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Retouching flat lay images

Flat lay retouching for e-commerce is not as easy as it might seem. Flat lays are a great way to present clothes if you can’t or don't want to shoot them on a model or on a mannequin. It usually happens with kids clothes, as there are a lot of sizes no mannequins can fit, and kids models are not so common. Transparent clothes also look better when they lie flat. I’d say that models and mannequins are preferable when shooting as they help to present clothes better, adding volume to them, so that customers can immediately understand how the garment fits. Most stores and brands that I know do not use flat lays as the only mean of presenting their goods, but they are still common and there’s a great probability that you’ll be dealing with them as a catalogue retoucher.

These garments are not actually lying flat – they are hanging. Nevertheless, to us retouchers they are flat lays because they are flat

If you have clothes for adults, there's a choice. You can use a model or a mannequin or a flat lay. But if you have kids' clothes, you're actually restricted to flat lays only. Here's why: first of all, kid models exist, but they are much more expensive. They can't (and shoudn't) work as long and hard as adults. Then, kids' mannequins are limited in size, and kids' clothes come in a huge variety of sizes. I'd struggled with kids mannequins for a couple of years, and then the company decided to use flat lays instead. Phew!

Abandoned mannequins and spare parts

You know, when a garment is shot on a mannequin that is too small or too big, it looks just awful. Trousers are either too tight or baggy, and they get all wrinkled because of that. So, if you think about it, using flat lays is the only viable solution when it comes to shooting kids' clothes, and there's no reason why you can't use them for all kinds of clothes, not just that.

Before we start talking about the retouching process, let me say a few words about the photography stage.

Shooting flat lays in a studio

Just like with the mannequins, flat lays can be relatively easy or crazy hard to retouch. It all depends on the photography stage. Flat lays are easy to retouch only if they are shot properly, and they are tricky to shoot. The use of props is required to make them lay flat. Photographers can use pins to fix creases in place and they tend to use hangers. Why hangers? Because the surface, the backdrop is usually not horizontal flat, it’s actually angled to make garments look better as the gravity force pulls them down. Fewer wrinkles that way.

A true flat lay

This jacket was shot lying flat on the floor. It was a hasty job: the symmetry leaves much to be desired, the garment is all wrinkled and doesn't look so appealing. Let's compare it to another item that was shot not lying flat, but almost hanging, on an angled backdrop.

A perfect flat lay. Pay attention to the pins

It was carefully straightened and folded to look perfectly flat and smooth. There are pins stuck into the t-shirt to fix it in place. You have to remove the hanger and the pins, but better this than liquifying and flattening all the wrinkles. If you're lucky, you'll be getting good images, but no one is safe from sloppy flat lays in this fast-paced industry of e-commerce content production.

Isolation is another major issue. Pay attention to the fact that there's a tiny shadow around both garments on the two images above. If you're going for isolation-with-a-natural-shadow, that's alright. But if you have to isolate without any shadows, you're in trouble, and you'll have to use the Pen Tool all the time. As it's entirely possible to shoot flat lays without any shadows, I don't see a reason why anyone should struggle with isolation. But it's not as easy as it sounds.

There are reflective backdrops that are supposed to be used with a ring flash. All you have to do is put your flat lay on the backdrop, fire the flash, and the light will reflect from the backdrop and make it bright white. Sounds extremely cool, but in fact, it's one of those false claims that only look good in the ads.

An image straight from the camera, no Photoshop. The background is totally white

The hat above was shot on the reflective backdrop and it looks as if the background is absolutely white and there are no shadows around. That's true. But the light cast coming from the backdrop is so strong that it affects the items you place on it. You might not notice that the color is bizarre at first glance, but have a look at the same hat shot on a regular backdrop.

The same hat looks much better in its original state

Now it's pretty much evident that the reflective backdrop has just killed all the color as well as the background, and this is not a good way how to shoot items for e-commerce. Are there any other options? Yes. You can use a transparent plastic backdrop and place it on top of a softbox. This backlight will eliminate all the shadows and make isolation easier. However, this scheme only works well with relatively small items, but kids' clothes are usually small.

No Photoshop, no shadows in the original image

One of the most common misconceptions about retouching is that a bright white background straight from the camera would make our life easy. That's not true, and even worse, the opposite is true! A bright white background straight from the camera might make your life miserable. Why? Because of all the light involved. A white backdrop is actually just a piece of light gray paper or plastic. Making it bright white in the image means overexposing it. When you want to overexpose something, you have to use a lot of light. The deal is, this light doesn't only shine on the background. It can end up on the products bringing their contrast down, casting parasitic tints, glares, and who knows what else. Making light gray consistent background bright white in Photoshop is a matter of seconds. Dealing with all the problems that I've mentioned is time-consuming and bothersome. So if I had a choice between a bright white background and light gray (around 245-250 in every channel on average), I'd vote for light gray, be it flat lays or mannequins.

Let's sum it all up. When you work with flat lays, props are your problem number one, wrinkles are your problem number two, and symmetry is your problem number three. And yes, problem number four is isolation.

Despite the evident difference, flat lays retouching is very similar to mannequin retouching. Because of all the information given in the previous chapter, this chapter is relatively short. Make sure you know how to deal with mannequins before you start studying this.

Next: Flat lays isolation


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