing has convinced us all is the really important aspect of photography: fidelity.

Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Soon, personal expression gives way to conformity and this is why photographers gather in millions around the Eiffel Tower every year and so few visit locations offering far more opportunities, follow rules of thirds and other brainwashing fallacies and generally fall into the trap laid by the megabrands, the media feeding on their advertising and the peer pressure of social media voting.

How do you recover that lost creativity?

Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

I strongly believe in the guitarist approach of imitation.

Buy books rather than magazines. Buy prints. Visit museums and exhibitions and don’t read the garbage that no one understands. Just ask your self what you like and why. Then try to imitate what you like. Analyse the obvious (subject, time of day) before moving to the more complex (type of camera, type of lens, aperture, post-processing …) Getting the basics right will then allow to work on the details until you feel like improvising rather than imitating.

Find yourself, the gear will follow.

Now, if Nick Zinner or Chris Stein are reading this, maybe they can share their opinion? πŸ˜‰


UPDATE: Thanks to reader PaulB, who pointed me to Ralph Gibson’s stunning photographic work, I am adding this video to the article. It’s an official Leica video, so a tad salesy, but the photography and insights from Ralph Gibson are a free masterclass. Plus, who doesn’t dream of an M Monochrome ? Thanks Paul !

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  • Leonard says:

    Truth vs Art – a subject dear to my heart.

    As it happens I am very much a hi-fi enthusiast (aka: audiophile) and a photographer and fully understand the pitfalls and quagmires of specifications and measurements. I wrote an essay about it many years ago called β€œAre You on the Road to Audio Hell?” which I imagine still exists on a website or two. In it I pointed out very much the same theme as Pascal describes here: that audiophiles are easy prey for measurements and statistics, always wanting the component with the least distortion, the greatest signal-to-noise ratio and the widest frequency response . . . restless with their choices till their dying day.

    The problem is that measurements really don’t matter much in the real world of hi-fi, since music playback systems are not designed to recreate reality any more than a performance is recorded to match. There is always some engineer or producer at one end of the spectrum or the other who thinks he knows what will sell (with the notable exception of jazz record producers of the 1950s and their like.) Then we have potential buyers out there who try to evaluate components based on their memories of live music, as if that had anything to do with what’s on the record or CD. To put a kind face on the matter, the producer is the artist, and the buyer is the idealist. Alas, they do not speak the same language.

    The analogy to photography is kind of the reverse of this process: that an image may have all the right ingredients: focus, depth of field (or the lack of it), the required dynamic range, a desirable level of noise or grain, true color (whatever that is!) – but have no meaning. No truth. No heart. While in Hi-Fi, since there is no such thing as accuracy and since manufacturers generally put their own stamp on things anyhow, the performance – however heartfelt and persuasive it may have been on the recording stage – is potentially lost. Or, at the very least, distorted in some fundamental way. What a good playback system must strive for is the absence of deliberate or careless coloration to have any prayer of revealing the performance hidden in the record groove or amongst the bits of a plastic disc.
    Pascal argues that we, as photographers – budding, amateur or professional – must quickly find out what we are about. We are the artists, the performers. Our cameras, lenses, film, developers are our tools. The middle man in the digital world is our own knowledge of how to process and eke out the meaning we saw when we clicked the shutter . . . no, the meaning we saw in our mind’s eye before we brought camera to eye and how we imagined the resultant print. In our case, there is no record producer, or recording engineer or playback component manufacturer to get in the way of our imagined end. It’s on us, not so much this specific tool vs. another.

    We must pity the poor guitarist whose art is foiled by geniuses who presume to act on their behalf. Unhappily, the great majority of musicians truly don’t realize the extent of how much their music has been altered by the time it reaches our living rooms. The same cannot be said of photography where the entire responsibility for the image lies with us. Not Leica. Not Nikon. Not Sony.

  • pascaljappy says:

    Great addition to the debate, Leonard, thanks !

    β€œAre You on the Road to Audio Hell?” So, you’re *that* Leonard! I’m a big fan of Audio Note, owned some components and was so in love of the Ongaku that I asked someone (Gary Dahl, you may know him) to build me a similar sort of amp (though not with silver wire transformers) with VV52B triodes. I then built a pair of Lynn Olson’s Ariel speakers to go with them, then single driver speakers. It was a great period. I’m ashamed to admit that audio, at casa Pascal, has traded in some exoticism for convenience and is now FLAC to DAC to T-class amp to Gallo speakers. Very different, but so much easier to use that I listen to more music. A good tradeoff in my mind and not toally unlike my letting go of a Linhof MT5 and Mamiya 7 for the convenience of a Sony A7r, when you think of it πŸ˜‰ Strangely, the itch for LPs is far stronger than the itch for sheet film.


  • Ken Cameron says:

    An interesting metaphor, Pascal, but like all metaphors used in argument it can suggest different conclusions if it is recast in slightly different terms and with an adjustment to the prevailing stereotype. Rock guitarists are not the only kind of musician. There are plenty of musicians who are keenly interested in technical questions about how exactly their sound is produced, and whose technical interest supports rather than detracts from their musicianship. There may even be rock guitarists in that category – I certainly know one who can bang on about guitars and amplifiers in much the same mind-numbing way as (some) pixel peepers about sensors and lenses, but who knows very well when it is time to stop talking and start playing. I also know some pixel peepers who are fine photographers, and whose technical interests support rather than detract from their photographic practice. Personally, I have neither the interest nor the technical skills to productively put pixels under the microscope, but I am glad there are people who do, I benefit from their work, I am not tempted to glorify my incapacity by thinking of myself as a photographic rock guitarist who is above such mundane concerns, and I lose nothing by developing my own technical knowledge. I find myself thinking of one senior pixel peeper (Lloyd chambers of diglloyd.com) whose technical skills are beyond question and who uses them to take photographs which take me happily back to some of my favorite places in the world (eg, the White Mountains of California – a more refined delight than the Sierras across the valley, IMO, although Lloyd also does great work in the Sierras). And I suspect that technically, you are in fact very competent yourself.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting comment Ken, thanks. I think most musicians will be interested in how their music will be recored and replayed, as Leonard also describes. But other than that, I think their focus is more on musical qualities than technical ones. ANd not just Jeff Beck and other soundbenders. Glenn Gould didn’t want to play any other instrument than his own Stenway (until it was destroyed, I think), for instance. All I’m saying is that the photography industry as a whole is twisting the mind of young photographers into believing that better measurement means better photography, which is absolutely not the case. If we were to follow the advice of magazines, we’d all end up shooting by the rule of thirds and according to same old recipes (the golden hour + polarizer + neutral grad 30 year old yuck) and with the gear made by the manufacturer with the biggest ad budget.

      That being said, I agree with you entirely that good artists are very often technically competent. They know what they want and they understand the impact of technicalities on their results. But technique is only serving look.

      I once asked Micheal Kenna why he still shoots film and his answer was that he never found a digital camera that gave him the same look. Most his prints are surprisingly small, so 50Mpix are of no interest to him. Wehereas I’m writing this looking at a 40″ Hans Strand print that’s teeming with fantastic, intricate detail. Hans shoots medium format digital from Hasselblad. Both these guys chose their gear based on the desired outcome.

      So, what I’d like photographers still in the learning phase to understand is that it’s much more important to work on defining that outcome, that look, that style, than to head straight into the gear forums. I’m sure you agree with that πŸ™‚

  • PaulB says:


    Interesting comparison. I thought you might like to see this video conversation with Ralph Gibson discussing photography and music with a musician.



    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks so much, Paul. That looks very interesting and I very much look forward to viewing the video. Have a great day. Pascal

      • PaulB says:


        Did you see Ralph Gibson’s other comments about music and photography on links to “Performance”?


        • pascaljappy says:

          Paul, I did and was shocked at how utterly brilliant his photography is. The video is now added to the post. Thanks again, Pascal

          • PaulB says:


            You are welcome. I have liked Ralph Gibson’s work for a long time. His photos tend to stricke a chord that resonates with you I am tempted to buy his latest book (puns intended to stay with the musical theme of the thread.)


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