The benefits of photo studio automation
Adopting a more automated workflow will unlock the time for better planning and give you the freedom to explore more creative product treatments. Here, industry professionals explain how increased photo studio automation is making a difference.
What springs to mind when you think of workflow automation? Bigger investment? Smaller teams? An overall loss of creative control?
While the idea might send worrying ripples through the workforce, there are some rock-solid benefits for introducing labour-saving efficiencies.
“We always talk about working smarter not harder,” explains Ali McLeod, AVP, Photo Studios at Saks Fifth Avenue. “The things we should be focused on are how to delight our customers and making sure that we’re providing the best customer experience through our imagery, whether that’s through the actual photographs themselves or our styling. We want to be able to concentrate on those aspects, and not end up getting bogged down in file management.”
Ali says that she and her team would “love to see more automation” at Saks, an aspiration which has been given a new sense of urgency as a result of the global pandemic. “Covid really brought to light the importance of moving with the times and making sure that you have that agility and the ability to turn on a dime.
“Who would have ever thought they’d be in a situation where they were going to be shooting in people’s living rooms?
“You end up being so ingrained with everything being at the studio, and while that will continue, you have to be prepared that at a moment’s notice things might need to change. And it might all have to happen in a different side of the country as well. The ability to connect everything and the scalability of cloud-based solutions gives you that flexibility.”
With photo studios in New York and Pennsylvania, 70 direct full-time employees and 100,000-130,000 items to shoot each year, asset management is priority for automation for Ali. “The ability to get live status updates and know where a product is at any moment in time, which team it’s sitting with, how long has it’s been in our process, making sure we’re on SLA, all of those things are so important.
“As well as being able to access a lot of reporting features, it’s all about taking some of the heavy lifting and the manual labour off the team as well. If things like file naming or cropping or signing off a product on a Google sheet can be as simple as a click of a button, that’s great – or if they’re fully automated, even better.
“It’s all about gaining those efficiencies in terms of time to site. The faster that you can get a product on the website, the more selling time you have. You might be getting it up ahead of your competitors, so people are going to come to you knowing that they can get it with you first.
“Cost savings go with that as well. The more efficient I am, the lower my cost per item is, and the better the overall profitability for the company. We have a small piece to play in that, but if everybody in the business is doing that then we’re going to be successful.”
Stéphanie Moreau, former Head of Digital Factory at a large French online fashion retailer also welcomes the depth of data management that workflow automation brings. “It allows you to have eyes everywhere without physically being where the products are,” she says. “For me, the real advantage is being able to centralise the data – and standardise it too. That’s quite important if you want to be able to connect with all your other systems and to create an API. Otherwise, every time you do it manually or every time you have a change of tool, that’s when you run the risk of losing information and losing time.
“Having all of the information in the same tool, and knowing when you can expect products and to follow them through the workflow, as well as accessing data and reporting, it allows you to anticipate problems and plan better,” she adds.
“For example, in my previous role we used a lot of different shooting technologies, but even though we managed to simplify things, the simple truth is that you cannot take a fashion photo in the same studio set-up that you’re using to shoot a product such as a pen.
“So at this point it becomes quite important to have a level of data that allows you to work out which products you’ve got coming in and whether you need to adapt more studios for fashion shoots, and so on. Having this degree of automation allows you to get this data quickly and analyse it in time.”
Giving creatives more freedom
An automated workflow doesn’t just buy you better reporting, it opens up the opportunity for more creativity too. “It allows you to be more accurate because it takes away those repetitive, human errors and allows photographers and other creatives to focus on making the difference,” says SpinMe CEO, David Brint.
“Being freed of some of the boring tasks means that they have the time to try new ways of shooting things and do more A/B testing. Is 360 going to make a difference to a particular product grouping, for example? Is video going to be better? Do I want to show a pair of shoes on somebody’s feet or are the shoes better by themselves? What makes a difference?
“It can also lead to a lower cost per image or product, depending on what you’re doing,” adds David, “because with the efficiencies you can shoot more per day with the same number of people.”
When you’re dealing with a range of closely related products that number in their thousands, accuracy takes on an even keener edge. “We have to deal with a lot of repetition, so we will have to shoot 5,000 castors or 6,000 drill bits or 1,500 locks,” says Jennifer Bakija, Senior Manager, Visual Rich Content at industrial equipment provider, Grainger. “We don’t do a 1:1 representation, so we’ll do one image for many; those 6,000 drill bits went over 18,000 products, for example.
“When something’s very simply we’re just going to take a still image, but we take 360s of things like tool boxes and a lot of our electrical items,” she continues. “Because we’re a production environment, it’s more about what can we efficiently shoot as a spin image that doesn’t require a lot of propping or post-production. But while a lot of people probably use SpinMe Studio for these 360s, we use it more as a workflow tool. There isn’t another tool out there that can let us manage 6,000 items coming in.
“The way that we are able to bulk export, either through data that is in our shot list or the tags in SpinMe Studio is a real benefit. We have a set use of angles, and so we tag an image with the right angle and that ends up being in our naming convention, along with SKU number and so on. I really take this automation for granted now. Not only does it save time, but when you’re not manually keying in something, there’s no risk of an error, and that’s huge.”