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.