Thursday, November 18, 2010

Product Photography, Part 4: Selecting the Perfect Photo & Removing Backgrounds

Okay, so over the past few weeks, you've gathered together the materials for an affordable-yet-professional photography station in your lightbox and snapped oodles of pictures using great lighting, proper white-out backdrops, white balance and ideal resolution, right?

Now we're going to work with the output, which should already be a great quality photo with all the essentials (clarity, brightness, and a non-distracting background), to give it the maximum professional edge for display in your eCommerce store.

Since there are dozens of great photo editing programs out there and each one is slightly different, I'll give you the industry standard terms for these techniques, and you can look into your specific program to find out where it's located within the menu. If it doesn't have one or more of the capabilities listed below, look for something that does. My favorite cost-conscious image editing program is Photoshop Elements, list priced at $99.

Below are the 5 image editing steps to get a fabulous end photo that buyers will be drooling over.

This step may seem obvious, but I want to talk for just a moment about how to select your final image from the several that you took. (You did take several, right?)

The optimal things to look for are:
a) Do I like the PLACEMENT of the product? (Is it positioned straight, facing the camera? Is this the best angle to view the product from?)

b) Is it the proper RESOLUTION - crisp and clear, with all the details showing well?

c) Is it well LIT, without any harsh shadows or fuzzy bits?

Here's what's surprisingly NOT as important, because I'm going to show you how to fix these below:

a) Is the color exactly right? (This is any easy fix.)

b) Is the picture slightly off-angle, or is the product not centered? (Again, easy fix).

c) Are there distractions in the background, or minor imperfections such as dust or scratches? (Again, as long as they're small these can be readily removed.)

No matter how good your backdrop is at removing visual clutter, there are always unwanted shadows, light/color reflections, bits of lint on your drop cloth, etc. The closer you can get to a white or "transparent" background, the better.

I like to do this step early on, so that what you're left with is just the product itself. This will allow you to see it more clearly - just like removing the background allows your buyer to see the product more clearly.

There are lots of ways of improving or even erasing the background of your image - experiment to see which of these gives you the best result:

a. Lighten - this technique is the easiest, but only works if your foreground product is bright or dark and does not contain white or light grey. Use the color selector tool to choose the predominant shade of your background. Then use the lighten tool and/or desaturate tool to take out any color and unwanted shadows.

b. Correct - if you only see a few odd spots of dust, remove them or airbrush over them.

c. Erase - this technique works if you have a product that's very easy to trace around, such as a book or painting with lots of straight edges. Use your eraser tool to literally remove the background from around your product.

d. Extract - this tool is available in Photoshop and essentially does step c, above, for you. Choose Extract > Smart Extract, use the mouse to highlight the outline of your product (it doesn't have to be perfect, you can preview and edit it before saving), then let the software extract the foreground object out of the background for you, leaving a clean white canvas behind your item.

All of the above techniques will be infinitely more easy if you've taken the proper steps to add high volume lighting, white-out backgrounds (lightbox or drop cloth), and set the white balance on your camera. Once you get the hang of it, each image's extraction should take you just 2 to 3 minutes.

Product Photography Step 2 Example, Image Background Removal

In the above images, I've used technique A for the center image, and technique C for the far right image. Two notes about this technique: (1) give yourself some time, because this is a skill you'll get better with as you practice, and (2) did you notice how much brighter and more appealing the right ring is than the left? And yet I've done nothing yet to tweak the ring itself! THAT is the magic of background removal, and why I've spent so much time describing it.

...Part 4 to be continued next week.

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