Thursday, June 13, 2013

Etsy Forum FAQ - how to get a clean white background without using the lasso tool

I like to lurk around Etsy Forums sometimes, it gives me an idea of what other sellers are going through, and there are a few questions that get asked a lot. Like a lot a lot. Especially this one, which leads to quite a bit of confusion.

 "How do I get that white background for my photos?"

and then this question

"Why do colors photographed on white come out so dark--my purple doesn't look anything like purple!"

A user will present their photos, which are often taken in front of a white wall or white environment, but will be frustrated when it comes out, well...tan. Often they'll try using the lasso tool to "erase" the background, which never looks good, especially in shadow. Often they'll be told just to "erase better" and honestly, if you cut and paste an image you not only loose a lot of the vibrant color in the object, but you also loose it's sillhouette, which will always look jagged when lasso-ing.

Once upon a time, photographers had very particular studios and lighting to do product photography--their backgrounds came out white without photoshop. But nowadays, for amateurs shooting in our living room in less than ideal environments with less than ideal cameras, we have photoshop and Gimp (gimp is free and operates a lot of the same as Photoshop, and this tutorial still applies to you if you use it).

The longer you expose the film to light, the more likely you are to bump the camera. So, if you have a quicker shutter speed it will take crisper photos, but the quicker the shutter speed, the darker the image. If you're taking a close up, like I do with all my products, then you have an even bigger problem making the photo white enough since you're changing the size of the aperature. One quick way to solve this problem without photoshop isn't a cheap way, and it's a trigger you attach to your camera, so you don't have to manually click each photo, and won't be bumping the camera for longer exposures. I don't have one of those.
so here's a step by step.
First, you should crop your photo to the size you want it. It took me a while of using photoshop before I realized that when you select "crop" you get the option to input exactly the size and dpi you want it to set to. So, put these three numbers in that I did, and you'll have an image perfectly sized for uploading (make sure you indicate "px" for pixel, or else it will do inches and take 10 years to crop to 1000 inches and crash your computer, I do it all the time).

Now to bring the background to white you can do a few different things, I like to set levels. Under "Adjustments" you select levels and it will pop up this histogram below.  Histograms look like little mountains. They tell you how much of a shade is at each part of the graph. (the lower shades are at the left, the brighter at the right) in this case we have two large peaks at the right. One of those peaks is the tan color of the background. If we move the white arrow left, past that peak, the tan color disappears, and the other shades proportionally change, too. Way quicker and easier than a lasso tool.
Now I have a problem, I shot this indoors, and my white balance was a little off, look how red it is! This is the problem people have shooting colors on white (especially darker colors like green and purple)--but we can adjust that to make the color more accurate. Now see that pull down menu that says "RGB?" That means that this file is in RGB mode--so it follows RGB rules.

RGB color rules are different from CMYK color rules. CMYK refers to printer heads (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ((which is a "k" so's not to be confused with blue)) ) RGB refers to light (red, green, blue)

If you add Cyan, Magenta, Yellow (and even K) together, you get black, right? Well in light, if you add Red, Green, and Blue together, you'll get white.

This is important to know in RGB because color opposites are different now. The opposite of Red is blue, the opposite green is magenta (purple), and the opposite of blue is yellow.

So when we go into the red channel (the pull down menu you can select red) and pull the middle arrow away from red, it will turn more blue.
So we go into the blue channel and drag the arrow towards yellow.

That feels better.

Now I wanted more contrast, so I added another level. You could probably do it in the same Level1 layer, but I was feeling lazy, so I just added a second one rather than have to start over.

Then, I like to add a pink soft lighting to all my Etsy products. Etsy loves pink soft lighting right now. It's really easy to do, make a new layer, fill it a coral-pink shade with the paint bucket, change the pull down menu above it to "soft light" and then fiddle with the opacity to decide how intense you want the soft lighting. I like my items to look warmer, and since they're wood, it's still accurately representing my object.

I'll also go into my background layer and use the paintbrush to get rid of any dirt on my background.

and voila! I usually do this in large batches (of 30 or so images) to make sure that my images match each other. This isn't the only way to do this, you can use curves, you can use the little eye-dropper on the histogram to declare "white," but this is the way I do it. If you do a different way, I'd love to hear it in the comments, I'm sure there's thousands of different techniques.


  1. This is information I have always wondered about!!!! Wow!!! I have found your amazing shop on etsy and started following you there. I think every shop owner should have a blog connected to their etsy shop! It's part of the etsy world to see the real lives and experiences, outside of their shops. You're blogs are amazing your products the like and I am so excited to look throu the remainder of your posts here! My blog on blogger is not very active but I am on tumblr.