Online shops are a must have for every retail company – consumers regularly will check online for special deals, style inspiration and much more. A good online shop must incorporate high-quality product images for customers in order to drive sales. To help brands and retailers get better quality photos of their clothes – faster and cheaper than ever before – Dutch fashion tech startup StyleShoots has developed a unique all-in-one photography machine which produces great quality pictures in minutes, with the background automatically removed using some clever technology. We got in touch with StyleShoots to learn how their machine works, along with some key tips about fashion product photography and future industry trends. Stephen Warr, PR representative at StyleShoots explains all:
PA1: Hello Stephen, could you explain where the idea for StyleShoots came from? And give us a little bit of background into your company?
Stephen: We recently just celebrated our 5 year anniversary at our headquarters in Haarlem, the Netherlands. It’s been a great journey and our photo machines are now used by retailers and fashion brands across the world – Zalando, Zulily, Macy’s, Forever 21 and more to name a few – to shoot high quality images of their clothes. We currently have two models on the market: Horizontal for shooting flat lay, and Vertical for shooting using special ‘Ghost Mannequins’. Now, around 500 of our machines are in use worldwide – giving us a great understanding of our clients’ photography needs.
StyleShoots came about from us realising that no one was stepping back and looking at how the whole process of product photography could be improved. We looked at a traditional photography studio and asked ourselves questions like: ‘How can we make this quicker?’, ‘How can we remove the technical difficulties of photography and focus on styling the product itself?’. ‘Why do we need all these seperate pieces of equipment like tripods and lights that need to be adjusted constantly?’ and ‘Why is so much post-production time spent cropping out the background?’.
By asking ourselves and others these questions, we realised the world was missing a solution that tackles all of these issues in one. We then developed the first prototype of what we now know as StyleShoots Horizontal – a photo machine that contained everything that’s needed to shoot a product flat lay. It includes lighting, a pro-level camera and an iPad to control it all – with a special algorithm that ‘magically’ cuts out the background of an image in seconds.
Ghost Mannequins for StyleShoots Vertical
The next product we developed was StyleShoots Vertical. This machine was designed for shooting‘invisible man’ product shots using special ghost mannequins – where it looks like someone invisible is wearing a t-shirt for example. We even developed a custom range of Magic Mannequins as well as partnering up with German manufacturer Pentherformes Group to create special ‘Made for StyleShoots’ mannequins – making getting these kinds of shots simpler than ever before, and with a minimal amount of post-processing.
PA1: When did the project StyleShoots begin? How much time did you need for the first prototype?
Stephen: What we now know as StyleShoots Horizontal was actually protoyped extremely quickly. The first prototype of what you see today started development in October 2010 and was shown at Euroshop in February 2011 – a 9 month turnaround. Once we recieved a great deal of interest around it, we began working fast to create a machine that was ready for the mass market. Interestingly, around the time when we started prototyping the StyleShoots Horizontal machine, the iPad had just hit the market. We saw it as an opportunity to make sure we were using the latest tech in our proof of concept. Using the latest and greatest tech in our machines helped greatly in demoing the first StyleShoots prototype, because in September 2011 we shipped our first machine.
PA1: Where do the founder come from? Have they been in contact with product photography before creating StyleShoots?
Stephen: StyleShoots was founded as an offshoot of a company called Visual Retailing who provide some really innovative software solutions for the retail industry. Maurits Teunissen, Styleshoots’ CEO, founded Visual Retailing and comes from a very strong business and fashion retail background. Some of this experience and knowledge was essential in helping us spread our wings into the fashion market.
Anders Jorgensen, our Head of Product and Marketing, was the one who conceived what we now know as StyleShoots in the first place. His background wasn’t in product photography however – rather Engineering and Interaction Design. It was him who began looking at the entire process of product photography and how it could be improved.
Whilst we didn’t have any who you would consider ‘experts’ in product photography to begin with, we recruited some of the country’s finest professors and scientists who specialised in digital imaging when developing our proprietary tech. We think that not actually having strong experience in the field to begin with helped us approach the whole process from a different angle – bringing in experts when it was needed, with one of these experts now being our Chief Technology Officer.
Simple touch control of the machine with an iPad
PA1: What about operating a StyleShoots machine, does the user just need a tablet?
Stephen:That’s exactly why we include an iPad with each machine – to control all of the elements from one place. It was always a priority of ours to make sure that the process of shooting a an article of clothing was as seamlessly simple and intuitive as possible. We didn’t want a situation where elements of the machine had to be controlled from different places. When a user walks up to the machine, all they need to do is open up the included iPad. As soon as they open the cover, the machine comes to life. The next step is placing the product within the frame and styling it on the glass surface (or on a special Ghost Mannequin for our Vertical machine). The iPad offers a live view of the product, so a stylist can see exactly how their final shot will come out. All that’s needed is for them to focus on styling the product and when they’re ready, tap the shoot icon.
A thing that a lot of people think is really cool about the machines is our ‘Light Composer’ feature. We have four film industry-acclaimed Rotolight LEDs (five on our Vertical machine) that can be controlled simply by swiping a finger across the iPad. Here’s a video where you can see the global light balance being controlled – it can create some really dramatic shadows and highlights.
PA1: Our readers are always interested in tips about photography, what are your favourite suggestions for a perfect product picture, e.g. the light setting?
Stephen: We love sharing tips on how to get the perfect product picture. One of of the first things we mention is to make sure great care and detail is focused on styling the product. That means using things like clips and pins to shape proportions nicely, and stuffing a shirt, for example, with tissue paper to add depth and body. You can see a lot of our styling tutorials on our website.
When it comes to lighting, there’s a lot you can do to achieve remarkably different styles of shot. You can cast light from a very sharp angle to achieve a much more shadowed look, or straight down onto the product if you’re going for something that’s much more neutral.
Going to photo studios around the world to train users how to get the best possible shots out of their machine is also big part of what we do here at StyleShoots. As well as that, we have a YouTube channel where we’ve published lots of high quality product photography tutorial videos showing how to get great shots for specific kinds of clothing.
Focus on styling your product for a good shot
PA1: And finally, what do you think about the future prospects for retail product photography? Any new trends or new technologies you’re keeping your eye on?
Stephen: You can see from the amount of investment many online and omnichannel retailers are putting into eCommerce that there is huge potential in the technology of not just product photography, but everything from production to shipping.
We even used our machines in a special ‘embedded studio’ concept that you can read about here – this was done to shorten the time it takes to photograph a product and ship it out to a fulfilment center. Whilst there will always be traditional ecommerce shopping platforms, we’re seeing a potential explosion in a much more multi-channel approach. The recent developments in Facebook’s shopping platform as well as Instagram’s newly announced one make us feel there is a lot to be said for integrating photo content with a much more curated, exciting way of discovering it.
Overall, we see product photography expanding to create a more ‘tangible’ experience, finding ways to connect the customer in a more experiential way. And of course we’re always investigating the possibilities of how we can automate even more things to make this kind of photography simpler, more cost effective – and ultimately more fun.