Workflow for 360º Product Photography

Basic photography workflow chart

My goal here is to give you some insight that I hope will help you improve your system to work fast and have fun with 360 product photography.  Here’s my workflow that I follow when I make a 360 view for a client.

  1. Unpack & prep the products (clean clean clean!).
  2. Studio prep (turntable/lights/camera).
  3. Photograph products (the fun stuff!).
  4. Edit 360º images in Photoshop.
  5. Upload edited images to imajize.com for cataloging, review and publishing to my client’s website.
  6. Send out an invoice, repackage the products and ship everything back

I’ll go into detail for each step.  Here we go!

1. Unpack & prep the products (clean clean clean!)

This is pretty easy – first, take the products out of the box.  For products like shoes, I like to use a large flat table to lay out all of the shoes in multiple rows, and I always start from left to right, front row to back row.Prepping is a surprisingly important step.  Clean your products well, and you’ll save yourself a lot of retouching work!  Why?  You’ll be capturing a lot of photos from multiple angles, and any speck of dust will appear in many of those photos.  Imagine editing the same spec of dust from half of the images.  Now imagine editing multiple specs of dust from all of the images.  And you have to keep track of each spec of dust to make sure you don’t forget it, otherwise it’ll appear and disappear throughout the spin. It’s a pain in the ass, trust me.  The cleaner the better.To clean products quickly and thoroughly, I use a lint roller which costs about 3 dollars each.  But instead of rolling the lint roller across a shoe, for example, I find it better to rip off a sheet from the lint roller and firmly press the sheet on the product with my hand.  This ensures that dust in the crevices get removed.  I usually spend a good minute or three making sure there’s almost no dust visible.  It’s seriously worth it because it saves a boat load of time and takes your quality control to a whole new level.

2. Studio prep (turntable/lights/camera)

Non-motorized 360º turntable

Setting up your non-motorized 360º photo turntable is pretty straightforward if it’s already assembled.  The main thing you should decide on is how many frames you want to shoot for your 360º view.  More frames make the 360° view appear to rotate smoother, but this comes at the cost of taking more time to shoot and edit.  So you have to find a good balance.  12 or 16 frames is a good choice for starters.  20 or 24 frames is a fairly common standard among professional photographers because it delivers a good balance between production speed and a nice, smooth 360º rotation.  360° views with more than 40 frames are generally less common.  Whatever number you decide on, I recommend you choose one that’s a multiple of the number “4.”  The reason is that this will preserve all of the exact front/back/left/right angles.

Motorized 360º turntable

All of the motorized turntables are usually ready to use straight out of the box.  When you’re setting up your motorized 360º turntable, it’s important to have a reference point that lets you know where the center is.  You can use clear tape, lasers or even some poster-board with a rectangular cutout.  If your turntable uses a clear glass/plexiglas platform, then you can find the center by attaching a dry-erase marker to an extended arm that hovers over the center of the table.  Adjust the arm so that the dry-erase marker lightly presses the glass/Plexiglas platform.  Rotate the platform one full revolution, and the marker should draw a perfect circle.  There’s your reference point!  From here, I would get some clear tape to lay down a square or rectangle around that circle you drew.  Erase the circle, and now you have a permanent square reference point.  Don’t worry, the tape will not be visible in your 360º images if you’re using bright strobe lights (see image below):

If you use a solid white platform instead of a clear glass/Plexiglas platform, then you can find the center point by using the same dry-erase marker technique, but just be careful to make sure the marker does not leave a permanent mark!  Once you have the perfect circle made, you can get a circular piece of poster board and cut out a rectangle in the center.  Lightly mark some reference points on both the 360º platform and the poster board to ensure they’re nicely lined up.

Once you have your reference point established, you’re all set!  Each 360º turntable manufacturer has their own process, so I recommend you read the instruction manual to be safe.

Studio lights

Wow.  This is an art in itself.  To do a good job, it takes fairly little effort.  I’ll explain the basic set-up to get you there.  To do an awe-inspiring job that blows your customers away, it takes passion and unyielding patience – that’s a rabbit hole which I’ll just skim the surface of here, but I can point you in the right direction.

Basic lighting set-up:

Basic 360 lighting setup

Here, we have two continuous/strobe lights (with soft boxes) on both sides of the camera.  The background is lit up with a powerful continuous/strobe light (with barn doors) resting on the ground and positioned towards the backdrop.  The 360° turntable is elevated about 3 feet (1 meter) above the ground.  The camera is peeping through a “gobo” which has a small hole in it (this helps to hide the camera when shooting highly reflective products).  If you’re shooting apparel on a person, I suggest lowering the 360º turntable so it’s easy to step on and off of, and you could move the rear continuous/strobe light to either the left or right side.

Advanced lighting setup:

This is by far my favorite setup.  It looks AWESOME when shooting a glossy black motorcycle helmet.  The lighting on the product looks beautifully natural, and it works awesome with highly reflective products, too.  Throw a polarized lens filter into the mix, and you’ll feel like superman.  Construction takes 1-2 days and I built my with the help of an assistant (you’ll need one for this!).  Here are some pictures:

 
 

You’ll see that there are 3 strobe lights; one for the background, and two for lighting the inside of the paper tube.  The tube is made of the same white paper used for the background (the name of the company that makes the paper is called “Savage”).  I have my 360º turntable machine in the center of the tube (this time I’m using clear Plexiglas for the rotating platform).  Also, I use 2 black sheets of fabric that I put on the white background paper.  This helps to significantly reduce the wraparound light that can appear on whatever subject I’m shooting.

Here’s another lighting setup I use:

 
 

This setup renders kick-ass photos that don’t need any post-processing editing.  Here’s a shot that’s straight out of the camera with no editing:

 
 

And this is how the 360º view turned out with this lighting setup:

 
 

Camera settings

When shooting 360º images, it’s important to keep all of the camera settings on manual mode.  Please promise me you’ll do that.  Shooting in “auto mode” is the kiss of death because it will ruin your 360º images by making the brightness and white balance randomly fluctuate from frame to frame.  So, put everything you can into manual mode, this includes the shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance.  Here are the settings I use on my camera:

  • Shutter speed: 1/125th second
  • Aperture: f/11 to f/16
  • ISO: 100
  • White balance: 5700k ~ 5800K

By the way, if your lens has vibration reduction/image stabilization, then be sure to turn it off.  Keeping it on will cause the lens to “float.”  If it floats while capturing 360º product images, the subject you’re shooting will appear to drift around (very slightly), even though the camera is firmly mounted to a tripod.

3. Photograph products (the fun stuff!)

Now for the fun stuff.  Whip out your favorite music playlist and fall into your Zen mode as you create 360º images of a bunch of products!  I love it.  Having an assistant is a huge help, but don’t worry if you don’t have one; it’s pretty doable to tackle everything on your own.While shooting, the main goal is to make sure the camera and lights are adjusted such that the background is just barely blown out (pure white), and the subject you’re shooting is perfectly exposed (not too bright, not too dark).  If you’re going for the perfect shadowiness look, it’s great to use a clear Plexiglas platform, similar to this: Personally, I only shoot using the shadowiness style.  It’s just my personal preference, but most of all, I like the ease of consistency.  Although I also like the look of keeping the shadows, I find it hard to make them look exactly the same from photo shoot to photo shoot.  Using a true centerless 360º turntable makes it really easy to make shadowless images that look great and are easy to edit in Photoshop.  My 360º turntable isn’t centerless; instead, it uses four clear bars to hold up the Plexiglass platform, which sucks when it comes to editing!

Color Correction

If you’re shooting a product that’ll be sold on the Web, be sure the colors are spot on.  Studies have proven that accurate product imagery reduce customer returns and increase shopper confidence and loyalty.  I use an Xrite color checker.  It’s good to shoot it now before you start shooting 360º images of your subjects.

The first shot

As a general rule of thumb, it’s usually best to have the subject you’re shooting face towards the camera for the first photo.  When you’re shooting a person, it’s recommended to actually have the person face away from the camera on the first photo.  Once you have the rest of the images shot, it’s good to check and make sure the subject doesn’t fall out of the frame of the camera.  If it looks good, then you’re all set to move on to the next one.

Final thoughts on shooting:

While this is pretty repetitive work, it can be lucrative if you develop an efficient workflow.  Some high-end photographers charge as much as $125/product and turn out as many as five or more products per hour.  While there are a lot of variables that affect the price and production speed, it’s possible to turn this niche into a bustling business.  But like most things, it takes patience and hard work to get there.

4. Edit 360º images in Photoshop.

Shooting is done, so it’s time to start editing!  Here, Photoshop “actions” will become the backbone of your efficiency.  Photoshop actions supercharge your workflow by performing the repetitive tasks for you at an insanely fast speed.
I’ll be posing some video tutorials on this later next week!  Until then, here are a few other important things you’ll need to know:

Layers

Layers are a non-destructive way to edit an image.  When you add a new layer, it only affects the other layers below it.  There are many different kinds of adjustment layers you can use.  The main ones are: Curves and Hue/Saturation.

Cropping

Crop your images to 2500×1875 pixels if your computer can handle it.  This leaves you with a common aspect ratio (4:3) and it is also the exact size required by imajize.com, the most amazing 360 view  publishing platform in the universe.

5. Upload edited images to imajize.com for cataloging, review and sharing with my client.

This is the easy part.  Just upload the images, and Imajize handles all the tech stuff in addition to storing and organizing all my 360′s in a password-protected database.  Imajize puts Adobe Scene 7 to shame in the same way Google Chrome beats Internet Explorer.  Am I biased?  Heck yes!  But I also believe I’m honestly speaking the truth.

6. Send out an invoice, repackage the products and ship everything back.

Don’t forget to send the invoice :-)  Very important.  It’s just as important as sending the products back.  In some rare cases, the customer might be happy to let you keep the products.  I’ve heard of some studios that donate the products to local charities which is pretty cool.

7. Done!

Do you have your own 360º photography studio?  Is this the workflow you follow?  Please share your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.