Bad stock photography is a cliché, there's nothing worse than going to an "about us" page and seeing a bunch of people in suits with telephone headsets who all look really happy. Good stock photography on the other hand has a lot of value, the downside is that it's often very expensive. Today we'll be looking at a few simple techniques which you can use to photograph things on a pure white background so that they can easily be used in almost any web design project under the sun. There's no need to spend a lot of money when you can create some beautiful simple shots with a little time and creativity.
Good, Simple Stock PhotographyWhat we're going to cover today is how to create a simple high-key photograph. High key, means a photography of a subject on a predominantly white background. Why do we want the subject on a predominantly white background? Well aside from the fact that most content areas where you might want to use a stock photograph have a white background, they also make your subject very easy to cut out completely using something like the magic wand tool in Photoshop. Being able to cut your subject out means that you can transpose it onto a transparent background, which can then be used absolutely anywhere within a design. Handy!
What You'll NeedThe first thing you'll need is obviously a camera. Now, a Digital SLR will work best for this but you should still be able to use a high-end digital compact camera (such as the Panasonic Lumix) and achieve very good results. Alternatively, if you know someone who does own a Digital SLR, then now would be a good time to beg, borrow, or steal it from them. The next main thing we're going to need is light, lots of it. The ideal component here is an external flash for a Digital SLR but bright lamps, especially desk lamps with adjustable heads, will work very well too. If you do use lamps then you want the brightest bulb you can find, not one of those dim yellow ones. It pretty much goes without saying that you're going to need some space for this, so your cramped office may not be the best location. Getting outdoors into the sunlight would be ideal if you have a garden or maybe some sort of bachelor pad with a roof terrace. Next you'll need a (clean!) plain white bedsheet, table cloth, curtain, or anything else similar. This is going to serve as the backdrop for the shots. The cleaner and whiter it is the better, as this will be the easiest to work with later on. You'll also need some sort of support to drape your backdrop over. Modified cardboard boxes can work very well for this, as we'll look at in a moment, however pretty much anything that can support your backdrop both horizontally and vertically in an L shape should do the trick. Of course you'll also need a subject, the thing which you want to photograph. Doing things the cheap and cheerful way like this means that you can't select anything too big. Your subject needs to be able to sit on top of your backdrop and be totally surrounded by it. Finally, you'll need a copy of Adobe Photoshop. CS3 or higher should be fine, we're not going to be doing anything too fancy.
Step 1So the first thing we're going to do is set up our backdrop. Essentially you want the sheet to be partially on the floor, then curve up and hang from something vertically. This means when we place the subject on top of the sheet it will be white underneath and white behind. Make sure you set this up somewhere with a lot of light, remember the roof garden which we discussed. I used a towel for this tutorial, which works fine but does leave a littl ebit of texture just underneath the subject. If you want to be a bit more fancy about it, you can grab a cardboard box, a piece of white card, cut some bits out of your sheet, and create a light tent like this:
Step 2Now we're going to to arrange the lights, ideally you want to have two lights but three would be even better. Set the brightest light which you have to point at the backdrop. Then set the other light to point at where the subject will go. If you built the fancy little light tent depicted above, then you want to put both lights outside it, pointing in through the side panels. If you have a third light source, then try to find a way of placing this above where your subject will go, pointing down.
Step 3Next we're going to place our subject. You want to put the subject as close to the center of the backdrop as possible and in line with the light sources. This step was pretty easy, wasn't it? Let's move on!
Step 4Now it's time to do some test shots, so grab your camera and get snapping. You can experiment with using the built in flash on your camera as well as the other lights but the chances are that it will create a nasty dark shadow around the subject - we don't want that! The images don't need to look perfect by any means, what we're aiming for here is simply a sold block of white behind the subject which is as smooth as possible.
Step 5In order to get the best out of the setup which we've created, try photographing from different angles, move the lights around a little and adjust the backdrop for smoothness. Keep tweaking the setup a little bit at a time until you're getting the best images which you can.
Step 6Now that you've got everything working at peak performance (which is very much a relative term), it's time to take your full set of shots. Feel free to swap several subjects in and out, preferably of things which you think might come in handy as stock photographs later. Tip: A good photo of a cup of coffee in a nice mug can come in handy all over the place, especially on blogs.
Step 7Once you're happy with your photos, or just tired of taking them, pack everything up and download the photos on to your computer. Delete all the test shots and the ones which are out of focus or have poor lighting. Try to crop down to a small final set, otherwise it will take forever to post-process them all.
Step 8Now, open up the first photo which you want to work with in Photoshop. We're going to start out by doing three things: tone, contrast, and curves. From the Photoshop menu, select: Image > Auto Tone (or 'Auto Levels' in older copies of Photoshop) Then Image > Auto Contrast Then Image > Adjustments > Curves Recreate this shape:
Step 9Now we're going to make the white in the background... whiter! This is where it doesn't matter if your lighting was perfect when you took the photographs, because most of that is about to be fixed. In the Photoshop menu, go to: Image > Adjustments > Selective Color Select White from the dropdown menu, and move the slider for Black all the way to the left, -100%. Press OK, then do the same thing again, but this time select 'Neutrals' instead of White, and drop that one down about half way. You need to use your own discretion here: you want to get the white background as pale as possible but you don't want to totally drain your subject of color.
Step 10Now if your whites still aren't perfect, don't worry too much, we're going to clean that up now. The final step is to simply take a soft white brush and run it around the image to iron out those last little kinks. The brush is the least precise tool, so ideally we want to do as little work with it as possible. It should be used as the final touch rather than the main process.
Final ImagesSo there we have it, our final images. They're not perfect but it's pretty high quality for something that cost you no money at all and didn't take very long to produce. Now that you know the technique, you'll also be able to improve on it the next time that you try it out. In particular try different (brighter) lights, try creating a little light box if you didn't do that this time round. Of course if you really wanted to bump it up a notch then you could even get a an external flash unit for some serious power. Go and ahead and try it out and let us know how you did? We'd love to see your results if you gave this a try so please do link them up in the comments below and feel free to offer any additional tips or techniques which you may have come across!
Founder at Ghost.org. Writes about Open source, startup life, non-profits & publishing platforms. Travels the world with a bag of kites.
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