I look at a lot of product photography; from the amazing to the, shall we say, less amazing. One thing that almost every amateur has in common is a lack of attention to detail. It’s a skill just like any other, and requires development. Some people are fantastic at crafting beautiful sets, compositing, lighting and so on. But, they lack one vital skill which immediately identifies their work as amateurish: Cleaning. It may sound boring but I assure you it is of the utmost importance. This article will explain some theory and cover the steps I go through to clean an item.
Good Product Photography Starts On Set
Well, that’s an obvious statement, so let me clarify. You may have been given a “new” product to photograph, but I promise you it will have imperfections. Do not think that simply because your product is “new” it does not need cleaning. Our cameras are so detailed these days that every little imperfection will be captured in glorious detail.
Whether it’s shoes, jewelry, perfume, or wine, every single item should be thoroughly cleaned before it even touches your shooting table. Yes, you can fix pretty much anything in post but there’s no point unnecessarily wasting your time.
Extreme Attention To Detail Is Needed For Product Photography
Right, let’s get to the nitty gritty. The photo you see above is prior to any cleaning in post. I tend to create lots of layers while cleaning and merge them into groups as I go. The reason for this is to stop the extreme slow down which can occur in Photoshop when you have tons of layers. I also rarely feel it necessary to go back and edit this cleaning stage. My cleaning process generally goes like this:
- Removal of all dust and marks using Clone Stamp, Healing Brush, Brush Tool, or whatever works.
- Fixing lumps, bumps, and straightening edges of material using Liquify.
- Perfect lighting and ensure no areas are clipped by adjusting contrast using precise masks.
- Exaggerate colors to identify problem areas and fix using a Hue and Saturation layer
Before I do any of this, I also ensure that the product is sharp, from front to back, by focus stacking. To do so, I use an indispensable program called Helicon Focus, which you can purchase here.
Written as it is above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this process is quick. It’s not. All things considered, the cleaning stage is by far the longest part of my edit; unless I am compositing other aspects. Depending on the product, I’ll spend anywhere from 1-3 hours doing this.
The key here is attention to detail. I usually do multiple passes of every area to ensure I have not missed anything. It’s also important to remember that you’re not only correcting the big mistakes but all of the small details of a product as well. To give you an example, with this shoe I spent considerable time correcting the tick, the edge where the top half of the shoe meets the sole, the top shoelace holes, and fixing the lumps in the fabric. Removing all of the obvious dust and scuffs is easy, it’s the minute details that you need to focus on.
Contrast corrections are the next phase which I always spend a lot of time on. This is also where I make creative adjustments and perfect the lighting. As much as possible I try to get things right in camera, however, tiny alterations which, for example, highlight the tick or bring out the text on the tongue, are often not possible on set.
Before you make any contrast adjustments, I encourage you to create a Threshold layer and identify the brightest and darkest areas of your image. Use the color sampler tool to select these areas and then keep an eye on your Info Panel as you make adjustments. If you don’t, it’s very easy to blow out your highlights and crush your blacks losing any detail which was present.
One of the final stages in my cleaning process is color correction. I don’t make radical creative adjustments to color as it’s important to represent the product accurately. There’s no point changing the hue of any color if it becomes inaccurate.
Side note – To ensure you always capture accurate colors be sure to purchase a Color Checker Passport. It can be used in Lightroom and Capture One (although both in very different ways). You can find it here.
To identify colors which should not be present, I exaggerate the colors by adding a Hue and Saturation layer and cranking up the Saturation. If I see anything a little off, I just grab another Hue and Saturation layer and make the necessary adjustment, usually just to the saturation of the offending color.
Do Not Misrepresent Your Product
If you’re photographing a blue T-shirt, obviously the blue should be accurate to real life. However, it’s also important to apply the same theory, in a modified way, to cleaning. Rather than altering the product in a manner which would make it an untrue representation, you want to perfect what is already there. It’s tough to explain and is something you’ll find with experience. You’ll also find that some clients want you to push their products beyond what would be considered an accurate representation. That’s up to them of course but it could leave them with many unhappy customers.
Having completed the hours of cleaning, contrast and color corrections, and adding some creative flare, here’s the final edited photo
If you want your product photography to be taken seriously, take cleaning seriously. Give it the time it deserves and your photos will begin to look more professional. Of course, good cleaning is not going to turn a poorly lit photograph into something good; you must have a decent base before post-production begins. If you feel you need some education when it comes to product photography lighting, I suggest you take a look at Photigy. They offer a whole range of courses which cover all types of product photography.
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