The StyleShoots revolution: one-touch fashion product photography
StyleShoots designs and manufactures all-in-one photography machines incorporating touch-control lighting, LED backlighting and an EOS 5D Mark III DSLR mounted in a single heavy-duty chassis. Designed for high-volume fashion product photography where consistency is key, the unit allows the photographer a fully-featured solution to style, shoot, and – thanks to special software – produce a shot with the background removed in a matter of seconds. Too good to be true? CPN Editor David Corfield discovers more...
The high-pressure world of fashion retail owes much to the energy and efficiency of the behind-the-scenes teams that bring catalogues to life with enticing images of the latest styles and trends. The images within, of shirts, dresses and accessories all shot on clean white backgrounds and beautifully lit are the staple of the industry and StyleShoots’ Head of Product and Marketing, Anders Jorgensen, recognised that there was a potential for something to take away the headache of shooting products with consistency and quality, giving stylists and photographers the freedom to work without the worry of lighting complications and inconsistencies.
Jorgensen joined StyleShoots in its very early days, before the company even had a real product on the market. When looking to design a product that could serve the needs of the fast-paced, high-volume product photography market, he spent a great deal of time in and out of customers’ photo studios - which were mostly an assortment of cameras, lamps and tripods not geared for real scalability. He noticed a familiar pattern, a fundamental problem that no-one seemed to acknowledge even existed.
“Why am I running back and forth from the camera and computer?” he remembers thinking. “Why am I opening [Adobe] Lightroom or Photoshop in the first place? Is it because I want to fiddle around in Photoshop? How could we create a solution that takes us from shooting the product to making it web-ready in the quickest possible time?”
Seeing the effort taken to set up each shot correctly and understanding that cutting out the background of product shots is time intensive and extremely repetitive – especially when it comes to dealing with the thousands of images that online and physical retailers process every day – Jorgensen realised that “…nobody was stepping all the way back and reviewing how they take a product shot in the first place. That’s what we did.”
A one-click solution
Under Jorgensen’s team, they set themselves the goal to offer a one-touch solution, a fully automated package. He reveals: “We asked ourselves ‘how far can we get with this premise?’ And based on that goal we designed a perfect software package using the expertise of professors and industry experts with incredible image manipulation experience.”
“How can you remove the background automatically? When you start asking questions like that we realised that we needed a system that can, on its own, alter the settings around a subject and make multiple images where the subject remains the same and the LED backlight flashes on and off and then compare them, run a series of algorithms before then spitting out an image that is background-free.”
“The powerful algorithms can even detect the background down to a single pixel, so products with a fine mesh - like sheer scarves for example - can still be used with the StyleShoots machines to produce a perfectly cut-out, professional quality image - with no distortions or unwanted background showing through.”
“We realised that in order to do something as automated as we wanted we would need to make everything ourselves and use the best materials. The Canon equipment we use is an important component.”
Jorgensen explains the early days: “We started off basically with Gaffer tape and wood to test the first concept. We took two shots of the same product, one with a flash illuminating the background, and one without - and looked at what we could do to achieve a perfect shot with no background. We prototyped and iterated with materials, LEDs, designs, software algorithms, UI concepts and in a few months we had a prototype which we showed at a retail trade show in 2011. The feedback we got was just so beyond what we had dared dream of. People were so taken by the idea of a one-touch solution that they were queuing up to see it. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.”
“Not only was the technology we developed of removing the background new, but we used an iPad as the single point of control - from adjusting lighting, zoom, exposure, contrast - you name it. It was the first time anything of this kind had been used.”
“After that first event we spent the next six months redesigning the complete thing to do it for real. The solution that came from that is very similar to what you see today.”
He continues: “The product is made to cover 80 percent of fashion-based objects. It’s made for things such as shirts, dresses, blazers, jeans, kids clothing, mens, womens, you name it. We are proud to make the world’s only all-in-one photo machines for mannequin photography, lay-flat photography and tabletop photography. Our units are now installed at more than 300 fashion brands worldwide - with big names such as Zalando, Forever 21, Kaufhof, Marks & Spencer to name a few - taking over 2 million photos per year.”
Jorgensen adds: “We realised that in order to do something as automated as we wanted, we would need to make everything ourselves and use only the best materials. The Canon equipment we use is, of course, genuinely an absolutely essential element.”
Shooting with style
Jorgensen is quick to praise the Canon element to his product. “The EOS 5D Mark III is the best camera out there by far. It allows you to do a lot, and we supply a kit that has the best of the best. We build the complete product and software, tightly integrated due to Canon’s industry leading and incredibly powerful SDK. We picked the one and only camera we felt was perfect for StyleShoots. We knew that we had to choose a camera that was universally loved by photographers.”
The StyleShoots system uses an EOS 5D Mark III DSLR mated to either an EF70-200mm f/4L IS II USM or an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom, depending on which model - the StyleShoots Horizontal or StyleShoots Vertical. The camera and lighting (multi-award winning Rotolight LEDs chosen for their reputation for quality and lifespan) are ready to go at the touch of an iPad, with user intervention kept to a minimum, so the system can be used by anyone, regardless of photographic knowledge. “When combining all of these crucial elements, the technical complexity is completely nullified so stylists and photographers need only tap away.”
“The whole camera is enclosed within the steel chassis, and we even constructed our own StyleShoots stepper motor that rotates the the EF zoom lens when the user needs to get closer to the subject.”
The hard and software
Aside from the camera, the software created to control every aspect of lighting and shooting is a critical part of the whole StyleShoots operation. Jorgensen explains: “It is the soul of the machine. When you first see the machine what strikes you is the size of it. The software is the engine that controls everything. There is zero Adobe or anything running in there, it’s all custom made by us. The LED backlight, the camera zoom motor, it is all custom electronics. An embedded Mac Mini is sitting enclosed in every machine and that controls every aspect of the StyleShoots operation. The user interaction comes from an iPad that is part of the package and all aspects of control are at the user’s fingertips.”
“People don't believe this equipment is as good as we say it is until they try it. And when they try it, then they start to see the possibilities. The stylists and photographers are the people that use this equipment. Not only are they the ones setting up and taking the pictures in the first place, but they are also the ones with the styling knowledge to evaluate whether the result complies with the company style guide, for example. To capture the best possible image, the stylists may want to shoot a few different versions before exporting. But if the files are saved immediately, they have no chance to compare or correct mistakes before the files are passed onto the guys in post processing. Ultimately, this can lead to someone down the line starting to work on an image that isn't necessarily the best one. We eliminate all that thanks to our carefully developed algorithms and clipping paths.”
Jorgensen makes it clear that the StyleShoots solution is aimed at established retailers and ecommerce outlets that handle a never-ending stream of products and process thousands of web-ready images every day. And for those brands, the payoff comes quicker than expected.
“Outsourcing might sound like a good idea” he rues, “But that’s assuming you get exactly what you need at the time you need it - and have to deal with the constant back-and-forth in the process. When investing in a StyleShoots Horizontal or Vertical machine, you keep everything in-house along with the quality and consistency fashion brands and their consumers demand. This is the ultimate all-in-one solution; it changes the way you run your content production workflow.”
“Our newest equipment means users can create stunning product photos at the touch of a button. And for the first time ever, you can now adjust light and shadow with just the swipe of a finger, bringing out all the details in your products. This is a significant technical achievement only made possible by us integrating all components into a single machine and using industry leading LED lighting along with Canon equipment.”
“What’s more impressive is that StyleShoots opens up a whole new way of styling products and garments on the fly. By using the included iPad app, users can see their product in the live view and alter light and shadow using the swipe of a finger. Using X and Y coordinates on the touch screen, the finger’s position is translated to changes in the built-in full-spectrum LEDs.”
“We are confident that our products are an ideal solution to brands’ and online retailers' frustrations at the cost of photography,” Jorgensen concludes. “With StyleShoots the only limitation to how many pieces you can photograph is the speed of your stylist...”
StyleShoots is a Dutch company at the cutting edge of automated product photography. Its pioneering equipment is revolutionising the way that fashion brands can capture collection imagery. Both its Vertical and Horizontal machines are already in use by brands around the world - such as Marks & Spencer, Forever 21, Macy’s, Zalando, and Kaufhof to name a few - to handle not only their web-ready images, but also to empower their marketing and visual merchandising efforts. StyleShoots machines have been widely acclaimed by the fashion and photography industries and the company was named National Champion in European Business Awards 2015/16 earlier this year. Click here for more information.