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Picture Perfect

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

Blatant tease: about two-thirds of the way down, there is a link — an Easter egg that is far more interesting and informative than this post itself.

Photo: copyright Neill Archer Roan

Yes, the photo is a hint. One problem with people who do something superbly is that they make the rest of us look bad. No doubt you can supply your own examples; I can think of a number of musical ones.

The example at hand is pipe photography. Or, more accurately, the application of serious product photography and image processing chops to pipes. There was a quick flyover of product photography in one of my college marketing classes, but that was right after the earth’s crust had cooled and the university had just spent a bazillion dollars installing a campus-wide Wang word processing system. Back then, a product photographer spent hours dabbing vegetable oil on a hamburger patty to make it look hot, or coloring mashed potatoes to look like ice cream and sprinkling the result with flour to make it look frosty, then touching up the photos with, well, paint.

Digital photography changed everything, and when things change, some catch the wave and carve on it while some of us just wait to get deposited on the beach in spite of ourselves. My first pipe photos were on film. taken with a little Advantix tourist camera, using natural light on my porch and paying Ritz Camera extra for a disk with digital images, which I then emailed to various people using my dial-up AOL. That’s how I sold my first pipes, virtual door-to-door. Those photos are somewhere near the bottom of my stack of dead laptops.

If you remember this blurry focus and chair-cushion background (above), you really are OG. Natural light in a ski condo; these were pipes made during the Summer of 2004 and posted on my brand new website while I was playing the Crested Butte Music Festival. I had just gotten my first digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix, and I thought I was all set because I wasn’t paying for processing anymore. When I got home and improvised a soft box lit by three work lights I thought my pictures looked practically professional. Like many of my improvised tools and fixtures, the soft box project stalled out at “good enough.” You do have to take the pictures sharpish because if you leave it on too long the 200w incandescent bulbs scorch the fabric.

Then Neill Archer Roan came along with his Passion for Pipes blog site and suddenly my pipe pictures looked like Nick Nolte’s mug shot. Passion for Pipes has been gone for some years; I guess it ate Neill’s life and he took it down, but while it lasted it was a nexus of great writing, great photography, and great camaraderie. Comment threads following the blog posts attracted some really bright people and good writers and often took on a life of their own. The posts were wide-ranging, well-reasoned, and propelled by excellent photos of many subjects besides pipes. Among others, I still remember the post about Dunhills — it was written during one of the cyclical aren’t-pipe-prices-ridiculous teapot tempests on SmokersForum but cut deep and made me really miss my dad. SmokersForum, Passion for Pipes, almost seems like Camelot now. Neill was an early and frequent customer who became a good friend, and I benefited greatly from exposure on Passion for Pipes. I’m far from the only carver who can say that. Specific to the topic at hand, though, he established the gold standard for pipe photography.

Photo: copyright Neill Archer Roan

Another problem with people who have mastered something is that they often don’t show their work. You know how in school you couldn’t just write the answer on a math test, you had to show how you arrived at it to eliminate the possibility of an astronomically lucky guess or copying some smart kid? More than one person has looked at Neill’s photos and looked at mine and assumed that I could do what he does if I only gave a crap. “Just do what he does.”

Photo: copyright Neill Archer Roan

Just do what he does. When people assume something is easy those who are great at it don’t get enough credit and those who suck don’t get enough sympathy. Neill has spent at least as many hours taking photos as I’ve spent making pipes, has worked hard at and cared deeply about photography as an art for a long time, and has invested far more in photo equipment than I have on lathes and dust collectors and air compressors. In the unlikely event that you are fanatic enough about pipes to be paddling about in this backwater and yet are unaware, Neill wrote and photographed the book Comoy’s Blue Riband. You can still buy it here.

Neill actually shows his work here, in a graciously loaned archive post from Passion for Pipes. I‘m sorry, the Wix PDF viewer isn’t great, may take some zooming in. Neill has said that processing a single image can take 90 minutes. I typically post six or eight images of a pipe when I list it for sale, so even if I could do what Neill does, I can’t afford to.

Besides, we’re talking about apples and oranges. Or maybe lemons and grapefruit. His photos are intended to capture a pipe‘s greatest beauty and preserve it free of distractions like fingerprints and dust specks. My photos are intended to sell a pipe, schnell. His photos are lavished with whatever time and care are needed to achieve an artistic vision; my photos must convey a reasonable impression of the pipe without consuming time better spent making pipes. And if my photos don’t completely convey a pipe’s charm maybe that’s a crude form of insurance. I’d rather not sell a pipe than have the buyer take it out of the sock and think, “Awwwww, man . . . “ I guess I’ve always been annoyed at billboards with pictures of hamburgers that look NOTHING like what you get.

You’re right, now I’m just making excuses. Even if I’m never going to take P4P-class photos that doesn’t mean I can’t and shouldn’t do better. A violinist may never play like Hilary Hahn, that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in practicing. Times change, and my upgrades from one barely adequate consumer camera to another haven’t kept up, so I now need to learn how to use the first professional camera I’ve ever laid hands on so that customers can have better photos of their pipes to post on Facebook. RAW files? 21MB? Light Room? Cheese whiz. Oddly enough, the Canon EOS 5D Mk II with the 100mm macro lens on the far right is the very camera and lens that Neill used to take many of the Passion for Pipes shots.

No pressure.

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Aug 20, 2020

Thank you, Jon, this is exactly the sort of comment that I relished reading on P4P. I appreciate your taking the time and care.


Aug 19, 2020


Thank you for a bittersweet trip down memory lane; your post brought back many fond recollections. I too miss P4P, both for the incredibly varied posts and the lively engagement (sometimes manifesting as argument!) in the comments section. And unlike the old SmokersForum, Neill moderated P4P with a light but firm hand. I knew many people who viewed SmokersForum's demise with either ambivalence or schadenfreude; I don't know anyone who felt that way about P4P.

I absolutely agree with your statement that "when people assume something is easy those who are great at it don't get enough credit and those who suck don’t get enough sympathy." Perhaps it's a lack of empathy; perhaps a lack of insight B…

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