So if the promise that the artist can easily put their work on whatever background they want isn’t all it’s touted to be, are layers useful at all? Absolutely. As I said, I use them all the time. If I have produced jewelry images for you in the last decade, I created those images using layers. The difference here is that I use them judiciously, to enhance a photograph and to make it as good as possible. I know their limitations, and I work within them.
When I shoot a piece of jewelry that I intend to place on a dark graduated background, I shoot the original piece of jewelry on a dark background, so, once I cut it out and place it on a new dark background, it will look like it belongs there. Likewise, when I shoot a piece of jewelry with the intention of placing it on a light or white background, I start by creating the original photograph on a very light background. So why go to this much trouble? If the jewelry is going on a dark background, why not just shoot it that way and be done with it?
There are several very good reasons not to. The main reason is consistency. When I shoot a number of photographs for an artist I believe it is essential that the backgrounds of all the images be as close to identical as possible. And while it is possible to shoot different pieces of jewelry with similar backgrounds, they will never exactly match, or match as closely as they can with a digital background.
For example, here are three pieces of jewelry, all different, but all placed on identical backgrounds. This type of shot-to-shot consistency in very important when jurying into top shows. It means that the juror is not distracted by different backgrounds but can evaluate the work exclusively. It also conveys a sense of photographic professionalism, which reflects well on the work and the artist. It says “This artist cares enough about her work to get the very best photography.”
Also, when I shoot for an artist several times over several years, I believe the backgrounds of the images, old and new, should nonetheless be as close as possible, allowing the artist to easily mix and match photographs from their collection for different show applications. Then, when the artist is picking shots from her collection of photos for a specific show application, any photos she uses will be consistent with any other ones, allowing the artist to focus solely on picking the best work for that application.
Another good reason for creating a digital background is that it allows one great flexibility in choosing just the right background for the image. Within the range of backgrounds that will work for a given image there is almost endless possibility for variation. In particular, the angle and range and shape of a gradient can be varied and experimented with. Also, degree, transparency and sharpness of a reflection can be adjusted, as can depth, size and transparency of any shadow. And they can be changed later. If you have lived with an image for a while and want to see it with a different gradient or shadow, it is easy to put in a new one and see if you like it better.
For example, here is one piece of jewelry placed on three different but similar gradients. One gradient comes from the lower left, one from the lower right, and one from the bottom center. Creating them and varying them is a matter of seconds once the image has been properly cut out and layered, and it allows the artist great flexibility in choosing the one they like best or feels works best with the piece of jewelry.
(Many thanks to Megan Clark for letting me use images of her beautiful work!)
Takeaway: Used properly, layers are the best way to create the very best images, of jewelry in particular. If care is taken to produce the original photography with the final background style in mind, and to allow for that in the original photography, it is possible to create images in which it is virtually impossible to tell they have been placed on an artificial background, and yet they enjoy all the benefits of the incredible flexibility allowed by creating the image with layers.