How TR gets (some of) its squeaky-clean product photos

If you follow our intrepid Editor in Chief on Twitter, you might have read his tweets about a little misattribution mishap a couple of months back. In short, another site mistakenly copied one of the photos from my Radeon HD 7800-series review and attributed it to AMD, even though I'd snapped the shot myself. Here's what Scott said at the time:

FWIW, TR doesn't use stock photos. Those are our own! We work hard on them. Like this one:
However, our photos are often taken by other sites. Like this one at DT, sourced to AMD!
So if you ever wonder how TR gets access to all of those great, clean pictures, the answer is: hard work we put into our own photography.

The attribution error was soon corrected, and all was well.

But that didn't address the broader issue: our photos often look a little too clean, and some folks seem to mistake them for stock images supplied by the companies we cover. Part-time TR coder Bruno Ferreira told me one of his acquaintances, another TR reader, thinks we don't do any of the photography in our reviews—which couldn't be farther from the truth. We do occasionally insert stock pics when we don't have the products at hand, but we always label them. See, for example, the third image here.

To help clear things up, I'd like to take you on a little behind-the-scenes tour of my homebrewed photo studio. Scott and Geoff and our other writers have their own setups in their own labs, but they follow a largely similar procedure. Besides, we all know I take the best pictures around here. Ahem.

Here's a still life of my photography gear. Excuse the murky picture; I couldn't use my good camera or lights for this one, obviously. The items you see are as follows:

  • Canon Digital Rebel XSi DSLR camera with EF-S 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6 IS kit lens
  • Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC prime lens
  • Smith-Victor SMKT500 KT-500U tungsten light kit with umbrellas
  • Vanguard MK-2 tripod
  • Adobe Photoshop CS4
  • Roll of 3.5'-wide craft paper
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Drug store pencil eraser

The Rebel XSi is invaluable, but I'd say the most crucial components of the setup are the lighting kit and the tripod. No, really. You just can't take squeaky-clean product photos without good lights. Using a direct flash will generally make the subject look flat and two-dimensional, and more often than not, it'll cast harsh shadows, as well. What we want are smooth, soft-edged shadows, and a decent set of tungsten lights and umbrellas makes them very easy to obtain.

The tripod helps get as much light as possible into the camera's sensor without sacrificing image quality. I tend to shoot with shutter speeds in the 0.3-0.4" range, which lets me lower the aperture to f/14 and stay at ISO 200. If I weren't using a tripod, I'd have to raise the shutter speed to 1/80 or so to compensate for my unsteady hands. That would mean, in turn, increasing the aperture and cranking up the ISO, which would leave me with a shorter depth of field (i.e. a blurrier foreground and background) and much more background noise. Not good.

Here's the gear in action. The two tunsgtens spit out a combined 500W, which bounces against the unfurled craft paper to produce those clean white backdrops we all love. Some products leave dark blemishes on the paper, and that's where the pencil eraser come in.

Also, throughout each shoot, I'll keep wiping down the product with the microfiber cloth to get rid of smudges, fingerprints, and dust. That helps more with glossy surfaces like laptop bezels than with matte ones like GPU coolers, but I do it regardless. Closeups have a funny way of magnifying little imperfections.

Instead of hitting the shutter release manually, I tether the camera to my PC and use Canon's excellent EOS Utility. The program essentially works like a shutter remote on steroids, with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO controls, not to mention a live preview window that shows me exactly what I just snapped. It's a huge time saver. I don't need to squint at the camera's tiny LCD and wonder how it's going to look on a real display. Also, the high-res preview lets me check for stray dust motes and whatever else survived the microfiber rubdown.

Each shot gets automatically downloaded to my computer in RAW format. Why RAW and not JPEG? Adobe Camera Raw is why. The software allows for post-hoc exposure and white balance corrections, plus all kinds of useful little tweaks, like a "recovery" slider for overexposed highlights and a "fill light" slider that brightens up darker, underexposed areas without affecting the rest. Since RAWs are lossless with 14 bits per color channel, those tweaks don't bring up ugly compression artifacts.

Of course, I rarely use Camera Raw for white balance corrections. I just configure white balance directly on the camera before shooting. All it takes is a shot of my backdrop sans subject and a trip down the Rebel XSi's menu tree, to the "Custom WB" control, and I'm all set.

The last step before a photo makes it into one of our reviews is Photoshop. Here, I adjust levels to make sure the background is as close to white as possible without sacrificing detail. I then crop as close as possible to the edges of the subject.

And there's the result. Not one of my best, and maybe a little overexposed because of the reflective aluminum shroud, but you get the idea.

Any questions?

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