How to Photograph Books

by Craig Stark

#2, 15 September 2003

Part 1 - An Introduction to Flashpoints

Book photography??? Is there such an animal, and if so, what the heck is it? Aren't books like any other small object? Why would they require special photographic techniques that wouldn't apply to, say, wristwatches?

For one thing, books have both exterior and interior elements of approximately equal importance, and in many cases examples of both need to be photographed for an effective presentation. Consider the difficulty in photographing or scanning an illustration in a book that has a fragile binding. An attempt to flatten it on a scanner bed would likely do damage. In the case of a perfect bound book (or glued binding), this same attempt could easily crack a spine.

Also, it's important to remember that the appeal a book ultimately has for a buyer, especially if the buyer is a collector (who, in turn, may have no intention of reading it), sometimes has little to do with content. It's easy to forget this because many of us have graduated from the don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover school and think content should prevail over - is more important than - appearance. This attitude seems especially prevalent among beginning booksellers, who often offer nothing more than a ho-hum scan of a front board, perhaps thinking this will carry the day in their presentations. Even experienced booksellers sometimes take this approach.

This is too bad on two counts. One, once one serves a short apprenticeship, it doesn't take more than a few moments to take a good picture and edit it. Two, and more important yet, better pictures often translate into better sell-through and/or final values.

There are four intuitive elements in the process of taking pictures of books: what, specifically, to take pictures of; how to make a book presentable (or book cosmetology); how to take pictures of books; and how to edit them.

Today's article will present the basis for discussing all of these elements - flashpoints.

For those not familiar with BookThink's concept of flashpoints, here's the skinny: flashpoints are specific features, details, etc., of books that trigger an emotional response. Sometimes this response is so subtle that nothing is consciously felt. Other times, much less often, it feels like a knife driven into one's solar plexus, but whatever the level of intensity, there is some kind of impression made, a change in neural tissue that burns a memory.

Why is this important? The more numerous flashpoints of a given book are, especially if they're intense, the better the chances that the book will have value to you or, ultimately, your buyer.

Specifically, flashpoints can include any and every aspect of a book that triggers a response - a tooled leather binding, fore-edge painting, even the words "First published, May, 1936" on the copyright page of Gone With The Wind.

Flashpoints are important to book photography because if you're able to both identify the most important ones and photograph them effectively, you'll stand a good chance of replicating the same response you had to the book when you first saw it in others. In turn, if potential buyers experience the same emotional response, they may base their decision on this and be more likely to meet your price (if it's fixed) or bid an item up.

Of course, it's possible that a flashpoint for you might not be a flashpoint for somebody else. If you're new to bookselling, you might not be at all excited by the date on a copyright page, even if it establishes a book to be worth thousands of dollars. You might also be utterly transfixed by an illustration in a book that has little or no resale value. The same will be true of inexperienced buyers. Even if you're careful to present only stunning flashpoints, those which make a valuable book sing the Hallelujah Chorus, a buyer with limited knowledge might not be moved by them.

In Part II of this article we'll put flashpoints into play, discuss taking pictures that showcase them, and give actual examples.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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