Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ghost Mannequin

Click on the photo to see a larger version.

An increasingly popular and powerful way to present clothing on a website or in a catalog is by using the Ghost Mannequin (or Invisible Mannequin) look. This dynamic, three dimensional representation helps capture and focus a potential customer's interest. It is an exciting alternative to an apparel laydown photo, or a standard model or mannequin shot.

1. Initial Photo

Without a great base image, the Ghost Mannequin technique can fall flat (pun intended). So I start with a carefully styled product shot on a mannequin. I pay special attention to my lighting. I generally use hard side lighting in combination with soft front lighting. This helps to accentuate the texture and detail of the clothing.

The initial photo is all important. Side plus front lighting to bring out details in the garment.

2. Insert Photos

I've tried different ways to capture the Ghost Mannequin look directly in-camera, but none really worked. So what I do is take additional photos of the parts of the garment I need to complete the look and then combine them with the base image in Photoshop. The additional photos may include interior shots of the collar, cuffs, waist band, hem line, pants legs or shoulder straps depending on the garment. (Tip: turn the item inside-out and then redress the mannequin. Shooting lingerie inside out is particularly fun - OK I'm easily amused. J)

The insert photos for a shirt include the interior of the collar and cuffs. Turning the garment inside out on the mannequin is a useful trick to get those shots.

3. Making a Selection in Photoshop

I keep saying it, but I usually spend more time in Photoshop working on photos than I do shooting them. The Ghost Mannequin technique is no exception. In fact, it requires more time in the computer than almost any other technique I use. I begin by creating a "selection" of the front of the garment. There are several selection tools in Photoshop, but I often end up drawing what is known as a "clipping path." A clipping path involves tracing a line around the outside edges of an item. Drawing a clipping path can be time consuming but it usually yields the most accurate selection.

Creating a selection in Photoshop allows me to remove the item from the mannequin and background and have a clean representation of the product to build the Ghost Mannequin effect.

4. Combining the Images in Photoshop

The next step is to combine my insert photos (in this case, the inside of the collar and cuffs) with my base image in Photoshop. This is as much art as science. First, I create a selection to grab those parts of the inserts that I need. Then I scale and align them with the base image so they appear normal. Then I create shadows along the inside of the inserts to sell the effect. For instance, the front collar of a shirt normally casts a shadow along the interior portions of the collar. These shadows have to be created in Photoshop. Experience and imagination really pay off here since an unnatural-looking shadow can undermine the entire look.

5. Finishing touches

To complete the look I may do some refining of the shape of the garment, such as smoothing bulges or creating a more flattering waist line (not much different than what I do when I shoot model pics.) I can also add a special background to the image, or a simulated drop shadow to polish the overall effect. I might also use one garment as my base image and then do color replacements in Photoshop to create identical-looking photos of a piece of clothing offered in several different colors. Finally, I adjust my color, contrast and saturation, and then do some sharpening to create the final image.

The final image may benefit from a drop shadow on the background, or an entirely new background. I can also do color replacement for clothing offered in more than one color.

That's it - everything you ever wanted to know about creating the Ghost Mannequin look. As always, I welcome any questions or comments. Please check back in a few weeks for my next post.

Peter Alessandria

Monday, July 16, 2012

Case Study: Le Donne Leather

I recently did some work for one of my favorite clients, Chris Le Donne of the Le Donne Leather Company ( Chris’s company has been a leading producer and distributor of Colombian Vaqueta leather goods in America for over 20 years. Here’s a behind the scenes look at how I shoot Chris’s product.

1. Staying in shape

My focus actually starts before the product leaves Chris’s office. I ask him to make sure each of the pieces is properly stuffed so they maintain their shape during shipping. I try to remind all my clients that my photos are only as good as the products they send. This is especially true for leather bags and cases. I augment the stuffing before I shoot, but it doesn’t end there. I also often have to figure out things like how to make an item stand up (weights placed at the bottom of a large handbag or knapsack lower the center of gravity and keep it from falling over), or how to suspend straps or handles while shooting so they look natural (a white wire coat hanger holds up straps nicely and is easily removed in Photoshop.)

Notice the wire coat hanger used to extend the straps. The hanger was removed and straps straightened a bit in Photoshop. I also used Photoshop to remove the dimples along the far end of the bag.

2. Losing weight in Photoshop

These days I often spend more time in Photoshop enhancing the product than I do actually photographing it. In Photoshop I can smooth out bumps and bulges, remove small surface imperfections, and reconstruct corners or edges of the product so it looks more natural and appealing. I will often copy and paste an entire area of the product from one side to the other to increase symmetry and balance. There’s also a tool called “Liquify” in Photoshop that allows me to bend and twist areas of the product to refine its shape (this tool also works great for enhancing the appearance of my portrait clients, allowing me to slim them down or tone them up without them ever having to go to the gym J ).

3. Go towards the light

As a commercial product photographer, my time is often spent trying to minimize highlights and reflections bouncing off an item. Shooting leather presents the opposite challenge: it often absorbs more light than it reflects. This is especially true with the black or dark brown smooth, non-distressed leathers. This means is I need to use my lights to create highlights to bring out the richness and texture of the items. I generally shoot Chris’s products using four light sources: a large rectangular softbox suspended above and slightly in front of the product (this is my key light); a second, gridded strobe that I can aim at the front, darker areas of the bag (I generally use a grid to help focus the light); and then two white cards (foam core) on either side of the bag. The key light being placed above the product creates a soft, natural shadow below the item, while also creating a highlight along the upper edges of the bag. The white cards reflect the illumination from my key light and help brighten/define the edges of the bag.

Four light sources: 1) key light from above; 2) gridded spot creating the highlight on the front of the bag; 3 & 4) white cards on either side reflecting light from the key light along the edges of the bag.


4. Inside Out

As part of the work I do for Chris, I shoot the interiors of the bags. Shooting a black bag with a black interior is a product photographer's worst nightmare. Luckily, Chris's goods usually come in three or more colors, including tan with a matching interior. Often the biggest challenge becomes keeping the bag open while shooting. I use a compliment of clamps and bungee cords (removing them later in Photoshop) to keep the inner compartments visible while shooting. To light the interior, I use a mix of a large softbox and one or more gridded strobes. We also use props (laptop, iPad, cell phone, etc.) to display the many useful pockets, sleeves and compartments in Chris's bags.

Bungee cords can help in keeping a bag open. Notice also the "Le Donne" label inside the bag: it was straightened using the Liquify tool in Photoshop. Finally, inserting props (in this case pens and an old school calculator) highlight the interior's features.

5. Getting a sense of scale

Good product photos not only build interest and entice a purchase, they also convey useful information. Chris is well aware that an important feature to his customers is the size and scale of the products he sells. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, we use a photo of the product styled on a mannequin to convey its overall shape and size. This is a typical image from Chris's latest collection.

6. What’s my color and finishing touches

Getting true color reproduction of a product is very important. I start by doing a custom white balance in-camera for each lighting setup. This tells the camera what true white is and is necessary to get an accurate reading of the product’s colors. However, that may not be enough. A problem I ran into early on with Chris’s bags was an over-saturation of the red channel. This wasn't anyone's fault: sometimes digital cameras tend to over-saturate one of the three (red, green, blue) color channels. There was some trial and error but I found I needed to desaturate the red channel in Photoshop to bring the color back to true. I also then adjust my overall exposure levels in Photoshop to bring the background to solid white (being careful to maintain the shadow underneath the product) and generally enhance the contrast of the item. One thing to keep in mind is the bag's hardware may blow out when adjusting levels. Silver zippers, d-rings, buckles, etc., reflect much more light than the leather they are attached to. For this reason, I sometimes do two separate exposures (one each for the hardware and the bag), and then combine the images in Photoshop.

The last steps are to crop and sharpen the image. For Chris’s leather goods, I prefer to use the High Pass filter in Photoshop to sharpen the image, as opposed to the Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen filter. This is more a matter of taste, but almost all digital images need some sharpening; more so if they are going to be printed.

So there you have it - how to shoot a leather bag in six easy steps. I shot Chris’s latest line a few weeks ago and the sweet smell of high quality leather still lingers in my head.

I welcome any questions or comments and check back in a few weeks for my next post.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Why Not White.

Last time we looked at placing products against a solid white background. This time we'll discuss why not to do that.

In one word, drama.
In two words, drama = emotion.
In three words, drama = emotion = interest.
And interest is where we want our customers to be.

To create drama and interest, use these three proven techniques:

1. Add Color - By adding color, we heighten the drama. There are two ways to add color: (a) with our lights or (b) with the surface/background. Here's an example:

Recall our modest soap dispenser from last time. Looks a bit more dramatic, yes? In this case, I gelled the background light yellow (although continued to use white light on the front of the product.) And I also switched out the white background for black Plexiglas® . The Plexiglas® has the added benefit of adding a reflection to our photo, another way of creating drama (discussed below).

2. Camera Angle - Go back and watch "Citizen Kane" (go ahead, I'll wait). Orson Wells uses extreme camera angles to build drama and suspense - mostly low and/or off-axis so-called "Dutch" angles. (In fact, legend has it he asked the studio to allow him to dig trenches inside his sound stage so he could place his cameras below ground level to make his protagonist look even larger than life.) We can do the same with product shots. Again, look at the image of our soap dispenser. The extreme high angle creates drama and interest. Same with our shoe below.

3. Reflections and/or Highlights - reflections under a product are widely used. Whether created in-camera or in Photoshop, they are eye-catching and make even basic product shots more interesting. Likewise, creating highlights or sparkles on the surface of a product heightens the drama and emotion of the shot. There's a reason humans are drawn to shiny objects (Google "why are humans attracted to shiny things" to see the answer.) As someone selling products you may not care why shiny things are more attractive to potential customers - you just need to know that they are. Remember our lowly tea kettle from last time? How you like me now?

"ROSEBUD", eh, I mean thanks for reading. Please get in touch with any questions or comments and check back in two weeks for my next post.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why White?

Most product photos present the product on a solid white background. But why?

Well let's start by noting that this is not always the case and that there are exceptions to every rule. But the vast majority of product photos that you see on the average ecommerce website depict the product on a plain white background. The overwhelming number of requests that I get are for just such photos.

In my opinion there are four closely related reasons to do it this way.

1. Simplicity - product photos that you see on an individual product page of a website are informational in nature. The primary purpose of these photos is to inform the customer about the product. So it is usually good practice to present the product in its most simple and straight-forward form. A plain white background eliminates clutter and simply presents - and presents simply - the product.

2. Focus & Emphasis - By presenting the product on a uniform, uni-color background, we naturally drawn attention to it. The product is clearly the most important part of the image, and for that moment at least, the most important thing in the potential customer's mind.

3. Contrast - Contrast is defined as "the difference in luminance and/or color that makes an object (or its representation) distinguishable." A white background usually allows for creating maximum contrast between the product and background. But consider the request I get at least once a week: to photograph a white object on a white background. In the most extreme case, the product becomes indistinguishable from the background. Luckily, there are a couple of ways to deal with the issue.

The first way is to define the edges of the product. This is usually done by manipulating lighting and/or reflections on the product. A very simple but effective technique is to use black cards to remove light from the edges of the product (this is commonly known as "negative fill"). This darkens the boundary between the product and background and allows the product to stand-out.

The second way is to exploit the fact that humans don't really see pure white. Rather we see shades of gray. So a very effective way to create contrast is to reduce the brightness of either the product or the background resulting in one being more or less "white" than the other. The product will still be perceived as white even if it is actually a lighter or darker shade of gray.

4. Neutrality - The final reason to choose a white (or perhaps light gray) background is that white is neutral in terms of color. While using a colored background can often be dramatic and quite interesting visually, that color is often reflected back onto the product itself. This bleeding of the background color can distort the true color of your product. What few people realize is that white is not the absence of color but actually the blending of all colors. This means white brings out the natural color that is already there.

So there you have it: White is often the best background choice when it comes to creating product photos.

Or is it? As I mentioned earlier there are exceptions to every rule. So next time we'll look at the question of "Why Not White?"

Friday, June 1, 2012


Welcome to my blog. specializes in high-end professional product photography. I strive to create stunning images that help you sell more product and boost your company's bottom line.

Check back in the coming weeks and months for exciting news and information about my business and behind the scenes looks at how I do what I do.

Contact me any time at 973-537-5998 or

Peter Alessandria