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Retouching Musts for Product Photography Flats


Product photo closeup on lower jaw and suit

Retouching for lay-downs and pin-ups

Flats, aka lay-downs or lay-flats, are one of the staples of product photography. In apparel, flats typically are either pin-ups or lay-downs: pin-ups being apparel pinned to a vertical foam board, while lay-downs usually involve laying clothing flat on a horizontal tabletop and shooting directly from above.

Shooting flat is popular because it’s cheaper and easier than on-body. You don’t have to pay for models, and lighting is simple and repeatable with little or no adjustment shot to shot. In fact, flats are ripe for automation, and you see that reflected in the rise of solutions like StyleShoots photography machines.

Styleshoots product photography machine for shooting horizontal flats

Flat photography and retouching are ripe for automation. Ex: StyleShoots machine

Trying to shoot flats on a tight budget? Check out How The Renewal Workshop built their own studio on an Indiegogo budget.

photo of an overhead view of flat laydown product photography setup

Dave built a flexible photo studio with $3700 and one week of work

But don’t think of shooting flats as cheaping out or taking a less professional path. Even brands with huge photography budgets and some of the finest photos in the business are still likely to shoot juniors flat, for example, to avoid the multitude of complications that come with youth models.

While many instinctively think of retouching as the province of on-model photography, it’s just as important for flat product photography. Any time you’re showing your product, whether on-body or off, you should take care to show it at its absolute best. And for that, you need retouching.

When you’re retouching flats, your focus should be on correction, cleanup, shadows, shape, and standardization.

Corrections and cleanup: Samples ain’t perfect

Samples are often flawed. That’s just a fact of photo studio life. One sleeve may be longer than the other, colors off, stitching loose, hems tapering more or less than they should, etc.

Samples are prototypes, but you don’t have time to wait for the final product. So how do you fix it?

Retouching.

Nike cleat with yellow accents Nike cleat recolored to blue accents

Recolor in post-production if samples don't reflect changes

Any instance where the sample won’t match the final product should be corrected. Additionally, the item should be cleaned up where necessary: dirt, lint, loose threads removed. Sample tags removed.

But don’t go crazy! Keep it natural.

For example, if you have an extreme crease from a sample being packaged and shipped across the country, go ahead and remove it. But natural folds and creases (that resemble normal wear) should remain.

Shadows prevent the dreaded "float" illusion

A perfectly lit product casts a shadow, and it’s important to preserve that shadow if you’re removing or altering the background.

Express brand white Phoenix Suns NBA t-shirt product image

Shadows, especially for white products on a white background, create shape and make photos feel real. Ex: Express.com

If you don’t keep the shadow while doing cut-outs (a.k.a. knock-outs, silhouettes, clipping, background removal), your product will look like it’s floating on a white page. It’s a disconcerting, uncanny effect—as well as making your photo feel inauthentic. Shadows provide shape and context, and the human eye expects them. When there are no shadows, it feels unnatural.

Conversely, a well-done shadow adds shape and context to your product. It can lift it off the page and—together with good styling—give a visual impression similar to when it’s being worn.

Zara brand Garfield kids tee shirt, photographed flat

Shadows lift this kids tee shirt off the page. Example: Zara.com.

A good retoucher will preserve and enhance shadows where necessary. If you’re recreating or enhancing shadow, it needs to be done carefully or you can end up with something that looks like a bad copy/paste.

Shape: Symmetry and consistency

Before you photograph your products, you should have a style guide that determines product positioning. For apparel, the method that involves the least styling is usually flat and symmetric.

For example, for a shirt, lay it flat and ensure different points of the sleeves are the same distance from the body on both the left and the right: at the shoulders, armpits, elbows, cuffs, etc.

Express brand product image of sweatshirt photographed flat and symmetrically

Shoulders, drawstrings, cuffs, and sleeve distance from body are symmetric. Example: Express.com

Retouching can help smooth out bumps as well as create symmetrical shape—or adjusting shape to fit another template. Sometimes a consistent look that’s asymmetric can be a differentiator and add life to your photos, like in this Old Navy example.

Row of product photos of Old Navy sweatshirts consistently styled flat with one sleeve across body

Consistent shape begins with keeping to a style guide. Ex: Old Navy

Of course you should style to be as consistent as possible, but retouching can help you achieve a higher level.

Standardization: The fundamentals of background, cropping, alignment, and margins

It should go without saying, but your website is infinitely easier to shop if your product photos are fundamentally consistent. That means they’re on the same background (or fit into the same background theme), are cropped to the same height and width, the product is consistently aligned within the photo, and your product fills about the same amount of the frame.

Take the following example from Zara.com. These four sweatshirts have some major differences: two are hooded, two are not; they’re different lengths (compare sleeves to hem); and quite different colors, patterns, and graphics.

But they’re easy to compare because they’re on the same neutral background, the photos are the same size and shape, and the hemlines and collars are roughly aligned within the photo.

Row of Zara kids sweatshirts with lines drawn demonstrating product image editing consistency

Get fundamentals right like background, cropping, and alignment, and it’s easy for shoppers to compare your products. Ex: Zara.com

That prevents eye jump and distraction, and allows the shopper to focus on the product.

It doesn’t necessarily matter whether your product is on a white background or a grey background, whether your products are bottom aligned or center aligned, if your photos are square or rectangular. What matters is that you’re consistent.

Outsource Flat Retouching to Pixelz

If you don’t have the time or capacity in-house to retouch your flats, you should consider using Pixelz online retouching platform.

Get Flats Retouched

Save time and money with the easiest way to retouch images online.
  • Over 30 million images retouched
  • Next morning delivery
  • Free trial

With Pixelz, you walk through an online wizard to set up “specifications” that are like retouching style guides, which you can then select when uploading images. On the Pixelz Professional plan, you can upload 500 images a day that will be returned “Next Morning,” meaning if you upload by midnight you get them back by 8:00 a.m. (your time) the following day.

Why should you use Pixelz? See what our customers are saying, and you’ll understand why we’ve retouched over 30 million images for leading brands and retailers.