What About Layers (and Cut-Outs), Part 1

These days the best image-editing applications utilize a process and structure known as “layers.”  Photoshop pioneered the use of layers in the early 1990’s, and it has been the industry standard in high-end image-editing applications ever since.

Effectively, the way it works is this.  Various parts of the original image are digitally selected and “cut out,” separated from the rest of the photograph, and placed on different digital photographic layers.  This allows them to be treated and edited separately from the rest of the photograph.

Here’s how to think of it.  Imagine you have several transparent sheets of plastic.  On the top one you have the image of a piece of jewelry, with nothing else around it.  On the next one you have only the reflection of that piece of jewelry.  On the one under that you have nothing but the shadow of the piece of jewelry, and on the bottom sheet you have a background that goes behind the entire picture.  With them all stacked up, if you look at them from above, you have the complete photograph.


Photoshop works in a manner analogous to this, except that the layers are created in the image-editing software, and since it is digital, you have even more ability to alter the image than in the real world.  But in general, this is a good way to think about it.  What you see below is the image which is broken out in layers, above.  As you can see, when it is all put together the final result is quite nice.


So what’s the advantage?  Having your image broken apart like this allows you to edit individual aspects of the image independently from the rest of the photograph.  Say you want a different background.  You simply take out the sheet (or layer) with the background on it and replace it with a new one with a different background, and voila, your piece of jewelry is on a different background, and everything else is the same.  Likewise, it’s the same with that shadow or reflection.  Since they are on different layers you can change or replace them without affecting the rest of the photo.

Sounds great, eh?  Well, it is great, when used judiciously.  Using this technique it is possible to create very polished, consistent images which are very professional-looking, images which are better by far than what can be created completely “in camera.”  The risk, however, with this kind of editing is that if it is not done well, the image will look “doctored,” or “Photoshopped.”  And while absolutely nothing has been done here to alter or enhance the piece of jewelry itself, if the image looks artificial it will immediately call attention to itself, which can call into question its authenticity, in particular in the mind of a juror.

Here’s another problem.  Occasionally one of my clients tells me about an image service that promises that with the images they produce, they will “cut out your artwork and place it on a transparent layer, and then you can easily place your art on whatever background you choose,” thereby greatly enhancing your ability to use one image in many different ways.  It is a great sales gimmick.  Shoot one picture and then easily alter it and suddenly you have several, all looking great, to be used wherever the artist wants.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t always work that way.  There are a number of reasons.  Probably the main one is that it is simply not always possible to place something from one photograph into another and have it look like it belongs there, at least not without a lot of (expensive) work.  Many things can affect this process which make it more or less effective, or more or less difficult and ineffective.

One issue is, can the piece of art be reasonably well “cut out” from the background on which it is shot?  If it can’t be separated from its original background it can’t be placed on a new one.  To cut out an image digitally it is necessary to be able to select the piece, or the background, in the original photograph.  For that to work requires a fair amount of skill and planning on the part of the photographer during the original photography, in knowing how to “shoot for the cut-out.”  It is also necessary that your art have clean, crisp borders.  Items with fuzzy edges, such as fiber or hair, or areas of soft focus with blurred edges, often simply can’t be cut out properly.  Also items which have lots of holes or transparent areas through which one can see the original background present a challenge to the process.  Often it can be done, but it can be very time consuming.

In the art and craft world, probably this process sees its most use in jewelry photography.  Jewelry has many advantages when it comes to this process, and it is most often in the world of jewelry photography one can find photographers offering to shoot your work in such a way that it can be “easily placed on any background of your choice.”

The fact is, even with jewelry which generally has crisp edges and clean borders and lends itself well to this process, it is not always successful.  The reason for this is inherent in the jewelry medium itself.  Jewelry is generally reflective, because it is usually polished.  Being polished, it is quite common, indeed almost unavoidable, for the background on which the piece of jewelry is resting during the original photography to be reflected in at least some surfaces of the jewelry when it is photographed.  Parts of the jewelry that “turn under,” such as the bottom half of the shank of a ring, will inevitably reflect the original surface, and in general, all the edges of any piece of jewelry will reflect the surface on which it is resting, at least to a degree.

This is completely normal, and it is so normal that one’s eye expects to see it.  If it’s not there the image looks weird, artificial.  When a piece of jewelry is sitting on a dark surface in a photograph, because of our long familiarity with how things look in the real world, our eye expects the undersides and edges of the piece of jewelry to be dark.  If they are not, the image doesn’t look realistic, or looks “cartoon-like”, which can produce a very negative perception of the image.  Likewise, if the image is sitting on a light surface, we expect the edges and undersides to be light.  If they are not, we think something is wrong.

(I would like to post an example here to show you what I’m talking about, but the fact is, I don’t post ugly pictures of my client’s work on my site.  It does them no good, and doesn’t do me any favors, either.  You will just have to take my word for it.  It’s not pretty.)

Takeaway:   So here’s the problem with the notion that you can simply cut out your piece of jewelry and magically place it on whatever background you choose.  When photographed, the jewelry retains telltale traces of the surface upon which it was originally shot, and there is no getting around this.  Your eye expects it.  So when you take a piece of jewelry and place it on a background that is very different from the original background, the viewer of the image is liable to say things like “It looks cut out,” or “It looks like it doesn’t belong there,” or “It looks like it is floating in space.”  All of these can be very negative assessments of the image, and, by inference, the piece of jewelry itself.

So, should the artist not have images produced using layers?  Of course not.  Used properly layers are a very powerful tool.  I use them in all of my jewelry photography and have for more than a decade.  It is the best way to produce very high-end, polished and professional images.  But it has its limits, and the artist should look askance at extravagant promises.  What seems too good to be true, usually is.

(Many thanks to my friend Ben Dyer for the use of his image.)


Stay Tuned for Parts 2 & 3…

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