updated 06:00 pm EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
'Studio arrangement' process for true white backdrop photos filed in 2011
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted a questionable patent to Amazon in March, which gives the online retailer a hold on a common photography practice. Called "studio arrangement," the practice awarded the patent is an instruction set that outlines specific light and object placement to achieve photos of a subject on a white background, as well as steps for the process -- which has used by retailers for catalogs since the beginning of commercial photography.
The patent targets specifically photos of items taken against a white cyclorama with the use of lights and a table to create "endless" backdrops, as they are referred to in the photography world. The steps show how Amazon is able to produce the clean look on product photos that the online retailer -- along with every other retailer -- is known for showing on their pages.
In describing the process, the filing claims that the idea of this specific process came from the need to use digital means to achieve the same effect. By using software, green screens and other manipulation approaches, the same result could be achieved as the images "set against a true white background."
The filing is specific in the steps that it uses. In addition to placing items on top of a table or "elevated platform," specific distances, light placements, the use of 40KW light bulbs and camera settings are outlined. According to the filing, "a front light source positioned in a longitudinal axis intersecting the background, the longitudinal axis further being substantially perpendicular to a surface of the white cyclorama; an image capture position located between the background and the front light source in the longitudinal axis, the image capture position comprising at least one image capture device equipped with an eighty-five millimeter lens, the at least one image capture device further configured with an ISO setting of about three hundred twenty and an f-stop value of about 5.6."
Amazon even outlined the order of operations which contains four steps that would seem automatic for any photographer standing in a studio. In order, the steps are: activate rear light source, activate front light source, position subject on elevated platform and initiate capture.
What makes this award curious is the fact that this precise photography technique has been in existence well before 2011, and adds nothing unique or differentiating to the process -- save perhaps the audacity in filing for a patent on it in the first place. This means that there is substantial prior art, and millions of stock photos that could be used as evidence against the award. Not only that, but it has long been considered a known method, used since the advent of studio photography. No statement has been issued by Amazon in regard to the patent, but it seems unlikely that the retailer will use the award to pursue photographers globally.