Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Photoshop, or All I Need to Know about Website Design I Learned in My Mom's Basement

Now that we (finally) have obtained a sizable amount of raw photos to begin processing for the website, I thought I would share the process I am going through in order to make the many, many product photos that will populate the website, over 1200 in all. For the next few weeks, my life will be a very predictable blend of copywriting in Notepad and photo editing in Photoshop. It's an interesting combination of very high tech and very low tech (I'll leave you to figure out which is which), but they each serve their purpose perfectly.

The best piece of advice I can give you is (after the fact) a no-brainer: if you haven't upgraded to Photoshop CS4 yet, do it! It's so much more efficient and automated. I clipped photos at an average of about 15 minutes in CS3 and at an average of about 7 minutes in CS4. The magic wand tool itself is so much more intelligent in the newer version. It managed to eliminate more than 95% of my background in CS4 every time, no matter how far from white it was. I know it's yet another software investment on your end, for essentially an upgrade, but if you compare it to the man-hours you'll save over the long run, it really is cost-effective.

Oh, right, the process. I'm getting side-tracked...

First, we hired an outside photographer to take our photos. Rather than paying a product photographer an exorbitant amount of money to take our photos on a true white background and process them for us, we hired an hourly portrait photographer with a white sheet background to take raw photos and are processing them ourselves. Basically, we're paying less than 10% of the real cost to do more of the work ourselves; this is perfectly fine with me, as we have a month until launch, and I have no problem with putting on some headphones and clipping photos for a couple of weeks.

I'll be doing that with around 400 NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) files. When we first get them, they're about 9MB each, around 3000x6000 pixels, and come with handy pre-clipping features in Photoshop, including color recovery, exposure settings, and saturation effects. For example, I can take the brightest photo we had with no color loss:

Mess with a few settings, turn up the exposure, recover some color, crank up the vibrancy, and I get this without clipping a single pixel:

This background is sufficiently white enough that Photoshop can clip almost everything around the item via the magic wand tool without encroaching upon the photo itself.  From there on out, it's just clipping out the shadows using the pen tool (or softening them with the eraser tool, if you want to keep them) and making sure any hollow spots (like the white space inside of the handles) get clipped out as well. After squaring off the image, all that's left is resizing for large size (about 1000 pixels), viewing size (about 320 pixels) and thumbnail size (about 80 pixels). Here's the viewing size (the default picture on the product page):

I left the white spots inside of the handles alone for a reason: if you compare them to the background, you can easily tell that it's not true white. I want to stress that you remember to clip all parts inside the photo that are hollow, lest your customers notice the discrepancy and realize that you don't have the ability to hover your product in mid-air in a true white vacuum during a photo shoot. It sounds funny, I know, but you don't want to leave any signs of image modification. Once they consciously know that you've edited the photo's content, they may not trust that you haven't altered the actual product itself to make it a better sell.

That's all I have for now. My next post will detail how we set up the various items for different lighting colors, reflections in glass, under-lighting, etc., as well as clipping the hard way in Photoshop. Look for that later this week.

Got any Photoshop or photography experience? Any horror stories about poorly-clipped online shops? Share with us in the comments below.


Listened during this post: Slow Show by The National, John Allyn Smyth Sails by Okkervil River, Weddings by Broken Social Scene, What You Want by Japancakes, Strange Times by The Black Keys, Light Burns Clear by Sparta, Floor Rock by Ohmega Watts, Ambassador of Cinema by Maserati, Whoo! Alright-Yeah...Uh Huh by The Rapture, Walcott by Vampire Weekend, Over Under Sideways Down by The Yardbirds

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