Retouching or photo editing is a necessary stage of content creating for most e-commerce projects or online stores. Retouching follows preparation and photography, and we're responsible for correcting mistakes made in the previous stages of product image-making. To ensure stable quality and consistency of images, a lot of effort has to be made during preparation and photography stages. Photo shoots in online stores are different from other kinds of photo shoots, and any product photo editor has to be familiar with their specifics.
There’s an opinion that a retoucher's work is making ugly things attractive. Sometimes photographers are aware of mistakes they make (like dirty backgrounds, dust on objects, creases and wrinkles on clothes etc) and they still do it, thinking: “It’s alright, retouchers will correct this, it’s their work after all”. So they just keep pressing the button instead of making things right.
This kind of attitude is a huge problem not just for retouchers, but for the whole industry. While retouchers are surely able to correct and enhance a lot of things, their primary goal is making images attractive for customers without actually cheating them on one hand. On the other hand, retouching is supposed to
It is absolutely necessary that all the people involved in the process do their work well, otherwise, the good quality cannot be ensured, and the costs of image production might grow as well. I'll show you how our work can be compromised and what can be actually done about it.
A studio where product images are taken is a special environment with its own laws. Even the most advanced equipment can perform badly if in the wrong hands. And even perfect shots require retouchers' attention. But we have to differentiate between normal specifics of the process and faulty setups. So let’s talk about a normal situation first, or even about the perfect setup: what photographers and their assistants should do to make retouching process smooth and flawless after they finish shooting.
I’m not going to give any advice about the photo shoots, like how to set things up because this course is about retouching, not photography. But retouchers have to know all the basic things to be able to recognize if the pictures are good or bad, and what exactly is wrong with them.
Light is the most important of all. So if I ask you a question: What is the main tool of a photographer? The answer is not: “a camera” because you don’t need a great camera to take great pictures, it’s the light instead. It is the main tool. It can make a product look great or it can make it look ugly.
A photo studio is a place where all the light is controlled by photographers, so you don’t have to wait for the “golden hour”, you just set your workstation in a correct way and start shooting. There are many kinds of schemes with different light sources, depending on the goals, depending on what kind of images you’re planning to get in the end. For example, if you plan to isolate images on white, you can add light sources to brighten the background thus making the retouchers work easier. Or you can shoot in a lightbox. There are many ways how to do it.
There are two goals photographers have to concentrate on in terms of light. First, it’s the correct amount of light, and second, it’s the correct temperature or the color of light.
The product has to be exposed correctly. Exposure is the amount of light an object receives, so if an image is dark it means it’s underexposed, or overexposed if it’s too bright. Sometimes images can be underexposed or overexposed partially, and it’s even worse when you see that the upper part of an image, for example, is darker, and the lower part is too bright, and this is wrong.
Then there's the color temperature or the white balance. If it’s correct, you can perceive gray color as gray, and if it’s wrong, you’ll see it as green or bluish or yellowish. It’s very important for the customers' impression of the products and has to be set up and maintained correctly during all photo shoots. I said "gray", but it's actually all the colors that get messed up if the white balance is wrong. It's just that we can recognize that something is wrong more easily by looking at gray objects.
Typical problems of studio photographs
Now let’s talk about typical problems that occur during typical e-commerce photo shoots. As I said already, products must be exposed well, and this goal is achieved by setting up an appropriate light scheme and using light sources at a necessary angle and with necessary strength. At the same time, most of the product images in this world are meant to be isolated on white – to have their background removed, and to do that easily during the retouching stage, the background has to be well-exposed, too. If it's overexposed or underexposed, as in the examples above, you're in trouble.
Altogether it means there’s a lot of light involved, and typical product images coming from e-commerce photo shoots are usually a bit over-exposed, which is not a problem and not even an issue, but as there’s more light, contrast and saturation tend to decrease in these photographs. Now that is an issue.
Sometimes photographers in online stores have to use props to keep objects in place: tape, pins, threads or fishing line. And the removal of these objects is one of the retouchers’ routine tasks, whether we like it or not.
And sometimes the images are not just a bit overexposed. If the setup is faulty in some way, they may come out significantly under- or overexposed, to the extent of information loss. It means that in case of serious underexposure there might be absolutely black areas on the products or in their shadows, and if the images are overexposed, you might get the opposite – totally white areas on the objects. Both problems will require retouchers' attention.
In some cases light might not even be consistent, so a part of the object can be too dark, while the other parts can look normal. This is even worse than just over- or underexposure, but also manageable.
Shiny objects are tricky to shoot because of reflections. Sometimes photographers and their cameras end up right there, in the images, reflected. Retouchers have to resolve this problem later on.
And even if there are no reflections, there might be parasitical tints coming from different sources. Most of the time it’s a photographer wearing bright clothes, like red or pink, not realizing that their t-shirt is going to reflect light and bring an ugly tint to the resulting image. This is the reason why photo studios should be color-free: walls, floor, and ceiling should have a neutral color, and people who work there should also avoid colored clothes. But not everybody knows this, and also knowing is one thing, and actually doing something is another.
When shooting jewelry, photographers tend to bring their face close to the products, because they are really small. And because of this objects made of silver might have a warm tint on them. Anyway, it’s retouchers who have to determine if there’s a wrong tint in the image and resolve the issue.
White balance is another important thing. If not set up correctly prior to shooting, it becomes a serious problem. By ensuring that white balance is right, we manage to preserve and transfer color through every stage of the process, and when the images get uploaded to the website and customers finally see them, we are sure that they will not have a wrong impression of the items’ color because of some problem on our end. So normally it’s the photographers' responsibility during the photo shoot, but if something goes wrong, the faulty images should not get past retouchers without getting corrected.
While being handled by photographers and assistants (if there are any), objects tend to get covered in fingerprints, especially if they are made of metal. Normally the shooting rules presume that everybody involved in object shooting has to wear gloves, but this certain rule is one of the most often ignored of them all.
So now we come to a very important matter: preparation. When items arrive in a photo studio, they usually are not in good condition in terms of image-making. It means that they have yet to be prepared to look well: cleaned, polished, brushed, filled, steamed, ironed – depending on what kind of items we are talking about. This preparation is an important part of the process and it has to be done properly. If not – it becomes a problem for retouchers.
Backgrounds are also important. In studios, a background (or rather a backdrop) is usually a piece of white paper or plastic, and it tends to get dirty in the process of shooting. Backgrounds have to be changed and cleaned on a regular basis, otherwise, it might be a problem. Especially if the images are not meant to be isolated on white, but even if they are, isolation is much easier to do when the background is clean.
Even if everything is fine – the light is fantastic, products are brand new and spotlessly clean, white balance is correct, the images might still be faulty and in some cases, you'll have to reject them. There are two main issues here: focus and distance.
If the product is out of focus, it will look blurry on the image. In some cases, it can be sharpened and thus improved, while in other cases it’s absolutely worthless. But if you cannot see the texture of the object, there’s no point in retouching the image – at all. What's the point in uploading it for customers to see if they can't make out any details?
Distance is also important. If an object is small and is shot from a great distance, most of the time its size won’t be enough to fit the final image without enlarging. So the object in question will be expanded, thus losing sharpness and detail. This is not good and sometimes can be resolved via sharpening, and sometimes the only way to do it right is to reshoot the object.
Professional product image retouchers know the extent of their possibilities. They keep in touch with photographers and assistants (which is usually possible in studios), they give relevant feedback to their superiors about the quality of the images they get. They know when the mistakes made on previous stages can be corrected easily, and when there’s no point in even trying. Stable high quality of the original images is very important for steady and fast retouching, and the resulting images will have great commercial value and help sell products efficiently. Bad quality images are a waste of money, and studio processes that require either multiple reshoots or lots of retouchers’ effort and time are a waste, too.