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A few marks and the background is gone!

A lot of people have asked me if PhotoPrep has a feature to remove photo backgrounds. At this point PhotoPrep doesn’t have such a feature :(

Last year I did some quick tests to see if I could create white backgrounds – either with careful photography or by using an app to remove the backgrounds. I didn’t have much success at either. It seemed like getting a solid white background wasn’t going to happen without special photography skills and/or high-end software.

However after hearing so many requests from users in the past few months I decided to do some research and find out exactly how background removal really works.

The Holy Grail – Product Photos with a 100% Solid White Background

If you sell products on Amazon a 100% solid white background is required. It won’t hurt in an eBay or Google Stores photo either :) Solid colored backgrounds have two key benefits:

  1. They make your shop or listing look more professional – your photos have a consistent look.
  2. They remove visual distractions from the product on offer.

The Problem – It’s Not That Easy to Do

When I asked people ‘isn’t there an app out there that works?‘ what I heard back from users kind of matched my own experiences:

  • I tried several different apps and got poor results‘ Nothing seems to work as advertised.
  • I can’t shoot a photo and get a perfect solid background‘ Even with careful lighting using a white seamless background and lighting I got shadows and color casts.
  • I have a lot of photos to edit‘ I know it’s possible for experts to ‘Photoshop’ out backgrounds – but that takes skills I don’t have and a lot of time.

Looked For A Solution

I looked for an app that has these qualities:

  1. Easy to remove the background and swap in a solid white (or another color) background .
  2. Works well with most ‘product photos’ – By this I mean photos with a main object that has solid edges. Objects that are translucent or have fuzzy edges need further research and perhaps special software.
  3. Works well with photos that are NOT perfectly exposed and don’t have perfectly lit backgrounds.
  4. Automated or semi-automated – to save time working on multiple photos.
  5. Intuitive – it must have a short learning curve and not be too painful to use on a regular basis.
  6. Fast – of course.
  7. Free to try – I am still learning how this all works so no up front commitment.
  8. Free or low cost to use – again we are not talking about a Hollywood production here!

What I Found – White Backgrounds Can Be Easy!

I found 3 browser-based and 2 desktop apps that worked well enough to mention. After a bit of practice I was able to remove the background from most photos in a minute or two.

What’s Different This Time?

With some research into how apps like these work under the hood and about 2 hours of practice I was able to get decent results with all the apps, some trouble spots noted below. If I had been smart enough to look at the docs and videos first I could have saved an hour.


Here’s How It Works

The Process

All these apps work the same way. You make some marks to tell the app what is ‘foreground’ or the main object, and what is background. The software then thinks a bit and shows you the photo with the background removed.

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Select Foreground and Background, then Magic Happens!

4 Basic Steps

  1. Mark the ‘foreground’ or object you want to keep. Note that you ‘mark’, not ‘color in’.
  2. Mark the background to be removed.
  3. Process the photo and review the results.
  4. Go back and refine the edges as needed. This is what takes most of the time. Some images don’t need any extra work, but most of the ones I tried did.

Here are some examples and tutorials from the Clipping Magic docs.

Its All About the Edges

This process is fast and easy as long as the software can find a nice clean edge to your foreground object. If not, you have to step in and give it more clues. And that that happens most of the time. This is where the software smarts plus the photo itself make the difference between easy :) and kinda painful. :(


My Tips for Removing Backgounds Without Fuss

Here are some tips on how I got the whole process to work.

It’s worth learning how to use the app

You don’t need training to use most software these days. For these apps you it helps. You will save a lot of time in the long run if you spend a few minutes and do some training. Watch some videos and read the docs. Knowing how the apps work made all the difference for me. Just mark, no need to highlight It’s best to mark the foreground and background with as few strokes as possible at first, see what the software does, then give it more clues if necessary.

Try several apps with different sample photos

Try different apps and see which one works best on a test sampling of your photos. Once you do a few you will get the hang of it. You will find that some apps work better than others with your particular photos.

Consider improving your photos

You will see what works best. If you aren’t getting good results maybe try shooting some test photos and see if you can make it easier for the apps to do their job.

Photos – what works

Well defined edges – good contrast between object and background, but not too harsh. You don’t need perfect backgrounds or even solid color backgrounds, but it helps to make the object stand out from the background. Ideas to try:

  • Move the object away from the background if possible. The ideal is to light the foreground and background separately.
  • Boost contrast a bit before using the app.
  • Sharpen the photo a bit.
  • Sharp focus on the foreground. Blurry edges confuse the app.

Evenly lit solid backgrounds with diffuse light – diffuse light works well because it minimizes shadows with sharp edges, which the software thinks is part of the object.That’s why gear that diffuses the light, such as light boxes, softboxes or diffusers, are used in product photography. Here is a  long but interesting video about diffusers by a pro photography teacher.

Photos – what doesn’t work

  • Strong shadows – sharp edged shadows confuse the software.
  • Blurry photos – if you have blurry photos either get more light and/or a tripod. But watch the shadows :)
  • Turn off the flash – flash makes strong shadows if you’re not using a diffuser.
  • White background not that important – soft shadows and color tints don’t matter that much.
  • Green screen – is for portraits (or TV news) where you have complex edges and use special ‘chromakey’ software. It’s not necessary with these apps.

Tricky subjects

Objects that have multiple edges or are translucent are going to be hard with this sort of app. I am guessing that this is where you need specialized lighting and/or software.

  • Fuzzy edges: hair, fringes (e.g. on a rug) or beads
  • Translucent edges – glasses, glassware, jewels

Need Perfection?

If you need perfection consider using a ‘valet service’ where you send off your photos and get them back with solid backgrounds. Or check on fiverr for a freelancer.  I didn’t try this but the results are likely to be good, for a price.


Five Good Photo Background Removal Apps

These are the best of the ones I tried. Please note this is a quick overview, not a full review, try them yourselves!

Top 3 Browser-based Apps

These are web apps that run in a browser. No software installation needed.

Clipping Magic – www.clippingmagic.com

  • Pro
    • The best overall – fairly smart about finding the edges.
    • Good at smoothing edges.
    • Fast.
    • Can configure settings.
    • Has special tools for hair and soft edges, which I did not try.
    • Has ‘bulk’ service for large volumes, which I did not try.
    • Good documentation.
  • Con
    • Not automated, you must mark every photo.
  • Tips
    • Look at the docs before you start
    • Learn how to use the eraser
  • Pricing
    • Free to use w/o downloading finished photos.
    • Monthly pricing for a certain number of photos per month.

Background Burner – https://burner.bonanza.com/

  • Pro
    • Fast with lots of tools.
    • Automated preview – pick from best result.
    • Keeps a gallery of your images for re-editing.
    • Good documentation.
  • Con
    • Difficult to edit the mask with a mouse. This makes editing edges almost impossible on some images.
    • Had trouble with translucent glass photo.
  • Tips
    • Has Pro option where you can have someone help set you up, then can choose to have some photos edited by a service. In theory this will be handy if you get stuck on certain photos.
  • Pricing
    • Free to use for one photo at a time.
    • Pro version has monthly pricing for a certain number of photos per month.

ZenPhotomatic – http://www.zenfotomatic.com/

  • Pro
    • One click – works well if your photos are already on a clean background.
    • Workflow oriented, fast to go through a set of photos.
    • Preserves shadows.
  • Con
    • No way to remove shadows.
    • If you need to edit mask, edit tools aren’t very good – no zoom or undo.
    • Minimal documentation
  • Pricing
    • Free to use w/o saving photos.
    • Buy credits – 1 per photo downloaded.

Top 2 Desktop Apps

These are traditional desktop apps for Windows or Mac.

PhotoScissors – https://www.photoscissors.com/

  • Pro
    • The best desktop app.
    • Very fast.
    • Inexpensive.
    • Can create drop shadow.
    • Good set of tutorials.
  • Con
    • Not that polished, have to set up tools (e.g., brush size) on every photo.
    • No live update, have to keep pressing Cut Out button.
    • Minimal documentation.
  • Pricing
    • Free to use w/o saving photos.
    • $19.99

Bling! It – http://www.blingit.us/

  • Pro
    • Edge selection very fast.
    • Can paint in edges.
    • Inexpensive
  • Con
    • Multiple tabs workflow is clunky – editing a lot of photos would get tedious.
    • Not obvious how to get started.
    • Minimal documentation.
  • Pricing
    • 15 day trial
    • $29.95

Conclusion

To sum up the loooong post above: You can remove the backgrounds to most * photos withing a minute or two with an hour or two of practice.

  1. Try some of these apps with a few of your sample photos.
  2. Take the time to watch videos and/or read some docs first.
  3. If necessary experiment with your photo lighting to get well defined edges.
  4. Enhance/edit your photos before removing the backgrounds.
  5. Use a service if you really get stuck.
  • excepting fuzzy or translucent objects