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Pack of office paper - photographed on location, at a warehouseOn site product photography

Some colour management and photography options when handling lots of photos

Recently, we were asked to come out to a client's warehouse and photograph a lot of boxes and packs of paper for their catalogue.

Keith Cooper has written up a few notes about how he approached some of the basic colour management and photography aspects of the work...

Lots of photos

When you're just taking a few photos, it's easy to leave issues such as white balance until you process your raw files. Indeed much of my photography is taken with my camera (a Canon 1Ds Mk3) set at 'auto WB'

However it's a bit different when you are taking many thousands of photos that are to be used in catalogues and web sites. You need to look at how efficiently they can be used.

In a studio it's possible to get everything spot on and consistent from one shoot to the next, but I sometimes need to set up temporary studio facilities in factories and warehouses.

Why not take the items to the studio?

Well, in this case we are talking of several tons of boxed paper - enough to require a whole week of photography.

basic product photography setupA simple infinity curve of flexible white plastic makes for a simple background.

Lighting consisted of two large softboxes mounted on some lightweight studio flash units.

The general layout is shown below (a phone photo, so not the best quality)

Note the small slave flash unit mounted above the photography area - this gives extra fill to the background of the curve.

The two laptops are: my MacBook Pro, running DSLRRemotePro software, tethered to the camera and a PC running a huge spreadsheet of all the products we're taking photos of.

With small numbers of shots you may be able to work out what is what from looking at the photos, but I can assure you that once you've photographed the front and back of a thousand envelopes, they all merge together.

Effective product photography at these volumes is as much about the logistics of moving the products around, opening and sealing boxes, and getting people to bring stuff up the three flights of stairs to the office we're in, as it is the actual photo taking.

A bit of care is required with the lighting and exposure here, since we're going to be taking some photos of white boxes on a white background.

You could send the images off to be cut out, but for this application, we don't need clipping paths. The most that's going to happen is that the images will be cropped, as with the pack of paper at the top of the page.

This is one of the relatively rare times that I'll look at using the JPEG images out of the camera.

White Balance

Here's a JPEG image right out of the camera, using the auto WB setting

The image is exposed so that none of it is clipping white - it's much easier to correct images when there is no clipping, and given the nature of some of the products, I'm setting exposure just a tad low.

Auto white balance from camera

Fortunately, the camera has a custom white balance option, where I can take a photo of a grey card and use that to create a custom WB setting, that's held in the camera and applied to all images.

I used the Grey card from basICColor to set the WB (see my review of this grey card). For maximum accuracy I fill the whole frame with the card when taking an image to register a custom WB - do check your camera manual for the procedure for your own camera.

The image below shows the JPEG shot created with this custom WB.

It also shows how even the basic 'Auto Color' adjustment in Photoshop makes a great job of fixing the levels for the image with all its whites and near whites - mouse over the image to see the effect of the adjustment.

use of custom white balance and application of photoshop 'autocolor'

It's a simple adjustment that could be incorporated into an action and batch applied to the JPEGs while I'm having a break (actually to copies - I always keep original image files).

With fairly minor adjustments like this (a levels adjustment would be similar), I'm not losing much quality, and considering that the files will be significantly reduced in size for final use, it should be just fine. Photos for a high quality clothing catalogue, for example, would warrant somewhat greater precision and attention to workflow.

At the far left of the screen below, you can see the image histogram display of the DSLRRemotePro software I'm running on the laptop. It's a very useful tool that I like to check when setting up such lighting.

I could use the free EOS utility software here, but I find DSLRRemotePro more efficient to use (DSLRRemotePro review)

laptop being used for tethered shooting of product photos

What about RAW files?

Whilst the JPEG images are going to be just fine for this particular job, I'm also supplying the RAW camera images for any of the products that might need to be used in different work (point of sale displays for example).

The RAW files for this job take up a lot of storage, but are easy enough to supply via an external USB hard drive.

Although not technically necessary, I decided to create a custom DNG profile for this particular setup.

It's much easier to do this at the time, than wish you'd done it later when someone comes along and says that their logo isn't the right colour ;-)

The sorts of inks used in some of the packaging may vary in how they look, but different cameras sometimes reproduce colours in different ways, any of which might be an issue.

The quickest way for me to create a profile is to use a photo of a ColorChecker card (taken after the custom WB was set).

image of x-rite colorchecker card, taken for custom dng profiling

The RAW file is converted to a DNG format and dropped onto the ColorChecker Passport software (see my reviews of the ColorChecker Passport and the alternative SpyderCheckr).

The software automatically finds the target in the image (move your mouse over the image to see).

creating a DNG profile

With most images, the changes are usually quite subtle. Indeed I'd wonder if many would spot the change in the image below were it not shown like this (mouse over image to see the effect of the profile).

I always take the approach that a few extra minutes during setting up the lights, exposure and white balance, to take a shot of a ColorChecker card is worthwhile just in case.

application of a custom DNG profile to a raw camera file

My location product photography covers a lot of different kinds of places, from the corner of a busy factory, to a development kitchen for a farm shop.

I'm often working with quite varied lighting (available light, as well as flash), so an appreciation of how my camera will record the colour of a product gives me one less variable that could come back and cause trouble.

Summary

So, if shooting just JPEGs under consistent lighting I'll always create a custom white balance for the camera, with a grey card.

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The custom WB will help with RAW file processing, its value is included in the RAW file, but do be aware that different RAW converters may interpret it in slightly different ways.

Unless I'm sure that the images are being handled afterwards by people who know about colour management, or I have been asked for a specific colourspace, I'll set the camera to sRGB. This sets the colourspace for the JPEG files (RAW files can be processed to any colourspace available).

A custom WB and a DNG profile works well with constant lighting when processing RAW files. With variable lighting I may shoot more shots with a ColorChecker card in them.

If you are taking a lot of shots, it pays to think ahead to how the shots are going to be used. As well as 'photography issues' (colour management, exposure, lighting, composition) it's vital to have a consistent naming system and make sure that there is a reliable record of which shots relate to which product - once you've seen a thousand envelopes pass in front of your camera, your memory has no chance...

Product photography training

These notes are typical of the things I can include in our bespoke product photography training for companies, on location, using their own equipment.

I'm well aware that small businesses with web sites find professional product photography both too expensive and too inconvenient for their business needs. If you are regularly getting new products to sell, and want them on your web site quickly, it's often easier and cheaper to 'do it yourself'. For basic photography, quality need not suffer.

More details of Northlight Images' Product photography training.

More Info

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