Marc Quigley, From Sanding to the Ultimate Product Photography
Not many Americans these days can say they not only love what they do, but plan on doing it for the same company from the time they’re eighteen until retirement. Marc Quigley is an exception to this norm. After high school, Marc began working as a sander at PRS Guitars, then in Annapolis, Maryland. He sanded guitars and grew his skill sets as the company — considered by many to build the finest guitars in the world — grew into its recently-expanded factory in nearby Stevensville.
Currently celebrating its twenty-fifth year, PRS is often credited with bringing about the second golden age of American electric guitar design and manufacturing. When Gibson and Fender were languishing in the 1970s and ’80s after a series of owners stopped innovating, Bowie, Maryland’s Paul Reed Smith began building guitars with John Ingram, another local, and beauty and quality were returned to solidbody electric guitars.
From sanding, Marc Quigley eventually held all the jobs in the Finish Hall, where guitars are painted, eventually managing it. He then moved to Customer Service before becoming Art Director twelve years ago. For the past six years, Marc has been responsible for the gorgeous product photography showcased in PRS literature, magazine ads, and on their Web site.
As Art Director of PRS Guitars, Marc initially hired local pro photographers to shoot the growing line of PRS offerings. Robbie Blair, Sam Holden, and Jim Noble all helped bring the amazing curly maple, Brazilian rosewood and other tone woods to life. Eventually, Marc began to build his photographic chops on his own time, the way he often learns new skills for his day job.
The very nature of the products Marc is called upon to photograph make this assignment difficult, to say the least. PRS guitars are typically coated with a polyester basecoat and either an acrylic urethane topcoat or a nitro-cellulose topcoat. The brilliantly-shiny surfaces and many curves of these instruments act like contoured mirrors, particularly on the darker-colored guitars. Not getting the strobes, flash umbrellas, and white cards to appear in reflections on the guitars is close to impossible. “I fire strobes through a very large piece of white plexiglass, which acts as a diffuser,” says Marc, revealing one of his tricks. “I can control how hot the highlights are by adjusting the distance from light source to the plexiglass.”
The mirror-like shiny finish of most PRS guitars is not the only problem faced when doing product photography for new models. “In the hand carve, we get weird reflections,” Marc explains. “At one point I realized you can actually see a reflection of the headstock in the hand carve of the guitar when you’re shooting straight on. You can see all the way up the neck to the headstock and tuners. The multi-faceted surface combined with the shininess makes it very tricky.”
Some PRS models are more problematic than others due to the curves (or lack thereof) in woodworking. “The SE Customs were hardest. They have no carve on the top whatsoever. I like having a little highlight splash along the top or edge. With a flat top the only way to do that is to slash a reflection over half of it. It may look kind of cool, but it doesn’t show the product properly. The only choice I have is to not have any highlight on those models except maybe a very tiny one on the edge.”
Different finishes also provide a variety of photographic challenges. “The sparkle finishes are very hard to get done right,” says Marc. “It’s like they have a million little mirrors all reflecting in different directions. They’re either too hot or it looks like little black spots on the guitar. It’s difficult to find the right balance. I hold a silver card in front of me and I shoot directly over the top of it, so the guitar is reflecting the silver card, and it bounces a little bit of light spilling from the side of my strobes.”
If there’s one thing which makes the PRS Guitar product shots stick out among competitors, it’s the detailed photos Marc takes of each model and shown on the product pages. Most manufacturers have two shots: instrument straight on and instrument being played by celebrity musician. Marc’s rethought this decades-old approach, and has given new life to instrument product photography. “I worked on these guitars for years, and I know them inside and out,” he says. “One of the jobs I did is called Prepping. The first thing I’d do was take it from a Sander, close my eyes, and run my hands over the whole thing to ensure the shape was correct. I knew them well enough to tell if there were any runs, dips or anything else wrong.” This level of product knowledge gave him the foresight to know how the guitars looked from all angles possible. Previsualizing what he wanted in photos, Marc sketched out how he’d like them to look, complete with where the highlights should be.
With the perfect shot in his mind’s eye, Marc’s studio set-up is surprising. “I have the guitar suspended from a fishing line. I’ll grab the neck, headstock or butt of the guitar to hold it up with my left hand and angle it toward the light panel until I get a reflection I like. I shoot with my right hand, so I’m pretty contorted while working. It’s fun to photograph them because they’re so beautiful.”
With PRS Guitars releasing a line of amplifiers in 2009, Marc was facing a new set of challenges. “That was a brick wall when I first faced that challenge. They’re not shiny. They’re boxes, essentially,” laughs Marc. After two half-day photo shoots failed to meet his standards, he came up with a different approach. “I now shoot through the plexiglass on the left side, with two lamps over there. I use a third pointed at a bounce card to bring light to the other side. Reflector cards in the front put some light on the dials.”
Marc relies on PocketWizard Plus IIs — three of them, to be exact — to keep his Nikon D2X and his flashes in sync. “The Plus II’s are awesome,” says Marc. “They’re worth every penny. They’re durable, which is important to me. They have great battery life, they’re easy to use, reliable and have outstanding range. A great product I would recommend to anyone.” Rounding out the key elements of his gear, a Profoto softbox is his main reflective unit.
After 21 years, Marc is far from content to remain static. He recently created the poster for the independent film Loop, and is constantly working on his own photography, featured on his site. He also is responsible for all audio recording at PRS, and now shoots and edits video of guitar and amp demonstrations. All PRS collateral is created in-house from his department. He cites the freedom PRS Guitars gives him to explore new technologies as being key to keeping him innovative and widening his skills. Guitars, amps, cameras, PocketWizards and the time to create. Now we can see why Marc’s been there 21 years with no signs of leaving any time soon.