10.21.2016

Refining process in a zany business. Now, how to refine the business model for scalability (as if....)?

You've seen this shot before but it's being re-featured because its illustrated mechanics are a growing part of my tabletop workflow.

I've been writing a bit about tabletop projects lately, which may seem weird for someone who loves shooting portraits, but photographing products is nothing new for my business. It's something I've been doing since the earliest days of my career.  But the way I do it keeps changing as I try to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the process.  When I started out we shot almost every product using a 4x5 inch view camera. The film size delivered image quality while the rises and falls, +tilts and swings, helped keep products square and in focus. But boy-oh-boy did we use a lot of Polaroid test material in the course of every assignment. 

For very demanding images of things, like computer systems with monitors, the ability to distribute focus kept me using those ornery bellows monsters right up until client demands for turnaround and cost control pushed the studio to a total digital workflow, starting around 1999. 

We've recently had a spate of tabletop assignments from medical products developer, Ottobock Healthcare; tech hardware maker, Razberi; the Bob Bullock/Texas History Museum; and a private art collector who specializes in 3-D objects. In some cases we're asked to do a fairly large number of products over the course of a single day. Sometimes we are tasked with making photographs on dark backgrounds but the overwhelming majority are done on white backgrounds, even if they are destined for the clipping path treatment. I have shot several thousand projects on white backgrounds and, at this point in my career, I am finally becoming reasonably competent at it. 

In the past, when using early generation digital cameras, we relied on (slow) firewire or SCSI tethering to see images as we shot. Software was buggy and connections were often lost and images floated off into the ether after we shot them. Re-launching camera and computer software was an extremely annoying part of the mix. Tethering to a stationary computer was okay when we worked at a pace similar to the pace we worked at with film. A long tether to the workstation from the shooting area had us shooting a test shot and then leaving the camera and walking over to judge the resulting image on the monitor. Then back to the camera to make changes and then do the process over again.

We were okay with the pace and the inconveniences of being tied to fixed locations because it was the only way we really had experienced product photography. Laptops were underpowered at the time and I wasn't about to stick a full sized computer and a large monitor on an Ergo Cart and wheel it all around. Cable management could also be a nightmare. 

We stuck to the tethered method until the moment when the LCD screens on the rear of the cameras became practically usable and, to a certain extent, calibrate-able. At the time we were almost always using electronic flash as a primary lighting equipment and there was always a need to check exposure and light balance. I think the Nikon D2Xs was the first camera that had a review screen that I halfway trusted. But the small size and vagaries of mixing with ambient lighting in the review mix still made the process problematic, especially when sharing the images with clients as part of our collaboration on set. 

I stumbled into a new way of shooting by accident.  A couple of years ago I was shooting video for three different clients and it became obvious that we needed a bigger monitor on our sets. We wanted something that could be calibrated for exposure, color and contrast and somthing that would give us the ability to see focus peaking was a big plus. I bought a seven inch Marshall monitor and used it to good effect with video. It takes two standard Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries so it can be used remotely. It was so good on our video shoots that I started bringing it along on still shoots. The process of using a monitor out of the HDMI port on my Sonys is so easy and transparent that I've gotten into the habit of bringing it along even if I'm 90% sure I'm never going to use it. 

I started using the monitor for studio shoots since it is adequate for both clients and me to look at simultaneously but at first I would stick it on a light stand near the camera and we'd do what we learned in the days of tethering to computers; we'd go back and forth from the camera to the monitor. A couple of months ago I started working with an art collector who needed lots and lots of images for a high quality coffee table book. We started with the monitor on a stand next to the camera but we hit a point where the camera was mounted above the shooting table and we were trying to carefully position dozens of objects in one shot. It would be great if we could observe the changes to our layout of objects as we moved them. We grabbed the monitor off the light stand and started handing it back and forth to each other as we made our changes. Being able to hold the monitor in one hand while reaching up to zoom the lens on the camera, just a little bit, while watching the result on the screen, was so seamless and fluid. Sometimes my client would be bent over the table using tweezers to adjust a small object and I could lean in an hold the monitor in such a way that he could just glance away from his set-up and instantly confirm the change without moving out of position. 

Two sets of two batteries lasted us the entire day. It also extended the life of the batteries in the camera. One battery took us through to lunch time and the second camera battery got us all the way through the afternoon. Pretty cool when you consider that the cameras were on all the time. Not having to run the monitors, in-camera, saves an enormous amount of power. 

Now, you could argue that I can replicate this set up with wi-fi and an iPad but raw files tend to be problematic and I find that setting an iPad down for a while in order to re-set the objects we are shooting means that cameras time out and iPads time out and we end up going through the re-engagement dance again and again. I think it's still primitive times for using most digital cameras, along with wi-fi, in high volume, professional applications.

For exacting work we use dedicated macro lenses but lately I've tested and found that most of our f4.0 zoom lenses are more than adequate when they are stopped down to f11 or f16 in practical shoots. Our daylong shoot yesterday was done with a Sony a6300 camera and, for nearly all the images, an 18-105mm f4.0 G lens parked at f8.0. The combination of decent glass, a slow f-stop and in camera image correction results in perfectly sharp images with no discernible distortion. The lens seems to be a good match for the 24 megapixel sensor in the body and the combination rides well on the Gitzo sidearm I use on my tripod to get the camera directly over the top of sets. 

I have the camera set to electronic first curtain (nothing is moving so there is no rolling shutter effect) and the shutter speeds are in the 1/3rd second to 1/15th second range so there are no artifacts from fast shutter settings. I also use a 2 second or 5 second self-timer delay for the shutter actuation so the camera can settle. I added an electronic release lately so I'll probably forgo the delay next time; but old habits die hard. 

With a slap of velcro on the main tripod leg and a corresponding piece of velcro on the top edge of the monitor it's easy to set up a shot with the monitor in my hands, affix the monitor to the tripod and have my hands free to manipulate the camera controls. I could use a bigger monitor but as the size increases the mobility and intimacy of the monitor decreases. And then you are back to the situation you were in when tethered to a big desktop system. 

The rest of the shooting modality is the same as always: We use high output SMD LED lights which don't change color balance and we always start out the shoot with a custom white balancing.  If we are shooting on hard white board (which is highly reflective) I take a spot meter reading for a representative area and put the exposure for that area at 95%. It's not quite white but the Sony sensors are made to be pushed up. Having white at 95% means I don't worry about losing highlight detail but I know the exposure will be high enough so that I rarely have to "lift" the shadows by more than a stop. At ISO 100 this is like changing the ISO to 200 in terms of overall image quality. Not a compromise at all. 

Along the same logic lines I chose the a6300 instead of the A7rii or A7ii because I pick up an extra measure of depth of field ( which can be critical for small object photography ) with no quality loss. Also, I like the 18-105mm f4.0 in this situation for it's well behaved general nature and its zoom/framing flexibility. Testing in raw with camera and software corrections turned off shows me that the lens is at its very best between the focal length range of 28-90mm so, if possible, I try to stay in that sweet spot. If I need to go to the extremes I don't worry about it at f8.0 and I don't see a huge penalty in diffraction induced softness at f11-14. I'll go to f16 if needed, in order to keep everything in focus, but in those cases I know I'll need to pop the sharpness either in camera or in post. 

In almost every job in which we shoot against white the client needs a clipping path in layered files so they can drop the object onto different backgrounds. We used to have to do all clipping paths by hand because automated solutions in PhotoShop, like the magic wand tool,  were not refined enough to do the job well. The edges could be too ragged. Even with the introduction of refine edge we ended up using a pen tool and going point to point, along with careful Bezier curves tossed in. The latest selection tools are much, much better and, if we have hard, defined edges in the images we can use the automated selection tools much more often, which speeds up post production. 

Many have suggested that I look into using some of the companies from India (and here in the U.S.) who advertise low prices for doing clipping paths. I have tried four different companies now; two here in the U.S. and two in India, and in each case I have gotten the files back, been disappointed  and then spent long, lonely nights doing the paths myself under much tighter deadlines. When your reputation is on the line "good enough" can come around and bite you on the the ass. Really. 

Given the trajectory of the economy it's always good to figure out how to become more efficient and more effective. I just wish there was a way to scale what we do into greater quantities. The limitation of a one person business is that scaling generally means just working more hours. 

I love doing the Craftsy.com classes and also having written a number of books. Those are both situations that are the epitome of scaling. Teach once/sell often. Write once/sell often. Too bad proprietary product shoots can't be sold over and over again to different sets of clients. Same with commissioned portraits. If someone out there has a unique way for photographers to effectively scale their businesses without damaging quality assurance I am fairly certain we'd all LOVE to hear about it. Give it your best shot in the comments! 

That's all I have for now. I'm headed downtown to see how Formula One will affect us this year. Every year their footprint in our downtown has shrunken dramatically. It will be interesting to see, this year, if there is any presence at all. ... If there's not then I'll just take a nice walk. 


3 comments:

Mike said...

So, I'm not sure I'm following you when you talk about pushing the whites to 95 percent. Can you elaborate on that?

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Mike, I think of "white" in PhotoShop terms. When I put an eyedropper on a white area in a photo it gives me a value in each of the three color channels. The values go from zero to 100%. At 100% white is white with no detail. The highlights are burned out. At 95% the basic appearance is white but if you really look closely there is still detail or information in the area. If you think in terms of monitor brightness going from 0 to 255 with zero being black and 255 being pure white then I would be setting my white value to 245-250.

By setting my exposure this way I am making files that don't have burned out highlights but are close to perfect for my final use, which is using selection tools to select the object sitting on the white background and to drop out the background via a clipping path.

Mike said...

Okay, awesome. That makes sense. Thank you.