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Product Photography

With a little practice, you can create professional looking product photos that will make your product stand out.

Use a digital camera.

Even an inexpensive digital camera will take surprisingly good product photos. The first step is to read the manual. For the best results you will have to change from the standard 'point and shoot' settings which came with the camera. Every camera will be different, but here are the main areas to look for:

  • Set the camera to the highest quality settings--this is also the largest file size. (One exception: some cameras will allow you to save as a .tif format. On the cameras I have tried, this setting is only marginally better than saving as a .jpg and was not worth the trouble).
  • Set the camera to the highest possible pixels AND the highest quality. These are usually two different settings.
  • Set the lighting to incandescent (if you will be using regular incandescent light bulbs).
  • If your camera allows you to adjust the "white point" or "white balance", use this setting and follow the instructions; this will really improve the color of your photos. By the way, you do not need to use a white surface to set the white point; you may find that a gray or black surface gives you better results.
  • Set the camera to the aperture mode. Set the aperture to the middle range. The camera will then automatically change the exposure time depending on the amount of light. The middle of the aperture range will usually give you the sharpest photos.
  • Turn off the flash.
  • Read your manual on how to make the photos lighter and darker. The camera's automatic exposure is pretty good, but you will almost always have to manually adjust the camera either lighter or darker. If the object you are taking a photo of is very light, the camera will darken the photo too much; if the object is dark, the camera will lighten it too much. Take at least three photos: one at your best guess, and one lighter and one darker. Some cameras have a setting to take three photos automatically at different exposures.

Use a tripod.

  • This is the single most important suggestion here. You simply can not hold the camera steady enough to get a good photo. An inexpensive tripod is fine. I like to use the camera timer along with the tripod so I don't jiggle the camera when I take the photo.

Use two sets of movable lights.

  • You can use expensive photo lights, but an inexpensive name brand light bulbs will work fine. Use the standard bulb, not a spot light. Some of the discount brands are very yellow; avoid these. Use a 200 or 300 watt bulb, but BE CAREFUL; these can get very, very hot. Plug them in for only a few seconds at a time.
  • Make sure the camera is set to incandescent lighting. Better still, select a setting where you can adjust the white balance (if your camera has this setting). If your photos are too yellow, the camera is probably set to the daylight setting.
  • You might want to try compact fluorescent light bulbs. The quality of light is good, but the bulbs you can buy in the store are pretty small for photography. Special, larger bulbs for photography are available.
  • Inexpensive lights with aluminum reflectors and a spring clips work good, or for a few dollars more you can buy the same type of light on an adjustable stand.
  • You will want 2 sets of lights. Play around with the placement of the lights.
  • How you place the lighting can really change the look and feel of your product. By moving the lights you will be able to change the amount and direction of shadow. Point the lights toward a white wall or a sheet of white mat board to give a diffused lighting. Bouncing the light off of a colored surface will give you colored light.
  • Work in an area where you can block out or turn off other light sources.

Color correcting the image.

Hint: Include a piece of white paper at the edge of the photo (in an area that will be cropped off in the ad). This will make it much easier to do color correction. If you color correct so this paper is white or a light neutral gray (a neutral gray will have equal amounts of red, green, and blue) the other colors will be close. If your camera white point is set right, you should not require very much color correcting.

You do NOT need to color correct the image if you are sending the image to the Needlework Retailer for use in a product review or an ad that we will lay out; we can do this for you. All you need to do is send us the raw image from your camera. However, you may prefer to do the color correction yourself. If we do the color correction it is helpful if you tell us about light shades of color that we may mistake. For example, if the fabric is ivory we may color correct it to white.

You DO need to color correct the image if you are going to place the image in an ad that you lay out. We can not color correct an image after it is embedded in a .pdf file. (We do check all .pdf's to make sure the pixels per inch is acceptable and that the images are CMYK. If there is an RBG image we will convert it to CMYK).

Here are some suggestions if you wish to do your own color corrections:

  • Adjust the monitor and then leave it alone. The goal is to adjust the monitor so that it shows the color that is actually printed, not necessarily the color you want to print. If you are having trouble with this, we can send you a .tif image of a picture that was printed in the Needlework Retailer. Once you have the monitor adjusted, you should not have to change it again.
  • The monitor will never match the printed piece 100%.
  • Start with a good raw image. Take several pictures with different settings and different lighting.
  • If you have to choose between a photo that is too dark and one that is too light, pick the one that is too dark. You will usually have better results lightening, rather than darkening, a photo.
  • Most photos need more contrast. This lightens the light areas, and darkens the dark areas.
  • Avoid switching back and forth between RGB and CMYK. It is easiest to do most of your color correction and other work in RGB mode. After you convert to CMYK you may see a color shift, especially in very bright colors. This is because some bright colors can not be printed in CMYK and your program is trying to show you what the image will look like when it is printed. You may need to do some final color adjustments in CMYK.
  • Your program will probably have an eye drop tool take will let you point at a color and identify the RGB or CMYK value. This is very helpful, especially for adjusting whites, grays, and blacks. In RGB mode these colors are all equal parts of R, G, and B (red, green, and blue). In CMYK mode these colors will all be equal parts of C, M, Y (cyan, magenta, yellow), plus any amount of K (black).
  • Whites are generally not pure white. They are shades of light gray.

File Format

There are only 2 file formats you need to worry about: .jpg (pronounced (jay-peg), and .tif (pronounced tiff). You also have two choices of color: RGB and CMYK. The raw image from your camera or scanner will probably be RGB color saved in .jpg format. For 4 color offset printing you must have CMYK color saved in .tif format.

An RGB .jpg file is the smallest of the 4 combinations; CMYK .tif is the largest. You can send the Needlework Retailer an RGB .jpg image and we will convert it for you. If you create the ad yourself (as a .pdf, for example) you should convert all the images to CMYK .tif before you place them in the ad. There are other file formats, but you will have less headaches if you just use .tif for all your images. [note: .tif images will not work for your web site. For the web you will use RGB .jpg for photos (and maybe .gif for graphics)]

Lossy vs. Lossless. Both .jpg and .tif can be compressed, but there is a major difference. Compression reduces the size of the computer file.  All .jpg files are compressed, but you can vary the amount of compression. .jpg compression is 'lossy'. This means that there is a loss of color information when you compress the file. Some cameras will have a setting for image quality. Setting the camera to a lower setting will create a smaller file size, but at the expense of color quality. Your color correction program probably will have a choice for quality level when saving as a .jpg format. You should choose the setting that gives you the largest file (and smallest loss in color quality). Lossy compression also means that once the color information is lost, it can not be recovered. So if you save an image as a low quality .jpg and then later save it as a high quality .jpg or .tif, the color will not improve.

Lossless compression. As the name implies, lossless compression compresses the file without reducing the quality. The .tif format is uncompressed, but you can use LZW or ZIP compression (if available on your program) to reduce the file size. Using LZW or ZIP compression will not change the color quality. If you have any doubts, do not compress.

How many pixels do you need?

Pixels per inch (ppi) refers to the number of pixels in one inch in the digital image.
Lines per inch (lpi), or dots per inch (dpi), refers to the number of 'dots' printed on the paper.

Short answer: For 4 color offset printing, 350 ppi is best.

Long answer: The number of pixels per inch required for 4 color offset printing is not fixed. There is no magic number that you have to use. The rule of thumb is that the ppi should be twice the lpi. Example: if you a preparing a photo for printing at 175 lpi (the Needlework Retailer is printed at 175 lpi), you would like images of about 350 ppi. Generally, an image larger than 350 ppi will not improve the final printed quality, but anything below about 250 ppi will not print as crisp. We have printed images as low as 150 ppi with surprisingly good results, but the quality would have been better with more pixels.

Your camera does not have a setting for pixels per inch. It only has a setting for the number of pixels. You have to estimate the final pixels per inch based on the size the photo will print. The pixels per inch is the pixels in the image divided by the size the image is when placed in the page.

For example, suppose you have a digital camera that is set to 640x480 (640 pixels by 480 pixels.), the lowest setting for today's cameras. 640 divided by 350 = 1.8". So if you place the image at 1.8" wide you have 350 ppi (good results). If you placed the image at 3" in width, your ppi would be 640 divided by 3" = 213 ppi (medium results). At 4" in width, your ppi would be 640 divided by 4" = 160 ppi (fair to poor results).

Here are some common settings your camera might have, and the size of photo you could print.

camera setting

photo at 350 ppi
(best results)

photo at 200 ppi
(medium results)

640 x 480
1024 x 768
1280 x 960
1600 x 1200
2048 x 1536
2240 x 1680

1.8" x 1.4"
2.9" x 2.2"
4.3" x 2.7"
4.6" x 3.4"
5.8" x" 4.4"
6.4" x 4.8"
3.2" x 2.4"
5.1" x 3.8"
6.4" x 4.8"
8" x 6"
10" x 7.7"
11" x 8.4"

Take a photo larger than you need. I suggest taking the photo at the largest camera setting, then cropping and reducing (resampling) the file size downward in your photo editing program. Remember, you can always reduce the file size, but you can not increase it; so always save a copy of the photo as large as you think you will ever need.

Hints and Tricks

  • Get to know your camera. Take the same photo from different distances and with different settings. See which gives the sharpest focus. Taking a photo of a newspaper works good (you can quickly judge focus based on how clear the print is).
  • Take several shots with different settings. The nice thing about using a digital camera is that you can take some photos and see them right away on the computer. Instant feedback.
  • Include a small piece of paper that has 100% white, and 100% black. Place the paper at the edge of the photo where it will be cropped out of the finished image. This will help in color correcting the picture.

Basics of 4 color offset printing

Taking good product photos for 4 color printing isn't rocket science; but it is helpful to understand a little bit about 4 color offset printing. Offset gets its name because the ink is 'offset' from a metal printing plate onto a rubber blanket. The ink is then offset from this rubber blanket onto the paper. Before this, printing was generally done by inking a metal plate and pressing the metal plate into the paper.

       

cyan + magenta + yellow + black = final picture

4 color offset printing requires making four printing 'plates'. The plates are generally thin aluminum sheets, but plastic sheets are sometimes used. Each plate prints only one color. The colors are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The image on each of the plates is made up of dots. The number of dots per inch will vary depending on the quality of paper and the type of printing press. Newspapers will print with only about 85 to 100 lines per inch. The Needlework Retailer is printed at 175 lines per inch.

This "dots per inch" or "lines per inch" is probably the most confused term in printing. The reason it is confusing is because it is sometimes used to refer to both the photo and to the printed piece. It should only be used to refer to the PRINTED piece. The main thing to remember is this: you need more pixels (or 'dots') in the image than you have in the printed picture. The rule of thumb is that the pixels per inch should be twice the lines per inch for the best results.

The size of the dot on the printing plate determines how dark or light the color prints. The 4 colors are printed separately. This is done by either running the paper through a printing press 4 times, or (more commonly) running on a 4 color press. A 4 color press is basically 4 printing presses lined up in a row so the piece of paper travels from press to press.

Notice that the angle of the row of dots is different in each of the 4 colored plates above. This is done because it would be impossible to exactly line up 4 dots one on top of the other. Rotating the angle of the rows allows the printing to be slightly out of alignment and still produce a high quality picture.

Because the dots on the printing plate do not align exactly with the dots in the digital image, the program that creates the printing plate must guess at the true color value for each printed dot on the plate by looking at multiple surrounding dots (pixels) in the digital image. In other words, for each dot on the printing plate, the program will use several pixels in the digital photo to estimate what the correct color is. Because of this averaging, the original digital photo needs more pixels than the printed picture has dots.

The pixels per inch is more important for pictures with fine detail. A low ppi will effect the crispness of the printed picture. For example, suppose the only photo you have will be at 200 ppi. If the photo has large areas of more or less solid colors, the results will be reasonably good. But if the photo has fine detail (a cross stitch sampler, for example), the result will be only fair.

Trivia

Here is additional information that you may find helpful or interesting.

CMYK vs. RGB. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black; the 4 colors for most offset printing. RGB stands for red, green, and blue. The image from your digital camera or scanner will be RGB. If you use the image for the web, you must use RGB because computer monitors only display RBG. If you print on a desktop printer, RGB is fine. Images printed in 4 color offset must be CMYK. If you send us an RGB image for use in the Needlework Retailer, we will convert to CMYK.

The cyan of CMYK (which is sort of blue) does not correspond to blue in RGB. And magenta (which is sort of red) does not correspond to red in RGB. RGB are 'additive' colors and CMYK are 'subtractive' colors.  A object appears a certain color because part of the light that hits it is absorbed (subtracted). Cyan ink appears cyan because it absorbs red light. Magenta absorbs green light, and Yellow absorbs blue light. In a way, CMY is the reverse of RGB.

Now what about K, or black? In theory, black should not be necessary. You should be able to print with only CMY (cyan, magenta, and yellow). In practice, you would get a very muddy looking picture because the inks are not perfect colors. Your computer program that converts from RGB to CMYK will convert some of the color to black. Gray is equal parts of R, G, and B; which would convert to equal parts C, M, and Y. The program will remove some of C, M, and Y and replace them with black.

Why did they use the letter K for black? The most common reason given is that K stands for 'key', since black was used as a registration mark; but all four colors have registration marks. My guess is that  K was chosen partly  to avoid confusion; there isn't a color that starts with K.

Here is a little more on how offset printing works. The key to offset printing is that oil and water do not mix. The process starts by 'burning' the image onto a printing plate. This is a photo-chemical process that creates two areas on the plate: one area will hold water, and the other area will repel water. The plate hooks onto the top cylinder (see left image). As it rotates, the plate passes under water rollers that apply a very thin film of water that only sticks to the area that holds water. The area that repels water will stay dry.

The plate continues on around to the ink rollers. The ink has oil in it. The oily ink will not stick to the wet part of the plate. The dry part of the plate will accept the ink.

The plate continues to the offset blanket cylinder. The offset blanket is a smooth sheet of rubber. The ink offsets from the printing plate onto the offset blanket. This is why is it called offset printing.

The offset blanket cylinder continues on around until it transfers the ink onto the paper, very similar to a rubber stamp. This happens very quickly. A printing press will run at 3,000 to 15,000 impressions per hours, with high speed presses running at up to 50,000 impressions per hour.

 

Needlework Retailer,117 Alexander Avenue, Ames, Iowa 50010. Phone: 800-561-5380 or 515-232-6507. Fax 515-232-0789. email info@needleworkretailer.com

For advertising information call Megan Chriswisser at 1-800-561-5380.

The Needlework Retailer is the only trade magazine devoted entirely to the counted cross stitch, needlepoint, and the needlework industry. Published by Yarn Tree 6 times a year and distributed free to retail stores in the US that sell needlework. Print subscriptions are available to others related to the industry in the United States for $14 for 6 issues; in Canada for $20 for 6 issues; other countries $43 for 6 issues. Online subscriptions are free. Sorry, subscriptions are not available to consumers.

If you are a retail needlework store and are not receiving the Needlework Retailer please use our Manage Subscription page or call us at 800-561-5380 to subscribe.