Have you ever wondered how a product gets on a pure white background and keep original shadows?

Find a white background to fill the frame of the camera

To make this cut out as painless as possible you will want a white or grey seamless background. In the video above you can just tell where the background meets the end of the table if you look closely. White or grey? Both will work. White background will require less light to turn white and grey will require more light to expose to white. Almost anything white will work. If you’re using a thin sheet it might be better to double up to make sure what’s behind the background doesn’t show up. Matt board or white cardboard also works wonders. Just make sure it fills the frame. Try not to use a reflective surface as this will reflect the light directly into the camera.

Use a white table to place the product on

Make sure the table you use to sit the product on is white. This is really important an a surface that is not white will reflect its colour back onto the product. Not ideal. You also want to avoid a reflective surface like acrylic sheet as you will have to deal with a reflection of the product when doing the cut out and you won’t have any defined shadows.

Light the product from the right angle

If we want shadows beneath the product we are going to have to light the product from above. How do I achieve this? Well you need to use a boom arm or similar to suspend a light from above the product. As you move the light further away from the product and increase power to maintain the same exposure the light will become harsher (deeper more defined shadows) because relatively speaking it is a smaller light source compared to the product. The reverse is also true, the closer the light the bigger it is in relation to the product and therefore the softer the shadows will be.

It is also important to point out the majority of products will require lighting from the sides as well to provide some fill light. Be careful not to add too much fill light or you will fill in all the shadows caused by the light above.

Light the background evenly

If you want to achieve a quick cutout the background needs to a consistent colour. To achieve this you will want to position your light a good 2-3 meters from the background to allow even spill of the light. Make sure that when you light the background the light is not reflecting back onto the product and over-exposing the edges of the product. Fire test shots to make sure your background is evenly it.

Product on white background with original shadows unedited

Achieve optimal depth of field

The quick and hard rule to maximise depth of field is to focus 1/3 of the way through the image. It’s always better to use manual focus here as you want to be as precise as possible. Its also often worth taking some test shots here and looking at them on a computer. Tethered workflow is the best – this is when the camera is connected to a computer and images can be viewed almost instantly.

Changing your aperture can also play a role in deciding how much depth of field is required. It’s important to have the front and back of the image in focus. The background does not matter. You may find that using f11-f16 gets optimal results. Do be careful going above f16 as diffraction soon becomes a problem by lessening image sharpness.

Can I use f22? It all depends on how large the product image is going to be reproduced. If it’s destined for web at 1,000 pixels square it’s likely you can use this without problems.

Use a tripod

Tripods are awesome for product photography. They don’t move like your hands. Product photography is all about consistency. Tripods provide this consistency. They also almost guarantee a sharp blur-free image. Use a tripod.

Use a remote or in-built timer

If the lights you are using are always on lights then chances are you will require a long exposure. Even if you are using a tripod, it’s really important that you use a shutter remote or the camera’s built-in timer to take the picture. When you touch the camera to take the picture it will move and depending on your shutter speed you will likely get a blurry image. Use a timer.

Check the reflections of your product

So some products often made of metal or plastic are reflective, like a mirror, and will reflect your surrounding environment. It’s always worth checking that something isn’t reflecting directly in your product. Think of a chrome kettle, it reflects everything around it! These items generally take more time and require placing white or black material around the product to manage these reflections. Be aware that if you’re wearing bright coloured clothing and photographing reflective items you will likely at some point be in the photograph.

Hang or support the product in a way that shows the product at its best

In the above video you can see that to get the open bag shot I had to use a piece of wood inside the bag to prop it open. On other shots fishing line is used to help keep the bag open ensuring a clean shot of the inside. If you are going to use string or rope to hold something in place always use the minimum thickness material you can to reduce post-production and editing time. If you use something inside the bag either make sure it’s not in the picture it make sure its possible to remove the offending item in post-production.

Take your exposure

Yup! It can take quite a bit of work before you can even think you’re about to make the final image. We’re still not quite there yet. Once you make the exposure on the camera have a look. Check sharpness. Check the way the product looks. Ask yourself “Is everything 100%? Can I improve this further?”. Sometimes if time permitting its best to walk away, have a break and come back with fresh eyes.

Post-production

OK! So you’re happy with the image and you’re ready to have a pure white background and keep original shadows. Fire up Adobe Photoshop or your image editing software. Photoshop offers a range of tools to make a selection and that’s what we will be doing here.

First up, make a copy of the background layer which is the layer in which your product image is one. We will be using one layer for product and one layer for the shadows.

Pure White Background

Now, depending on how well you have lit your product, the background and the foreground, you can use a variety of tools to mask off the white table and white background. The first one, the magic wand tool, only works if you’ve done a really neat job of lighting the product, background and foreground. This will remove approx 80% of the surrounding white area. For the shadow areas this will often fail and you will need to use another tool.

The next tool, the pen tool, can be a bit tricky to use the first time. But with some patience and some research you should get on with just fine. The pen tool is amazing but slow. You can draw very precisely around a product and mask off areas that you don’t want.

So at this point you should have a perfect selection of your product without the shadows. Hide this layer and turn on the untouched shadow layer.

Product on a pure white background from cut out

Keep Original Shadows

With the shadow layer selected, click on the channels pallet. This will then show each individual colour channel of the image. CMD click (Mac) or CTL click (Windows) on the RGB layer. This will make a selection based on the luminosity of the image. Sounds complicated I know but you don’t need to understand any more than the process. You will notice now that a selection has been made on the product. Add this selection to a layer mask. Move the shadow layer so that it is beneath the image layer. Now apply a levels mask above the shadow layer so it only effects the shadow layer. Bring up the right (highlight) slider until you reach a point where the shadows look good and realistic.

Refining the edge

Once you’ve made your selection it’s always a good idea to check it and refine it a little. Adding a little bit of feather can go a long way as can some smoothing. Feathering will remove the harsh edge of the cut out and blends it better on the new pure white background. Smoothing does a similar job but lessens any jagged parts of the selection and also helps make a smooth edge.

Photoshop: Removing dust and other imperfections

Chances are if you’re photographing products there will be bits of dust which sometimes can be a pain to remove in the studio. Photoshop can help with this greatly. You have a variety of tools which can help with this.

The Clone Tool

The clone tool is used to clone an existing part of an image over a part which you do not want. You hold down ALT on the keyboard and click to choose the part to clone and then click and drag to paint.

Healing brush is similar to the clone tool but slightly different. The healing brush can be painted on a part of your image and Photoshop will try to re-create what it thinks should be there based on what’s around the area. This often works well but sometimes the clone tool is required when Photoshop makes the wrong decision.

The Patch Tool is another awesome tool. This is often best used for larger sections. You make a selection of the image which you want to change and then drag that selection to area of the image that you want to be used as the replacement. Make sure to drag the selection to a position which has a similar texture or the result will not be what you had in mind. Sometimes the clone tool is required to tidy up the edges of the patch tool once it’s been used.

Additional Method

The other method to get a pure white background and keep original is to light the product and background separately. “What! That sounds crazy?” it’s a fairly straight forward concept when broken down. The background is lit independently to the product, resulting in a pure white background. The best way to achieve this process is to have the product a good 3-4 meters away from the background. However, depending on the products surface, reflective edges of the product will reflect the pure white background and these parts will turn to pure white. This method is based used for darker products. Depending on the product there may also be a need to perform a small cut out to the product to remove the surface the product sits on.