A critical first step in a good photo shoot, is to properly set white balance. Without setting this important detail, your image will turn out some obscure shade of color. In any precision photo I have taken, I have found the presets are garbage. On a perfect sunny day, yes leave it on auto, but when shooting in a lightbox, with your custom lighting setup, manual setting of white balance is a MUST. The modes you'll see in your DSLR will be similar to this list: Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Sunlight, Cloudy, Flash, Shade, Tungsten, and Preset. To set a custom white balance, we will want to use PRESET. On both Canon and Nikon cameras, the process is pretty much the same: take a single photo of a pure white scene (whatever your lighting and background is) and then go into your camera's menu>white balance setting, and use that image you just took to set white balance. Some have used a grey card and say it works too, but if you don't have the special grey card from the photo lab, any white paper, tile or cardstock should work.
Out of all the tricks in digital photography, nothing is more important than getting proper exposure. There is a false assumption going around that you can just "fix it in Photoshop." As you probably already know, and experienced, changing the exposure [inside photoshop or other image editing software] pretty much ruins most of the picture data, leaving you with a high-grain, over processed look from your over or under exposed image. Even when shooting in Raw format, getting proper exposure must be mastered. If you are more than 1 stop away from the correct exposure setting, your image will come out bad.
Understanding how Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO work together is key, and plenty of experience helps as well. Changing one, always affects the other, but there is a better way to do it, by reading your DSLR camera gauges. There is a small gauge in the viewfinder that tells you weather you are too low or too high. In manual mode, once you get the Shutter speed and Aperture balanced to produce a +/- 0 (zero) on the gauge, you are in the sweet spot! Fire away and enjoy your perfectly exposed photos!
Getting your image in focus is of course another critical step. When it comes to smaller, more detailed images, you may notice that parts of the image are in focus, and other parts get gradually fuzzy - it's usually a pleasant bokeh effect, but sometimes, unwanted. This is especially noticeable in jewelry photography. You may already know that a small aperture increases depth of field, and a large aperture decreases depth of field. This means the lower f stops (ie: f2.2, f5.6, larger hole) will produce a thinner focus plane, while the larger f stops (ie: f22, f36, smaller hole) will allow more of the image to be in focus.
There is a great technique called Stack Focusing you can use, to get 100% focused images. We are well within the digital age, and image processing is very advanced these days. You can take your photo at multiple focus points, and using specialized software, input all those images, and the computer will calculate every best focused point combining them into one completely focused image. I highly recommend using this technique!
There are multiple methods to achieve the much sought-after "pure white background" style. Many product websites with shopping carts or bidding systems need the solid white to keep things clean and simple. To get the white background, first thing is first: start by shooting the item on a solid white surface, preferably in a soft lightbox. Adjust lighting, adjust for perfect exposure, then after shooting the perfect image, you'll be ready to move over to Photoshop.
I have used 5 different methods which have worked. Use the best one for your situation and comfort level. NOTE: After tinkering with post production for so long, I discovered that exposure during the shooting process is key, reducing Photoshop processing greatly.
Method #1 - Adjust Curves (CTRL-M in Photoshop.) In the Curves panel, there are 3 eyedroppers, which can let you set black level, grey level, and white level. Using the GREY eyedropper, I have found setting the grey point FIRST, tells Photoshop where the mid-point is, which helps the overall image composition. Use this in conjunction with the [next] Levels step. The pixel you choose will sometimes make the whole image turn some obscure color. If that happens, do not hit 'ok'. You can cancel out and redo this until you see nice, balanced color tone.
Method #2 - Adjusting Levels (CTRL-L in Photoshop.) In the Levels panel, you will see 3 arrows representing the Black, the Grey, and the White balance levels. (notice how similar this is to Curves panel.) The black and grey you can usually leave alone, but the white [furthest to the right] you can slide back and forth. Take a look at the image curve and slide the white arrow to the left, right up to the curve of the histogram. This should do 90% of the work. Careful not to slide too far - the good portion of the image will start to fade. Use your eye and best judgement to get the best results. Often, returning to CURVES to set the white point will finish the job (* not shown in order here.) The order would be: 1) Set Curves grey point, 2) Set Levels, 3) Set Curves white point.
Method #3 - Use the Paths tool. Hopefully, your image has smooth edges, and not too many complex curves and bends. A point to make is this method is not for beginners of Photoshop. You must become familiar with the Paths, Pen Tool & Bézier Curves to get the best results. If you are not there yet, I would recommend looking up tutorials specifically on using that tool. Ok, after that forewarning, you would use the Pen tool to trace the entire outline of the item - neatness counts here! Every curve and every angle should match up with the image. After that process is complete, you will flip to the Paths tab (usually right next to Layers box) and see the path you have drawn. There is a dotted circle at the bottom that will convert your path lines into a selection. Press that, hit CTRL-C, then CTRL-V this will cut your selection, then paste it on a new layer. Flipping back to the Layers panel, you will now see your item cut out, on a second layer. Turn off the bottom layer, revealing the transparent background of layer 2. Create new layer, fill with 100% white using paint bucket. When you slide that white layer under the item later, you will now see what you cut out on a pure white background!
Method #4 - Dodge Tool. Select Dodge Tool from tools panel (looks like a lolipop.) Set Range to: Highlights, and Exposure to: 100%. You'll also want to set the size to a good size for your image, and the hardness around 40-50%. Since you already have your image on an "almost white" background, this will clean and purify that background. Duplicate the bottom background layer as your first step. Take your pen (if lucky enough to have a graphic pen) or mouse and hold down button while moving across white area. If there are shadows, you will see them brighten as you move close to the item. Basically continue sweeping across all white area, getting right up to the edge of the item (we will clean it up in next step if you go over line.) Ok, after white area is sanitized, you will have this 2nd layer selected, then hit the "Add Layer Mask" button in the layers panel. Take the foreground/background tool and make sure it's on defaults, with black selected as foreground. Using the Brush tool, you can now "paint" the cleanups. Anything you paint black, will be removed, so now is the time to clean any edge mistakes you made. After this process is worked a little, you will get more familiar with how to get the best results.
Method #5 - Create Fill Layer. This has a very similar technique to the Dodge tool method, but has distinct differences. After selecting and duplicating your background layer, hit the "Create new fill or adjustment layer." Select "solid color" as the option, and select 100% white as the color. Now you have a 2nd layer to work on, with the original layer safe on bottom. This layer is pure white now, so you can't even see bottom layer. Change this layer opacity to 50-60% so you can see underneath. Using the Pen tool, with black color selected, this will "erase" all parts of the white that are over the product. Go over the edges carefully, and all parts of the image you want to show. (Anything that shouldn't be white.) You can use grey to create "semi-transparent" erasing, ie: if there are shadow areas. Once you've done a good job of coloring back in your image, you should be ready to export your image and call it a day (or move on to next image!)
Plenty of other great tricks, techniques, tools, and filters can be found in photoshop. This will be covered in another article!