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Background removal. Isolation

In product retouching, a white background is essential. Most online stores prefer to present their goods on a spotless white background. Removing the original background from a product image and replacing it with a solid color is often called isolation.

This kind of image is tricky to isolate, but it's manageable nonetheless

There's a huge semantic problem with the whole thing, as there's no such thing as a single name for it. Some people call it isolation (and I will be doing so all the time), some say “silhouetting” or “clipping”. Clipping makes sense when we use clipping paths or masks, but it's too narrow to define the whole process. “Cutting out” or “background removal” is also very popular despite the fact that the background is most often not removed, but filled with a solid color. I'll stick with the “isolation” term as the rest of them seem to shift the focus from the most important thing to something else. Don't concentrate on the background because the most important thing is to use the edge between the object and the background in order to isolate one from another. This is what it's all about in product image editing. And if there's no definite edge between the object and the background, then you're in trouble.

Isolation is a very popular technique when you want to present your goods to customers. Their attention will not be diverted as it would be, were the background colored or textured. This is good because it helps customers to concentrate on the products. Secondly, images with a solid colored background tend to weigh much less (in kilobytes) than those with some uneven background. It means that they will take less time for them to load on a screen, and this is also very important. We live in a world where no one is willing to wait. There are disadvantages, too. Isolation can be tricky in terms of retouching, and it means that you have to either invest in the setup or pay retouchers more. With enough skill, photographers can make images with a very consistent white background requiring little effort to isolate. But in any way, it has to be taken care of.

Why the white color? It seems like the most popular color in the industry. Well, except that it’s just a tradition, there are two very important reasons why you should use white, not black or gray or any other color. Being the lightest color possible, it ensures the maximum contrast with the object. And even those images that lack contrast initially, which is evident when you look at them before isolation, will look much better on white. In fact, anything looks great on white except for the white items, because white items look best on black due to contrast reasons. But as the majority of items in this world are not white, and black color is considered pretty depressive, white is the color of choice when you’re isolating images.

Fully isolated images look as if they are floating in mid-air, as they do not have any obvious signs that they are not floating, like a shadow underneath. This is really acceptable with ghost mannequin clothes, earrings – they are probably even supposed to look like that. But when you have solid objects like shoes or furniture, then you’d probably prefer them not hanging in mid-air like balloons. So adding a shadow underneath such items might be a good idea.

It means that we have some options! We can isolate objects on white or any other color, and have them shadowless. Or we can leave a natural shadow underneath, the one that was there during the photo shoot. Or we can make an artificial shadow to make it look like the real thing. We'll see how it can be done and what kind of photography setup is the best for each of the options. But before we do that, let's first discuss tools and methods that can be used for isolation.

Next: Isolation tools and techniques overview


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