If you missed part one of this interview, catch up on it now to learn why white background photography is a worldwide standard, and how POW is helping startup retailers bridge the product photography gap with established major players (flat-rate pricing!).
Right now, we’ll drill down on the “how” portion of the discussion. How does Products on White Photography solve the photo studio management problem? How do you handle inventory, communication, art direction, and studio setup when you have thousands of different products and clients?
Developing workflows, that's what our business almost actually is. We're photographers, but we're also an order-management software company as well.
—Jeff DeLaCruz of Products on White Photography
The lessons to be learned aren’t exclusive to product photographers—far from it. Any business owner looking to find a niche, become more efficient, and differentiate themselves in a competitive industry can learn from Jeff’s efforts.
How have you structured your workflow to manage thousands of clients?
Developing workflows, that is what our business almost actually is. We're photographers, but we're also an order-management software company as well. We've invested a lot in software: I'm the only photographer I know with a full-time developer in our business, and he's just building functionality. I think that's one of the things that sets us apart
We've developed lighting setups that are versatile. We have some really advanced lighting and retouching workflows that we use to make everything look amazing. We have it set up so we can switch from a hard-light or a specular light to a diffused light really quickly. We're able to look at a product and kind of say, “Oh, we want to add a highlight here. We can add this in by moving these lights around.” Our setups allow us to make creative lighting adjustments fast.
We do a lot of what's called compositing. If we know that lighting something is going to take a long time to set up, we can shoot different things in different parts and merge those two photos together in Photoshop before we get it clipped and the background removed.
We do a lot of what's called compositing... We can shoot different things in different parts and merge those two photos together in Photoshop.
We use a lot of advanced retouching techniques. I think hitting the level of quality that you would get from working with a traditional photographer, the same type of freelance services we were offering before, but at a per shot rate is important.
Another portion of the business is inventory. How do you manage hundreds of products coming and going? Managing that inventory is really complex, and we have a lot of software that manages it. We realized that developing this workflow was going to be an important way for us to compete in this marketplace and offer services to these smaller companies.
For image review and approval, what do you use for your online gallery?
There's not a whole lot of great options out there unless you're a wedding photographer. We've tried a million of them.
We know Pixelz is launching the Client Center for image delivery, and we're real excited about that too. Pixelz has been on our radar for a while, but when I saw the Client Center that’s about to launch, we were like, “Wow, that's exactly what we want. That's exactly what we're looking for.”
In describing your workflow earlier, you mentioned highly versatile lighting setups. What are those like?
There's a couple ways you can do this. I think the easy approach is to just stick it in a light tent and take a photo, which I think a lot of our competitors do. The quality of light you get from a light tent is fairly bad, though. We wanted to take it to the next level. We wanted to be able to make everything look like it was photographed by a professional photography studio and be at that level. We had to build a set where we could move lights in and out really quickly. We had to build some unique modifiers that you can fold up or rotate.
It's one of those things that kind of comes with experience, you know? After you shoot your first thousand products you kind of know, “Oh, this is how I should be doing it.” It happens organically. When I first started, it was very mechanical. We have these lights, and we have these ideas about how we should be lighting these products—but as you get into it and become a master, you're able to just look at a product and be like, “I know exactly how this should be lit.” I can look at any image on the web and know how it was lit and I can mimic those same lighting patterns. We developed a set around the ability to do that.
What type of products are you shooting? How many sets do you have?
Currently we have four full-time sets. We're shooting between 75 and 150 shots a day. It's all over the place—there's not really one single product that we shoot every day. If there's a niche, we do a lot of beauty. Beauty companies seem to love us. I think it's because our level of quality is really high compared to our competitors or anybody else doing it.
We’re shooting literally everything that you could possibly think of that can be shipped.
But it's all over the board; we’re shooting literally everything that you could possibly think of that can be shipped.
How do you strategize for that? Do you have to build up and tear down sets?
We have these shooting bays, and each set is set up to manage different types of products. If it's under two feet, it fits on our standard set. We have a background light and an overhead light, kind of even lighting. Then we bring in separate lights and different modifiers to manage highlights, or create direction, or create shadow.
If you provide a lighting match example, we can look at it and we can match it exactly. We look at the match image and we're like, “Okay, this one has a highlight here, it's being lit from the left. It has a diffuse light source. We can match that.” If it doesn't have one, then we're pulling from our knowledge of what we've shot in the past and we can say, “This type of product looks really great with this style of lighting.”
We're not tearing down sets. The way our set is set up is very versatile and can be modified to create different lighting situations. If somebody came in and took a look at it they'd be like, “Oh, this is a pretty simple setup.” But it's complex in a way because every light varies in exposure, every modifier can be changed out specifically to the style of lighting that we're looking to hit.
You match customer cell-phone photographs for lighting examples and art direction. Was there a long trial and error process before you got there?
We actually tried the opposite direction, where we didn't ask for any shot direction at all, and we had so many re-shoots we wondered, “Should we even be doing this?” Because we would get the product and then we would be like, “Okay, let's guess how they want it,” and hope that this is what the customer is looking for. Maybe 50% of the time the customer would be happy with the images, but it wasn't exactly what they were looking for.
We had so many re-shoots we wondered, 'Should we even be doing this?'
The cell phone match examples is kind of a weird part of the company, and a lot of customers ask, “Why do I have to take a photo of the product when I'm hiring you to take a photo of the product?” I try to encourage people to look at it this way: taking a cellphone shot of your product is a quick way to show the arrangements you're looking for, but really lighting it and making it look beautiful is another thing.
I noticed you don’t shoot jewelry and apparel. Why is that?
We did offer jewelry and apparel in the past, between 2011 and 2014. We stopped offering fashion because the set is really big and in our old studio we couldn't manage it, basically, because it was taking up so much space. Around 2014-2015 we were at capacity with that existing space, so about a year and a half ago we moved into a new space and we have a clothing setup, and we've been doing it by request. Anybody that wants to order clothing can do it right now. We're getting ready for a relaunch next year where we'll have a beta program. We're going to structure it a little bit differently, have its own little ordering section and price it a little bit lower so that most people can get it, and we've got some new mannequins and props. We're getting ready to launch that, and that's going to be a great addition to the business.
Will you do different style shots? Like lay downs or hangers, mannequins, on model?
We'll do lay flat, overhead, and we'll do invisible mannequin (Learn how the Invisible Mannequin technique works.). On model is kind of difficult just because you have to hire the model—and models are very expensive—and you have to hire a hair and makeup artist as well, which adds to the cost. We decided to not offer model stuff right now, because it's almost better to just hire a traditional photographer if you're going that route.
Jewelry, is there a story there?
So again, we were doing jewelry. We stopped doing it for a couple reasons. First, we hadn't developed our communications systems as well as we have now. We were getting a lot of redos because of metal. Reflective metal is a mirror reflecting whatever you put in front of it. We were having difficulties with that communication. A customer would send us a ring, and we would shoot it—let's say we shoot it so it's all light gray silver and the customer might say, “Oh, can you make it more poppy?” That doesn't mean anything to us. Communicating reflective surface lighting is extremely difficult for our customers to do.
Our ordering system is more sophisticated than it was, so we can develop menu systems to make it easier. We're planning on launching that right after we launch clothing next year.
What type of retouching do you perform?
We divide it up into two different parts. We do the compositing retouching in-house, as we're shooting it. Then, we send off the final steps up to Pixelz to finish it off: so spot retouching, background removal, just making sure that everything is cropped the right way. You know, those simpler things that don't require too much creativity. We rely on Pixelz to finish up those images.
What do you look for in a retouching partner?
We've used a lot of retouchers in our past, and we still use lots of different retouchers for lots of different reasons, but the reason why we came to Pixelz was because it's so organized. And it's so predictable. We know exactly what we're going to get back every single time. I don't think that's true for every retoucher. I think there's a lot of room for manual error, because you're working with real people. I want everything to come back exactly how I want it to come back every single time, repeated across the board. I love Pixelz’ interface, I think that's really awesome.
The reason why we came to Pixelz was because it's so organized. And it's so predictable. We know exactly what we're going to get back every single time.
If you're a medium sized company, or you're doing something sophisticated with your images—like if you have a retail app—Pixelz has APIs that you can build into your system (See Chairish mobile app API case study.). I think that's amazing. Every other retoucher we work with, we're just sending emails back and forth and uploading stuff to an FTP. That's the extent of the sophistication. I think what's great about Pixelz is that you're taking it to this other level and trying to do what we're trying to do. We're trying to make it easier, and more automated, and more predictable so you're getting exactly what you need back in a consistent way every time.
Do you use the visual markup tools?
Yep. The markup tools are awesome. That's the best part. We can visually communicate with Pixelz what we want, or what we want changed. That's the whole thing. This business is a visual industry, it's a visual service, and verbally talking about something or writing it down doesn't communicate it well. That's why we want to move into your system, because we want to allow our customers to markup images for their changes too.
That technology is what we've been waiting for. I've been looking for that technology for years and haven't seen anything, and the fact that it's connected to our retouchers is even better. Because I can just push that right back to Pixelz and Pixelz can make the changes for us, as opposed to us trying to figure out what our customers wanted, then writing it out to our retouchers, and then sending them a whole different email. There's a breakdown in communication when you can't communicate visually, and that's really the brilliant part about the software.