Secrets to Perfecting Your Product Shots

April 8, 2014

In Should You Do Some of Your Own Photography? I talked about the camera equipment that would help you to get the best product shots. Today, I’m going to talk about the steps you need to take after the photos are taken. Even if you decide not to take the photos yourself, the information and techniques provided in this tutorial will help you to make sure you are getting the best looking photos possible from the original shots.

While the computer can do amazing things to improve photos, the end result is highly dependent on having a good quality original. If the original photo is blurry, it will still be blurry after editing. Pictures with too few pixels can be enlarged, but they will show pixelization. Underexposed and overexposed pictures can be improved, but they won’t have the range of colors they could have if they were exposed properly when shot. The phrase to remember: “garbage in, garbage out.”

File Formats

When you shoot photos with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, you’ll have the option for the files to be saved in either JPG or RAW format. Most cameras will let you save in both formats at the same time. If you choose JPG, the computer in the camera will automatically “develop” the photo using its best guess at what looks best and then save it in the JPG format. Keep in mind, JPG is a lossy format so just saving in JPG means an immediate and permanent loss of quality.

RAW files are a generic term for the data captured by the sensor in the camera. There is no single RAW format and most RAW files have different file extensions. They are larger files than JPGs and you will need to “develop” them on the computer. Yes, this will take a little more of your time, but it provides much better results.

I recommend you set your camera to save in both formats. It will take up more space, but a 32 GB card can easily hold over 1000 photos so this shouldn’t be a concern. If you are truly worried about filling up one 32 GB card, buy more than one or buy bigger cards! Your goal should be to get the best photos. You will have the JPG for situations where you need a very quick result and the RAW for when you need the best quality. Decide you don’t need both of them later? Delete the unnecessary files!

Editing RAW Files

Most DSLRs come with a utility for editing the RAW files from that specific camera. It may work for all RAW files from that brand of camera and be all you need to “develop” RAW files.

Corel PHOTO-PAINT X4 and higher included the Camera Raw Lab feature that gives you a number of options for making adjustments when you open a RAW file for editing. Note that you can’t save back to RAW format, only to formats like TIF, PNG or CPT. Yes, you could even save them to JPG, but I won’t endorse degrading the quality of your photos by using a lossy format.
RAW Photo in Corel PHOTO-PAINT X6 Camera Raw Lab
While you can work with many, but not all, RAW formats using the Camera Raw Lab in Corel PHOTO-PAINT; it can be painfully slow to use. Even on a fast computer, you will have to wait after each adjustment you make to see if it is just right. Users who edit more than a small number of RAW files will want to explore tools dedicated to RAW processing. Photoshop contains a similar feature called Camera RAW.

My favorite was Bibble Pro and was purchased by Corel Corporation in 2011 then rebranded as AfterShot Pro. The list price is $99.99, but I see it is discounted to $49.99 as I write this. You’ll find AfterShot Pro will run rings around the RAW Lab in Corel PHOTO-PAINT as far as speed is concerned. Plus it saves the settings you apply to a RAW file in a separate sidecar file so you can always adjust those settings at a later time. Not only is it faster, it also offers quite a few more adjustments.
The same RAW photo open for processing in Corel AfterShot Pro
Another very popular tool for working with RAW files is Adobe Lightroom. I have very little personal experience, but it is certainly a better solution than the RAW Lab. Even though it has a higher cost ($149) than AfterShot Pro, I’m not sure it provides a speed or feature benefit. Of course much of this could be due to personal preferences.

The key is to make as many color adjustments as possible with the RAW data. What are the exact adjustments called? It varies with the software you choose so you’ll want to learn how this software works. If you are a Corel PHOTO-PAINT user, Corel PHOTO-PAINT X5 Unleashed will give you detailed instructions on making these adjustments and much more.

Adjustments in Corel PHOTO-PAINT

Whether you are taking a JPG directly from the camera or a file saved from your RAW editor of choice, the next step is to edit that file in Corel PHOTO-PAINT. The exact adjustments you need to make can vary greatly based on the state of the original file and how the photo is to be used. I’ll list some of the most common adjustments you’ll make to photos. Some photos may only require one adjustment while others could require many of these adjustments.

Cropping and Resampling

The Crop tool allows you to get rid of the pixels in an image you don’t need. If the ratio of height/width you need is different than the ratio shot by the camera, you can use the crop tool to select the area of the photo to use at the appropriate ratio.

It can also be quite helpful if you only need a small portion of the original image. With modern cameras shooting high numbers of megapixels, you can crop a small area of the entire photo and still have a resolution appropriate for many types of output. Ideally you will zoom in with your camera so the desired area fills the entire photo. This isn’t always possible so cropping can solve the problem when needed.

Resampling can serve two purposes. First, you can change the physical dimensions of the file (in inches, cm, etc) by changing only the resolution. Or you can change the number of pixels in the file to make giant files more manageable in size. Even smaller numbers of pixels can be way more than you need for some types of output. Resampling can also increase the number of pixels in a file, though this will not magically make small files look good at large sizes. The rule of garbage in, garbage out is especially important if you are resampling to large sizes.
Resample dialog box

Color Adjustments & Sharpening

If your photo was originally shot in RAW format and you adjusted it in a RAW Editor, the adjustments you’ll need to make in Corel PHOTO-PAINT are minimal. To find the various tools for adjustments, look at the Adjust menu in Corel PHOTO-PAINT. I’ll list a handful of the most-used choices. For those who want more detailed information, please get yourself a copy of Corel PHOTO-PAINT X5 Unleashed.

The Image Adjustment Lab gives you the ability to view a live before and after of each adjustment you make as well as an Auto Adjust button. It is important to understand that the results of Auto Adjust are not magic and many times the results are less than ideal. If you don’t want to go into the Image Adjustment Lab, Auto Adjust is also a choice in the Adjust menu. I’m betting you’ll use Undo after trying it in most cases.
Image Adjustment Lab
Brightness/Contrast/Intensity and Hue/Saturation/Lightness are always popular with users because they are pretty easy to understand and many times will give you an acceptable result quickly. Just slide the sliders on either dialog box until you are happy with the results.

For those who want the utmost control, you’ll want to select Adjust | Tone Curve. It takes a little more practice and a little more time when compared with the sliders in the other options. But it also provides the ability to fine tune the image as a whole or each individual color channel. Think an image has a blue cast on it? Edit only the blue channel in the Tone Curve.
Tone Curve dialog box
There are other choices in the Adjust menu and I encourage you to take some time to try out each of them as you may find one of them is a good choice for your image editing. My goal is to get you a great looking image, no matter the path you take.

After getting the color just right, it is a good idea to apply a small amount of sharpening to make an image truly pop. I prefer using Effects | Sharpen | Unsharp Mask and I almost always use the default settings of Percentage 100, Radius 1 and Threshold 0. It is also a good idea to use Unsharp Mask after Resampling an image to a smaller size.
Unsharp Mask dialog box

In Closing

Entire books are written about the process of editing photos so I’ve tried to give you a brief overview of the steps involved and the most important settings. Knowing the steps to follow will allow you to immediately improve your process. With a little practice and tweaking the settings, you’ll end up with some great product shots!

Post Discussion

3 Comments

  1. ericjaytoll

    Foster,

    If I could offer some additional tips for working with RAW. I took a course at Paradise Valley College, and the instructor suggested the following workflow…
    Working with RAW
    1. Check Histogram for color balance
    2. Compose: Rotate, level, crop
    3. Adjust image: Brightness, contrast, color
    Import to editing program
    4. Remove imperfections (stamp, clone, heal in Photoshop)
    5. Turn down the noise
    6. Save the photo
    Lightroom and Photoshop RAW do “save” changes to the RAW image by linking a file with the changes, so the RAW image is never modified, but the changes made are kept with the photo in, I believe, an XML file.

    Reply
  2. Foster D. Coburn III

    Eric, the changes you list are all good suggestions. As far as “saving” the RAW file, you are describing a “sidecar” file. Basically Aftershot and Photoshop RAW handle this in the same way, though Aftershot has a lot more features.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I’m curious how you are meant to use a histogram to check for colour balance? The red, green and blue channels can be very similar or completely different, depending on the colours and brightnesses in the scene. How do you feel they are meant to look for an image to be correctly colour-balanced? You can certainly adjust colour balance with levels or curves, but I don’t know how you could possibly ‘check’ colour balance with a histogram?

    My RAW workflow (in Lightroom) is as follows:
    1. I use Canon DSLRs so I set the correct Canon Profile in the RAW Editor first. Canon-Neutral works best for me or Canon-Faithful (on some occasions).
    2. Select the lens used in the Lens Correction settings.
    3. Check the white balance by using the white balance eyedropper tool to sample from a known neutral in the image IF ONE EXISTS. If nothing in the image was neutral, and this happens often, then a white balance eyedropper is useless. This is why it is good to include a white or grey card in at least one of the images before continuing on with the shoot. The card should be reintroduced for each change of lighting. Alternatively, the white balance will have to be adjusted by eye or auto-analysed by the software.
    4. Adjust the Exposure slider and then tweak further using the highlight and shadow sliders to recover lost details, or to simply improve existing details in those areas.
    5. Adjust image quality using the Clarify tool.
    6. Adjust the Vibrance tool to enhance the image further, if applicable.
    7. I tend to straighten and crop the image while still in Lightroom.
    8. Adjust the Noise Reduction and Sharpening sliders in Lightroom as it is generally superior to noise reduction/sharpening in Photo-Paint or Photoshop. Noise Reduction and Sharpening directly affect one another, so it is best to adjust these in unison.
    Further Editing in Photoshop or Photo-Paint, or both:
    9. Correct perspective, if necessary.
    10. Perform any manipulation – including cloning, healing brush, content-aware tools, warping, etc.
    11. Resize for the final output(s) – e.g. website, printing, viewing on specific devices (tablet/phone/smart watch, etc.)

    Reply

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Foster D. Coburn III

Foster D. Coburn III is author of 13 best-selling books on CorelDRAW and has been a contributor to numerous technology and graphics-related magazines. Foster has taken many projects, including this Web site, from the early design stage through to a finished piece. He has been a featured speaker at many graphics conferences. His first Web site was built in 1995 and he has been working exclusively in WordPress since 2013.

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