A Retouching Stack for Product Shots on the Web

You often hear the term “stack” when it comes to development, but it’s kinda of fun to think of the layers of a Photoshop document as a stack, too.

At work, I have to retouch a lot of product photos for the web. That allows a lot of affordances over preparing images for print. Not having to clip images alone is enough to bring a smile on even the most seasoned retouchers.

A quick bit about the process. Product images are shot on a white sweep in RAW. Lightroom is used to capture and do some initial adjustments — taking advantage of the RAW file format. Once in Photoshop, it’s embedded into a 1000px X 1000px file as a smart object. The smart object is where all the editing is done at full resolution.

In the smart object there are typically 3 layers above the photo;

  • A “Fixes” Layer
  • A Dodge & Burn Layer

Fixes Layer

This layer is for fixing pixels. Cloning, replacement, relocation. Things that are related to pixel manipulation. It doesn’t have to be a single layer, but the premise is that it lives above the photo and below the Levels Adjustment layer.

Levels Adjustment Layer

There’s an old trick with Levels that allows you to sample white from your image. If the sweep is white and that is the baseline for everything white in the photo, use the white eyedropper in the levels palette to sample a close to an over-exposed area of the white sweep. This will bring the levels up slightly and bring the balance of color to reference the white sweep.

Dodge and Burn

Here’s another old Photoshop trick. A layer filled with 50% gray with its blending mode set to Overlay. The Dodge and Burn tools can be used nondestructively to dodge and burn highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. This is great for reducing glare, gaining clarity of product through glass and reducing shadows, to name a few.

Wrapping it all up

Saving these changes and closing the smart object bring those updates into the original Photoshop document. Soft masking is done here to make transparent areas go to a white layer below. This is where I really enjoy retouching for the web vs. print. Clipping is not required here for product shots on white.

There’s some automation that can be applied here. For example, the creation of the smart object and the initial creation of the different layers. If there are hundreds of photos to retouch, saving a few seconds on each step will save minutes and hours at the end of a large project.