Amy Crabtree is a graphic artist whose artwork is populated by cute characters inspired by Japanese pop culture. As Cakes with Faces she sells t-shirts, prints and bags from her website and at events and comic cons. Here she inspires all you amateur photographers to create your own product images using a camera and the magic of Photoshop.
Before we start: don’t do this unless you have to! If you can get professional photos, or if you’re lucky enough to have a friend who’s a photographer, that’s definitely a better option for top quality photography. But if you don’t have room in your budget for a professional photoshoot, or you just need a quick one-off photo, here’s how to take your own product photos to use on your printed materials or on your website.
I’m no expert photographer, so I use Photoshop magic to polish my photos. Other image editing software with similar tools would work too, including GIMP, which is free to download from www.getgimp.com. My camera is a compact Sony Cybershot – again, nothing too fancy – the polish will be in the digital editing.
Taking your photo
Natural light is best, and you want as much of it as possible, so ideally take your photos outside. If it’s too cold/rainy/windy, use the windowsill instead. Direct sunlight is too harsh, but a bright day will give the best light for your photo, and warmer colour. Unfortunately I needed my photo on a rainy February afternoon, which was not ideal. You can see how dull it looks in the original photo.
I wanted an image of my How to Make Sushi comic book against a clean, white background. The book comes in a set with a rolling mat and chopsticks, so I arranged them together on a background of white paper on the windowsill. To make the most of the little light there was, I used another sheet of white paper as a reflector, which surprisingly does make a difference. I took several photos from different angles – for more dynamic photos try angling the camera and getting up close.
Start the Photoshop magic!
Pick the sharpest image to work with and crop to get rid of most of the unwanted background. Then get rid of any remaining edge content – if you’re lucky enough to have a newer version of Photoshop, Content Aware Delete does a great job of this, otherwise stretch parts of your white background to the edges. Finally, I got rid of the joins of the sheets of paper using the Patch tool.
Up the brightness and contrast
A good place to start is by adjusting the Levels. Pull the left and right arrows towards the centre to make the black darker and the white lighter. Unedited photos often lack the contrast of professional or magazine-style photos, so this will increase the contrast and make them look stronger. If it still looks too dark (which mine did!), adjust the brightness (being careful not to lose the darkness of the black) or the Curves to brighten up the midtones. If it’s the shadows that are too dark, use the Shadow/Highlight control.
If one half of your picture is too dark, duplicate the photo layer and set the blend mode to Screen. Add a layer mask and draw a black to white gradient across to mask the darker half, and lower the opacity to tone it down to a natural look. If one half is too light, do the same but set the duplicate layer to Multiply instead.
Bring out the sunshine
My photo was badly in need of some sunshine, so I added a warm Photo Filter. I find Photoshop’s default is always too much – with colour adjustment it’s really important to be subtle if you’re going for a natural look. If there’s still a colour cast, use the Colour Balance adjustment. Auto colour adjustment can be hit and miss, so I like to duplicate my photo layer, apply the auto adjustment to the copy and then lower the opacity to tone it down if it’s too much.
If you still don’t have a white enough background, one way to cheat is to add a new layer and use a large, soft brush to paint one in! Use a Gaussian blur to soften the edges and, if you do go over part of the product or its shadow, add a layer mask to get rid of the shadow. Keep it editable and you can try again until you’re happy.
Lightening dark areas can make them grainy, so use the Despeckle filter if you need to, or Sharpen if necessary to sharpen the whole thing up. At the end it’s mandatory to compare your finished image with the original photo and admire your Photoshopping genius!
Try different backgrounds – wrapping paper, clothes, duvet covers, a checked tea towel, your desktop with a mug of coffee, grass outside, or add accessories. Paint in a vignette around the edges or play with the Colour Balance for creative effects. Or cut out your objects or models and make a collage – have fun and be creative!
If you’re using your photo on printed material, save it as high quality as possible in CMYK. If it’s for web use, go for 72dpi and RGB colour.