Last week I flew down to Texas for a quick consultation with Jay Rohfritch and his parents, Marta and Dick, the team behind Good Books in the Woods, situated right outside of Houston. Jay had won my consulting services during the charity auction run each year at the annual Antiquarian Book Seminar in Colorado Springs – the proceeds benefit the local libraries that donate reference works for instructive use during the week.
It was both a pleasant and interesting visit. Good Books in the Woods is a lovely shop, well-suited to many hours of relaxing browsing amid a varied inventory. They have a core collection of nice first editions, acquired by Dick (who assists in the shop when not occupied by his day job) over years of collecting. Most interestingly, they have several deep author collections from the library of the late Rolland Comstock, whose unsolved 2007 murder is one of the most sordid tales of modern book collecting. Comstock’s books came to the Rohfritchs by way of two prominent East Coast dealers, who had, of course, creamed off the best and most obvious material before selling the second tier of the collection to Good Books in the Woods. But from a collection formed with Comstock’s interests, tastes, and means, it’s no surprise that the secondary material is rich in subtle opportunities.
I came down primarily to help Marta with book photography. She had been doing a lot more right than wrong (Jay took good notes in Colorado!), but was still unhappy with her book photos. The chief problem, we found early on, was that her nice Canon SLR camera had not been set to the proper custom white balance based on the lighting she was using. Consequently, the colors in all her photos were off a bit. Although these types of white balance color shifts can often be solved in Photoshop, using tools like levels and histograms, Replace Color, and Selective Color (all of which Marta and I went over), the less you fix a picture the better. The more you play with a photograph in Photoshop to make it look accurate, the more you risk making it look subtly artificial in the process. I find it’s always best to aim for a photo that looks great right out of the camera, and then turn to Photoshop as little as possible.
Marta was also using her camera to take “front on” photos of her books. Although this is sometimes necessary, usually for oversize material such as art books or children’s books, for your average octavo novel this is not an efficient way to get these types of “flat” photos. Scanners are the answer here, especially if you use a scanner with good preview software. Marta had a newer Canon (a good thing too, because some of the older Canon scanners I’ve used have not had sufficiently flexible software for efficient book scanning). We reviewed how she could quickly calibrate the scanner using a color calibration card and then the scanner’s Preview tool, and then rapidly scan book after book. Now she should be able to get books scanned at a rate of 4-6 books per minute. Much quicker than taking photos, and with more consistent colors too. Quick enough, I hope, that Good Books in the Woods can soon show pictures of a much higher percentage of their stock, while also allowing them to concentrate their time on their better material.
And finally, so that Marta’s great camera wouldn’t go to waste, we reviewed some principles of object photography and ways to get the most out of the time invested in photographing a book with a camera. Marta had been using the camera to show only a single side of the book. But a book is a solid, six-sided object, and a photo ought to show three sides at a time to get the most photo-book-bang for your photo-book-buck. Good Books in the Woods has a nice website, put together by Mika Babcock of Foreseeing Solutions (who recently took over webmastering for Between the Covers, and has been doing an incredible job so far, see our post about his improvements on our site’s performance), and I plan to check in often to see the progress they are making on their book photos.