A Year at Tom Sands Guitars - A Photographic Journey - by Daisy Tempest / by Tom Sands

I originally wrote this piece on instagram, but after an overwhelmingly positive response that proved apparently informative and entertaining we decided to condense it into a blog post. So, let me take you on a photographic journey of my skills as a ‘photographer’ which can mean anything from training your thumb to skim the ISO wheel at the speed of light, to making loud obnoxious bird noises from behind the camera to ensure your subject looks suitably organic in their surprise (usually reserved for the dog, or somebody I don’t know very well. Tom is now used to it). So, all these photos represent a key milestone or idea to me and are numbered not in terms of importance but in terms of lesson.

1. To begin at the beginning…

Today I realised it’s nearly a year to the day that I came to work for Tom - so I thought I’d spam everyone’s newsfeeds with my favourite pictures over the past year. I’ve grown not only as a craftsperson, but also as a photographer. I’ve learned so much about composition, light, how a camera actually works, design, lines, etc. I still don’t really know the technical details, like what exactly ISO stands for, but they say you should keep some mystery to all that you do. It’s really special to see how my ‘portfolio’ has changed and grown over this year nonetheless. This first photo was taken right at the beginning during London Craft Week, where I had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful craftspeople at a QEST event - where I was desperately snapping away trying to prove myself useful as a potential apprentice, and finding that I really loved taking photos. Tom lent me his 50mm lense and it opened up so many doors. 

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2. Bending perception…

This one was taken about a month in. Looking back at this, I remember thinking how interesting the arm positions were. I still really love this photo, but finding a boundary between beautiful photos and helpful ones (we send these process shots out to clients so they can gauge how their build is going, have regular updates, etc) was something I came to realise I wasn’t navigating too well.

When I dropped this into my ‘side bending’ notes and then came back to them when I needed to bend my own sides, I realised I had a gorgeous page of artistic photographs but none really of what to do and how to do it. Then there was the problem I didn’t anticipate of ‘what on earth will the clients think is going on here if they saw this?!’ - it’s a confusing photo for someone who isn’t a luthier. I started to make it my mission to combine beautiful photography with helpful process shots. This is the first milestone of that realisation. I’m still working hard at trying to do that.

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3. God’s in the colour…

As you can imagine, I felt #blessed to be cutting my photographic teeth on a tree guitar. Who gets an opportunity to experiment with that first time round?!

I wanted to be able to get as much as I could out of this experience - after all, I hear stock is pretty hard to come by... so, I started experimenting with colour, after being a fan of the monotone look. The Autumn leaves outside the workshop (again, #blessed to be in such an aesthetic location) ended up serendipitously adapting their colour at the moment the box was closed on this beauty. Colour, colour, colour. I love this photo. It did everything for itself, just add lense.

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4. The showdown…

The fight we had over this next one! Well, not fight, we both thought this would be a great photo - we just absolutely and resolutely thought it would be more successful from very different angles. We are both incredibly stubborn, in case you didn’t know.

I’d been a few months in by now and I was resolute that I knew what I was doing in this space. Tom however insisted we just tried it first his way around. Fair enough, can’t really argue with your mentor, generally not a good move.

Interestingly, like nothing else before, it actually didn’t work his way. So, we tried my approach and we came up with this. I was so smug, you have no idea. A milestone in that I was able to call a judgement about a space I’d got to know so well over the past months. The white background made it much easier for the shavings to be located in the frame - less busy, so the image could be focused upon with little effort from the eye. It was a wonderful moment when the learner stuck to a judgement and earned photographic respect from the teacher. So I really love this photo for that reason. A real moment of feeling a strong sense of belonging.

Well done for accepting defeat Tom. I still laud this over him, and for me it made up for the many I’d been wrong before, and still am.

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5. Back to my box…

Number 4 was an example of when I was right - this photo is an example of when I was wrong. Another important lesson.

I was resolute (favouring shots with people in them) at the time that this would be a better photo zoomed out a bit. What you see here is a stubborn Daisy begrudgingly getting in close at the instruction of Tom. It’s now one of our favourite photos - I love the intimacy of the detail, the sharp chisel, the portrayal of concentration and serious attention to detail. This shot was a game changer for me, and highlighted the importance of macro photography. It’s a good way of getting that beautiful photo / helpful process shot balance.

It was also a reminder that it’s important to always take someone’s advice even though you think you know best; if you don’t, you might miss an opportunity. Also a reminder to reel in my attitude - which I probably need daily...

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6. Casting shadows…

It became apparent as the late autumn sun crept across the workshop floor one day that I’d been a massive idiot and missed one of the best photographic opportunities in the workshop - the light and shadow! I laid this box on the floor (don’t worry, it’s got a top protector on it) and began snapping away. This was interesting for me as it was so bright and so dark in the same photo so I had to experiment with ISO. Whole new kettle of fish when I discovered the ‘auto’ setting was actually not a great idea for literally everything. Who knew? Shout out to Dion James at Dion Guitars for being the inspiration for this shot. He really embraces the wonderful light and shadows that appear in his shop, his instagram is a great place to see that (@dionguitars).

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7. A lesson in lines…

Tom: ‘Could you photograph the bevel Dais?’

Me: ‘Sure’.

*One hour later*

Tom: ‘I think we need a lesson in lines’.

Oh boy. I took the grossest photo of two guitars next to each other - one with a bevel (this one) and one without. It was the two guitars lying on their fronts, resting in opposite directions next to each other, so the upper bouts and lower bouts rested within the curves of each other, ying and yang style.

At the time I thought it looked smashing. Another hour later, after a lesson in line aesthetics, I realised that this was not in fact the case. I saw that the shadow between the lines I had created for the photograph kind of looked like a fat Loch Ness monster snake that had eaten some kind of small mammal and it hadn’t yet digested in its stomach. NEXT.

The lines weren’t flowing and they certainly didn’t do Tom’s gorgeous body shape designs any favours. Oops a Dais. But, it took a lesson in design to realise this, and it changed how I thought about all my photos.

I revisited the scene and came up with this. Much better to allow the design of the instrument to speak for itself and frame it with shadow, make it a hallway of contrast, as opposed to making the shadow the sole work of art in the frame.

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8. Lutherie’s weirder practices…

Daisy’, I hear you cry, ‘after all this practice, haven’t you figured out a way to make binding look less like guitar BDSM?’

No, no I haven’t. But it makes a cool photo, and allowing things to come across just as they are is part of the fun, even if it turns the heads of non luthiers on your newsfeed. Just make sure your shutter speed is sped up if you ever photograph Tom doing his binding. He goes at it like a bull in a china shop. It’s also worth noting that this goes for mistakes, too; allow things to be captured for their flaws, it’s part of the beauty. Tom doesn’t seem to have any flaws in terms of execution, but my own guitar - being my first one - surely does, but that just means next time I’ll do it better. There’s something beautiful in that, and it took me a while to accept that I shouldn’t hide imperfections in my work.

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9. Capturing moments…

When I say Tom binds like a bull in a china shop, he also moves around the workshop like one (albeit a dainty and accurate bull).

I’ve mentioned I love photographing people before, so I’m always on the look out for moments. A lovely expression, interesting body language etc gets me excited. It’s hard to put into words why I like this photo so much but I think it came from a long time spent on the floor waiting patiently for Tom to stay in a position long enough for me to frame it, correct the settings, and capture a moment.

I’ve found that this kind of patience was the easiest to learn - the kind that keeps you on the edge of your seat (or crouched on the floor in a weird uncomfortable position in this case) because at any microsecond you might miss something that makes the wait worth it. It makes time go by fast and the result is always that much more rewarding. Sort of feels like being a wildlife photographer at points; any disturbance to the craftsman and you might startle them... queue the internal David Attenborough voice.

No one else seems to like this photo, much. Not sure why I do, I guess it’s the unashamed ‘no one really knows what’s going on here’ element. It’s not really anything special, either, but I love everything about it - composition, colour, position, subject. I don’t really need a picture of Tom checking out a neck for my notes, so during the times where he’s just inspecting and not making, artistic licence is okay - right?

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10. The teaser…

When a build is near completion but you want the magic of seeing it for the first time to be there for the client on delivery day, we take ‘teaser shots’ to keep them guessing but also satisfied with regular updates.

This concept came about relatively recently as the first batch of guitars I was working with Tom for came to completion and I had to alter the way I was shooting. This photo of ‘Jupiter’, Will McNicol ‘s guitar, uses lens flare and lacquer reflections so as to not give too much away but accentuate details of beauty. Great fun to shoot, but also tricky coming up with new ways to reveal while not revealing.

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11: The lurker…

This series wouldn’t be complete without the workshop chocolate dog. There sure as hell isn’t a shutter speed fast enough for that tongue. It’s so hard to get a good picture of this dog but, as I said to someone earlier, for every 300 photos there is (if I’m lucky) one good one. 

She arrived a few months after I did and she’s literally the best thing ever. She always helps me in practicing split second shots like this. Star cross-eyed lovers, are Juno and I.

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