ARTICLE

How the fashion industry generates thousands of persuasive product photographs every day

The StyleShoots Vertical is a product photography rig with built-in lighting, tablet-based control, and a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (soon to be updated to the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens to take the photos. © StyleShoots BV

Ever purchased clothes or shoes online? Then you know the persuasive power of a well-shot product photograph in convincing you to buy an item you haven't even touched, let alone tried on. At the largest retailers, a cascade of new products come to market at such a rate that a traditional photography studio would struggle to light and shoot them consistently at the volume required. So how do all these images get shot, cut out from their background in a consistent way, at a pace that can keep up with the ever-churning fashion industry? The answer lies in a fascinating combination of Canon cameras and automation.

Internationally, more than 300 fashion retailers – including Zalando, Forever 21, Kaufhof and Marks & Spencer – have now installed what can essentially be called photography machines. These are the result of a collaboration between Canon and Netherlands-based StyleShoots, enabling retailers to produce thousands of photographs and videos per day for their online stores. Here's how it works.

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StyleShoots' photography machines are large – the StyleShoots Vertical, for example, stands about 260cm high and is big enough that models and stylists can comfortably walk into the covered structure and mannequins can be wheeled in and placed in front of a large background lit with continuous lights. The StyleShoots Horizontal, which covers an area of about 220cm x 280cm, makes it possible to lay products out flat on a large table-top. Above this is a metal chassis with built-in lighting and a camera pointing down on the display.

The camera is a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (which is succeeded by the current Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with either a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens in the StyleShoots Vertical, or a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM in the StyleShoots Horizontal. However, soon a full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R will be in both. "Canon’s EOS R, with fewer moving parts than a traditional DSLR [with a mirror], is perfect for our automated photography setups where flawless continuous operation is essential," explains Anders Jorgensen, head of product at StyleShoots. Integrated in the machine is a custom-made stepper motor that rotates the zoom lens when users want to get a closer shot.

The camera can capture the subject from various angles, while the software works out the ideal lighting and settings according to the user's preferences, and even cuts out the background afterwards. Everything is controlled from a tablet managing StyleShoots' embedded software, and Canon's Software Development Kit (SDK) ensures the software can communicate with the camera and tell it to adjust zoom, tilt, and elevation. The operator can also change technical settings such as focus, exposure, white balance and much more via just a single touch of the screen.

A woman lays clothing on the bed of a StyleShoots Horizontal photography rig.
The StyleShoots Horizontal, designed for flatlay product photography, contains a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (but soon a Canon EOS R). © StyleShoots BV

Automation and control

The idea is to leave complex calculations to the machines and give the user a simple interface from which to generate quality content quickly. It's a one-touch solution so that it can be used not just by photographers, but by anyone in the styling team. This was the key requirement for Anders and his team. "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," Anders says. "The Canon equipment we use is an important component, and without the SDK from Canon, this whole thing would actually not be possible."

Using the custom app, users can see their product in the live view and alter light and shadow by swiping a finger along the X and Y coordinates on the touchscreen. Using the simple but powerful Click-WB feature, they can adjust the white balance by changing the colour temperature of the StyleShoots machine's built-in full-spectrum LEDs.

Because both the automated lighting and the white balance can be adjusted easily via the interface, the StyleShoots machines make it easy to achieve clear, natural colour rendition and realistic skin tones on models. The settings can be saved as presets in the StyleShoots software, along with pre-determined camera angles if desired, and recalled for use at a later date to ensure that images look consistent across product lines.

A model stands in the lights of a StyleShoots Live photography rig.
The StyleShoots Live is a compact studio capable of capturing both stills and video with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera (soon to be a Canon EOS R instead) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. Its software even offers customisable presets to configure the camera position, tilt, and zoom for fast setup and consistent results. © StyleShoots BV

From stills to video seamlessly

People gathered inside a chapel. Photo by Dafna Tal with a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens.

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Using the StyleShoots system combined with Canon technology, the StyleShoots Live and Eclipse machines are able to switch quickly and seamlessly between stills and video production. This allows retailers to output to multiple platforms in a variety of formats, cutting production time significantly compared to a traditional studio setup.

That's one of the reasons why, according to StyleShoots, it's up to four times faster, nine times cheaper and two and a half times more space efficient to use a StyleShoots machine, compared to the traditional approach for photographic stills and video.

But that doesn't mean sacrificing the creative aspect. "Fashion is all in the look," says Joerg Siemes, Canon Europe's director for Professional Imaging Sales and B2B Business Development. He emphasises the way the StyleShoots workflow puts creative control in the hands of users. "The tablet-based click-WB makes it possible to create truly bespoke content intuitively by offering ease of use, efficiency, compatibility and importantly, high-quality results."

A stylist adjusts a jumper on a mannequin, with a tablet previewing the scene as the camera sees it.
Live view on the tablet makes it straightforward for stylists to get everything right for the shoot, then use the simple interface on the tablet to adjust everything from the camera position to the white balance in order to get the look they need. © StyleShoots BV

Creative control, less post-processing

Anders emphasises the creative benefits of this simplified workflow. "People don't believe this equipment is as good as we say it is until they try it," he says. "When they try it, they start to see the possibilities. The stylists and photographers are the people who 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 [as in a more traditional workflow], they have no chance to compare or correct mistakes before the files are passed on to 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."

Thanks to the software's ability to intelligently adjust the lighting and carry out complex calculations, it's possible for backgrounds to be removed automatically, without an image retoucher having to lift a finger. "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 in the StyleShoots machines to produce a perfectly cut-out, professional quality image, with no distortions or unwanted background showing through," says Anders.

Autor Jason Parnell-Brookes and Kathrine Anker


StyleShoots' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take automated product photographs

A high-heeled shoe being photographed inside a StyleShoots Eclipse machine, with its Canon lens.

Cameras

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. It replaces the EOS 5D Mark III in Canon's current range.

Canon EOS R

A pioneering full-frame mirrorless camera that sets new standards, with a full-frame 30.3-megapixel sensor with impressive detail, ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF.

Lenses

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

A standard zoom lens that goes just that little bit further, whether you’re shooting photography or video. This lens is ideal for when you need to capture exceptional image quality, while travelling light.

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