We spend a lot of time as reviewers talking about issues that matter to people interested in photography as a hobby or, to a lesser extent, as a profession. But the scores of people who primarily use their cameras to support selling things online – whether for taking web-based catalog shots or images for eBay – have a different kind of relationship with their digicams than general photographers: I may enjoy playing with features, but if you're using your camera exclusively as a tool for creating auction listings it simply needs to work, no questions asked.
The same could be said of image editing software. While cameras are increasingly designed with online sellers in mind (look at the proliferation of "Auction Mode" scene options in the last year), image editing software rarely presents a streamlined way to do the handful of things – sharpening, background removal/replacement, resizing, and compression control – that this specific group of digicam users really needs. Removing backgrounds, especially, requires a fairly advanced working knowledge of a program like Photoshop.
Enter the amusingly named Bling! It, a self-contained image editor from plug-in maven Vertus that claims to make getting product shots ready for online sales listings and catalogs a nearly automated experience. Bling! It's claims of a simple, low-input process to remove backgrounds, sharpen an image, add logos, and intelligently save it for the web were intriguing enough to make it worth a longer look, and in a nod to all the eBayers out there, we've dissected this slightly pricey niche-market tool to see what's going on and whether it's worth the investment.
WHAT'S THE POINT?
Unlike most photo editing packages, which include a range of tools for general image work, Bling! It is exclusively designed to create web-res product shots for auction sites and online catalogs. This highly limited applicability, which emphasizes ease of use for novice photographers who want to amp up their product shots, is this $50 imaging tool's greatest appeal for – those looking for a simple, step-by-step approach to creating eye-catching product shots. Need to remove the wrinkled bed sheet you used as a backdrop for those images of the Millennium Edition Holiday Barbie you're selling? Bling! It can do that. Want to sharpen your photo, add back in a colorful background, drop your company logo onto the image, and then optimize it based on eBay's image uploading requirements? Easy enough.
While it's not a side of digital photography we discuss much in the review world, there are plenty of people out there (at least, Vertus hopes there are...) who own a digicam exclusively for eBaying, and plenty more for whom this is the primary – if not the only – use for their camera. If you're looking for something to edit vacation photos, this isn't it (and doesn't try to be); rather, the idea is to give the aforementioned group of digital camera users (frequent online sellers) a purpose-specific tool for creating product images that requires very little knowledge of traditional photo editing. Simply open your product images in the software and it guides you through the rest.
The point, then, is to take your product shots from something like this...
...to something like this...
...with as little time and effort on your part as possible. While the merits of colorful backgrounds and superimposed logos for product images are worth debating, Bling! It claims flashier product shots generate more interest and higher sales prices on sites like eBay. Even if you're inclined to disagree, Bling! It really does give you the power to make your webshots as cheesy or as subdued as befits your mood and style, and the ability to drop your shots onto a neutral background does a lot of the work of shooting in a light tent without the cost (well, sort of) or space requirements.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The Bling! It interface is built around the four basic "steps" – each represented by a numbered tab within the interface – that move the user through the process from image as captured to final product.
(view large image)
Loading up Bling! It for the first time (the installation – Bling! It can be downloaded directly from the maker's website – is so simple on both Macs and PCs that it hardly warrants mention), the software seems more complex than it really is once you understand the tabs concept.
Editing options under each of the numbered tabs – Delete Background, Compose Picture, Add Effects, and Final Image – allow you to do exactly what each tab name suggests, and while the system allows jumping around to different tools under different tabs, using Bling! It quickly and effectively works best if you work in order.
Optimizing Images for Bling! It
Although it's not one of the four steps outlined in the software interface, a little thought at the outset about the images you use goes a long way with this software. While Bling! It is theoretically able to turn any photo into something that resembles a shot taken in a light tent or against a studio backdrop, the truth isn't quite so simple. If you want quick and easy, it starts with a good product shot without harsh shadows on a reasonably neutral (and contrasting) backdrop: take a photo of your soon-to-be-sold Stratocaster against the wood paneling and shag carpet of your rec room and you'll spend more time messing with Bling! It's edge finder tool or manually brushing out the background than it would have taken to just take a decent photo in the first place.
Thankfully, there's a reasonably comprehensive, extremely straightforward video tutorial on the Bling! It website that walks you through getting optimal shots for the software to work with – including taking outdoor shots of things that can't easily brought indoors (cars, boats, motorcycles, your vintage coal furnace collection). While the setup required to photograph most products is probably less involved that setting up a tabletop light tent (Bling! It recommends a large sheet of plain white paper on a kitchen table for smaller items) it does raise questions about whether you might get better results with the latter. Then again, you can't add wild backgrounds with a light tent alone: remember, Bling! It is as much about what you can do with the images after the background is removed as it is about removing the background itself.
What you don't need to make Bling! It work – and this is true of product shots for the web generally – is a super sharp, high-res digital camera. While something that takes decent indoor images with good white balance is a plus (you don't really want to shoot your product shots outside if you can avoid it: again, trying to avoid harsh shadows), if you have a 10 megapixel camera, save the space on your card and shoot at half-resolution (or even lower) for webshots. Bling! It says that 3 megapixels should be sufficient, and we're inclined to agree.
Deleting the Background
Opening an image (in this case, a Nikon D60 taken in accordance with the method outlined above – and no, it's not for sale...), the process begins to make a little more sense. Bling! It's headline technology, the ability to remove backgrounds by automatically finding edges in the image and allowing you to quickly "paint out" the background up to those edges, automatically goes to work as soon as an image is opened, and in less than 15 seconds blue lines demarcating the edges Bling! It has identified show up on the image in the main window.
(view large image)
Using a simple slider-based control panel, the approach that Bling! It uses to identify edges can be adjusted, prompting the software to find a greater or lesser number of edges, or edges of a harder or softer character depending on the settings. A little time spent here getting the identified edges as close to the photo subject's final outside edges as possible saves a lot of work later in manually painting in boundaries – a task to which Bling! It, given its limited interface, is pretty poorly suited to on a large scale anyway.
In our case, among its many selections, Bling! It has correctly identified the outside edges of the camera; a few clicks later using the software's area selection brush and the entire background has been selected for removal, indicated by the red fill in the main window.
(view large image)
A secondary window, the "Paintaway Viewer," displays what the final image will look like with the painted out sections removed.
(view large image)
Fine-tuning to get everything masked and blended correctly is a process too detailed to describe succinctly here, but not hard to figure out once you understand the differences between the various brush types. In our example, for instance, I had to manually paint back in a section of the shutter button that didn't contrast strongly enough with the background. To assist in learning the program's various functions, the "Tips" pane gives generally useful, if at times a bit poorly worded or under-explained, information about the selected tool.
At this point, as the Paintaway Viewer shows, our test image is clearly demarcated with no white background still hanging around the edges. With the D60 freed from the rest of the original image, we're ready to move on to shot composition and effects.
Composition and Optimization
Because it essentially frees the product image from the background at the outset, Bling! It makes shot composition and non-destructive sharpness and shadow effects a snap. Want to put your product on a new background at a different angle? No problem. Just grab the image handles and rotate, stretch, and skew at your leisure. The product is floating free in the image space at this point, making it adjustable in a way that should make plenty of sense even to those who know nothing about traditional image editing software.
(view large image)
Bling! It also comes pre-loaded with the image requirements from several popular online sales sites, including eBay, uBid, Amazon, and Half.com. Simply select the final destination for your image from the drop-down menu and Bling! It optimizes the image dimensions and file size accordingly.
Backgrounds, Effects, and Logos
Working in conjunction with its edge-finding background removal tool, Bling! It's most powerful function is the ability to superimpose your product shot onto literally any background. Bling! It can use just about any image (assuming it's a common file type as) a new background for your product shots, but also comes with a library of abstract pattern backgrounds ranging from tasteful to wild. For our test, I picked a soft blue pattern background from Bling! It's library.
(view large image)
If you're going for the light tent look, solid colors and simple gradient patterns are also among the background options.
Sharpening, highlight, and drop-shadow options can also be added at this point. On the plus side, Bling! It's additions are non-destructive: simply click the "Clear" button for each effect and you're back where you started. Do note that these are not high-quality effects, however: the clunky highlight tool brings out loads of image noise, sharpening brings new meaning to the term "over-sharpened," and the drop shadow is boxy and lacks much control. That said, on an auction site where large images might only be 1024 pixels wide, the slight scratchiness won't come through. Remember, the point is not to make prints, but to quickly develop serviceable web graphics.
(view large image)
Bling! It also offers an easy logo import tool that allows you to superimpose your store or company logo onto the product shots. Controls are similar to the composition controls seen early, with intuitive control handles on the logo allowing for scaling and rotation. In another nod to newbies, Bling! It limits how much of the image space the logo can take up (as a percentage of the total area), helping keep composition within the limits of decency and good taste (if that notion applies to a program that also comes preloaded with rainbow-gradient backgrounds).
(view large image)
Wrapping Things Up
With the final image now ready to go (you can, if needed, go back to any of the previous steps at any point in the process to make adjustments) Bling! It guides you through the saving process as well. Options here are kept to a minimum, but include a control for specifying the maximum allowable file size – great for sites that have an upload limit.
(view large image)
The other novel feature at this end of the process is Bling! It's foreground/background compression control. If you need a tiny file but don't want to give up detail on the product itself, dialing up this slider toward the Maximum end allows the software to compress the background more heavily than the product shot in the foreground, meaning more detail is preserved where it matters. In testing the tool with some ridiculously low file size limitations just to see how it would perform, I was impressed with the results all around. It's certainly an innovative way of thinking about getting the most of the limited file sizes mandated by the web, and it's the kind of result that would require a pretty nuanced understanding of layers and compression to achieve in a traditional image editor.
HOW WELL DOES IT WORK?
The slight learning curve aside, Bling! It does an excellent job at its primary function – edge identification and background removal. Vertus was clearly balancing the competing aims of offering a high-function masking system capable of doing clean clipping on the one hand, and maintaining accessibility for users who know nothing about photo editing on the other. Allowing 30 minutes or so for a complete novice to learn its tools (in addition to the on-screen tips, Vertus offers lots of additional help – most of it truly helpful – on the Bling! It website), the masking portion is a solid bit of technology and a good balance of functionality and simplicity. With well-shot photos, the masking system does just fine and requires very little user adjustment to get clean separations.
The rest of the process couldn't be much simpler. Bling! It keeps its highly specific purpose clearly in view at all times, and to this end I'm especially keen on the site-specific optimization and unique compression options. The effects are a bit low-budget, as are many of the included backgrounds, but with some good ones in the default library and the ability to use any image file, the options in this area are basically limitless.
In general, oversights are relatively few. If I were planning to use this software every day, some kind of batch processing to handle the last two steps, especially, would be an appreciated addition, allowing users to apply the same background, effects, logo, and compression/size settings to a stack of images all bound for the same catalog, listing, or group of listings.
In short, while the results from Bling! It aren't quite up to professional standards, especially at larger display sizes, with an understanding of what the software's capable of and the will power to resist some of the package's goofier (if strangely alluring) effects and options, it's certainly possible to get very good, consistently styled webshots.
The primary drawback to purchasing something like Bling! It is, by now, probably obvious: this package is a "one-trick pony," as they say. If you bought a camera not only to do product shots but also to learn photography generally, and you have the time and interest, learning photo editing techniques to do what Bling! It does in Photoshop Elements or Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 will almost certainly be time (and money) well spent. At the end of the day, you'll have not only a way to produce your webshots, but also some skills in a powerful, multi-function editor that can do much more than product images.
For the price, especially, I'm still not entirely convinced, but on the flipside, who wants to spend a lot of time in Photoshop editing web-res product shots? Even for serious photographers, if you do a lot of selling on the web, anything to speed up and simplify the image editing process might be appreciated. The software unquestionably works well, and if you need to do background swaps and basic edits, it's an easy-to-learn, stable, and reasonably powerful package for a certain group of specific functions. If you're a frequent eBayer, Bling! It certainly could make a lot of sense.