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Ghost mannequins: full tutorial for Photoshop user

A ghost dress

The invisible mannequin or the ghost mannequin Photoshop technique is very popular nowadays, and a lot of clothes-selling websites use this kind of images combined with the traditional shooting on models. Customers see clothes as they hang in thin air as if worn by some invisible person, which, in fact, is not invisible. It was visible before being removed from the image by the retoucher. This kind of product presentation is great to keep the website pages tidy and consistent, and it allows customers to concentrate their attention on the clothes, not on the models.

But in terms of production, ghost mannequin content is not easy to create. It is time-consuming, it requires additional equipment (like mannequins and spare parts), separate shooting stands, qualified personnel, sometimes color matching to make sure that garments look the same on models and on mannequins. It is much easier, of course, to use just models and be fine with that.

But still, the era of mannequins is not even close to its end, and it’s essential for any catalogue retoucher to be able to retouch mannequin images, and not just retouch, but do it fast and well. I will describe every stage of this process step by step, starting from the photography stage, which is the most important.

There’s no single standard when we talk about how to take pictures of mannequins. The basic idea behind this technique is this: put the piece of clothing on a mannequin as you would dress a person. Take a picture. Turn it inside out and put on the mannequin again. Take a picture. Then you have to cut the mannequin out from both images and combine them into one. That’s it.

A typical mannequin stand in a studio

In fact, every studio that works with this technique does it in a different way. Some studios use cheap plastic mannequins, some use more advanced mannequins that can be disassembled, assembled, dressed and undressed, and also rotated easily. These mannequins consist of special removable modules that magnetically lock into place, and they are mounted on special wheeled platforms. Their use makes the process somewhat more simple, because you can, for example, remove the neck of a mannequin and instead of combining two images work with just one, which is good. There’s the catch, of course. These special mannequins are very expensive compared to the simple ones. You have to shoot a lot of products to make this expense reasonable, so normally only big stores can allow this kind of equipment. Also, it’s not really evident at first glance, but trust me, not all kinds of clothes are compatible with them. Thin and light clothes tend to fall in the neck holes, and all these removable parts make seams when combined together, and you can see these seams under thin and transparent clothes, and it’s a problem, too.

Removable neck might sound cool, but look at all these seams

Some studios use chroma key mannequins and backgrounds, and this kind of setup is supposed to ease isolation and mannequin removal process for retouchers. But in my opinion, it doesn’t. Automatic chroma key software tends to eat away parts of clothes due to green reflexes cast by the mannequin itself, and manual chromakey retouching is senseless, because if it’s manual, then why not just work with plain mannequins shot on plain white backgrounds. In addition to removing mannequins, retouchers have to deal with green color casts on clothes as well, which is actually a huge issue. Chroma key is good when you need to isolate an object from a background because objects are usually placed far from the green background and thus have no parasitical green reflexes cast on them in the process. But if you try to dress a green mannequin and shoot it, you’ll see that the clothes will turn green, especially where they are close to the body – neck openings, for instance. So, personally, I avoid using the chroma key technique at all, and for a good reason.

I faced the invisible mannequin problem in 2012 for the first time, and now, in 2019 it’s still popular. Nowadays, though, some companies develop special equipment for all kinds of shootings. I’m talking about almost fully automatic huge machines that can be operated by a single person, and they produce images and even isolate the background, all on their own. So, maybe one day they’ll invent an automatic retoucher and all the people involved in catalogue retouching will lose their jobs. But for now, even the most advanced techniques of shooting and retouching are still not perfect and require a lot of manual work. Phew! But guys, seriously, the neural networks are learning already, so it’s probably a good thing to invest in some other profession as a backup plan.

During my career in photo productions, I always worked with photographers closely, coaching, making detailed manuals on how to shoot mannequins just for them. Because if this process is not set up and maintained well, it has a serious impact on the overall image quality for the whole website. Sometimes, when something goes really wrong on the photography stage, the whole item or items have to be reshot in order to be processed by the retouching team with decent quality. And as photographers normally tend to hurry to shoot more items to earn more money, mistakes are quite common and have to be constantly monitored, and faulty images have to be rejected, and persons responsible for this have to be fined, otherwise, the quality might and will degrade.

A messy ghost mannequin

If you get an image like this, it's absolutely not possible to retouch it and get a decent result. There's no magic in Photoshop. So if you work with invisible mannequins and realize that some improvements during the shooting stage are necessary, be sure to give some feedback, because it’s important. Sometimes it helps, but sometimes people responsible for the photography process might reply that it’s actually retouchers work to make things right. But this is a very wrong and counterproductive idea.

Both photography and retouching workstations (not mentioning the preparation stage) are responsible for the resulting images. Everyone involved in the process should work well and take responsibility for their part of the process. Sometimes one quick movement of a hand saves 15 minutes of retouching later, when, for example, the garment is creased and not symmetrical, and could have just been straightened out by pulling it down to fit the mannequin better. Or when something is dusty and can be swiped clean with just a bit of effort.

Let's sum it up: the images you receive should be shot in such a way, that retouching them would be an easy, fast and predictable process, just like the shooting process or any other processes in content creation for the e-commerce. If you have to waste much time to achieve decent results, you’re doing other people’s work for free.

When you’re dealing with invisible mannequins, you’re most probably receiving images where you need to remove mannequins and combine different parts of the same garments. Thus, every time you work with this kind of images, you face the same tasks with little variations. You have to remove the mannequin itself from the picture, then you have to assemble the piece of clothing if there are a few images, then you have to care about the symmetry of the resulting item, remove or flatten out the wrinkles if necessary, and that’s pretty much it. Let’s follow the process step by step now.

Next: Mannequin removal


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