The Dead Pixels Society podcast

AI Portrait Retouching with TJ Rak, Skylab

September 17, 2021 Gary Pageau/TJ Rak Season 2 Episode 52
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
AI Portrait Retouching with TJ Rak, Skylab
Show Notes Transcript

Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talks with TJ Rak of Skylab, developers of a new AI-powered portrait retouching tool. Rak dispels myths about AI, discusses the benefit of AI in the COVID-impacted world, and shares his vision for AI-driven workflow and product development.

Skylab is advancing research in computational photography and computer vision. The company has developed an AI-powered tool for retouching, extraction, color correction, and cropping.

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Erin Manning  0:01  
Welcome to the dead pixel society podcast, the photo imaging industry's leading news source. here's your host, Gary Pageau.

Gary Pageau  0:10  
The Dead Pixels Society podcast is brought to you by Mediaclip, Photo Finale, and Advertek Printing. Hello again and welcome to the Dead Pixels Society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we're joined by TJ Rak, the founder of Skylab, a technology company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Hi, TJ, how are you today?

TJ Rak  0:32  
How you doing, Gary Thanks for having me on. 

Gary Pageau  0:35  
A lot of people are probably familiar with the Rak name. Because in the portrait industry, your family is very well known. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your family and their business in the portrait world?

TJ Rak  0:47  
Yeah, absolutely. So we, we grew up in the portrait world. My dad, john is a wedding photographer by trade, he picked my mom up while he was photographing a wedding. And they came over to Vancouver and started in the wedding game. And once they got that to a decent volume, size, they transitioned into schools to really take it to the next level. I like telling the story of how my brother and myself basically were born in the studio, my sister came along and the three of us have been involved in school volume photos now, for the better part of 20 years each.

Gary Pageau  1:28  
Yeah, and I think you've been an early adopter in technology. I remember a few years ago, seeing you speak at a conference talking about some of your, your web based tools for order management and things like that which you've developed yourself. Right?

TJ Rak  1:41  
Yeah, that's correct. We also are kind of coming into the business world, and we've grown up with a lot of technology. So it's kind of interesting, we're trying to combine both that past, you know, respect for photography, but at the same time, bring in some new tools to really put both the old school way and some of the new school tools together and preserve the past, but you know, honor the future type of mentality.

Gary Pageau  2:07  
And so let's talk about the future. Skylab is how would you describe Skylab? Yeah,

TJ Rak  2:14  
I would say we are a one stop shop for retouching extraction, color correction and cropping for professional volume photographers.

Gary Pageau  2:24  
And what do you mean by extraction? For those who aren't in the volume of business? What does extraction mean?

TJ Rak  2:29  
cut outs, I'm taking a subject off of background and being able to replace a different background. They're pretty big use in our industry,

Gary Pageau  2:38  
you're using artificial intelligence to do this. So why did you decide to develop that technology and then take it out to the industry to provide it to other studios?

TJ Rak  2:51  
Yeah I guess. Over the years, I've, I've rolled now patrolling technology, business and photography, all into one. I started actually by leaving the the family business and I wanted to go out, and I guess you could say complete my education. And that was in the form of starting up a retouching studio. So that all happened starting in 2006. And then over the years, you know, hiring and training people has become a challenge, not only in North America, but really globally. So there's an Advent now of new tools that are starting to become useful for big data sets. So we applied artificial intelligence to image editing now, and here we are with the Skylab play. I first

Gary Pageau  3:45  
came across you at the MVP conference not too long ago, and you gave a very good presentation about why AI isn't scary. Can you kind of recap that for us to show how AI is going to offer capabilities to grow the market not just provide tools for making making things more efficient?

TJ Rak  4:08  
Yeah, absolutely. I think Firstly, it comes back to what AI is, and our relationship to it. So I guess number one thing is can never let your interest in technology really overwhelm your interest in humans. And I think the key thing that I was trying to tell everyone there was you really got to find ways to empower your teams to work with AI. And I gave the examples of, you know, AI is everywhere. It's Alexa, it's Siri, it's Netflix. It's the stuff that is based on user data. You know, you like this, you might like that type of suggestive selling, or even our cars they're starting to kind of give us help with the basics. So it's everywhere and it's not something necessarily to fear but It's something that we're creating. And it's based on very narrow, narrow tasks.

Gary Pageau  5:06  
So yeah, so focus first on the retouching piece, because that seems to be where it started. Right. So what are the kinds of things AI can do and retouching that is better than a human doing it?

TJ Rak  5:19  
Yeah, I think the first thing is, ai doesn't get tired after about four hours retouching, it doesn't have a sugar high, doesn't get a beer the night before and start losing its focus. quality and consistency, I think are the key things that you'll see there. But now, instead of looking at simple tools, that simple, you know, that we see on phones that just kind of blurry scan, that's not really good enough, right, a

Gary Pageau  5:48  
professional Instagram filter kind of thing, which is really not retouching, per se. It's, it's, it's hiding imperfections. Really.

TJ Rak  5:56  
Yeah, yeah. And that's good for playing around, and people enjoy that. But when it comes to us, and in the professional world, we still need to print an eight by 10, we still are very concerned about quality at high resolution, we're able to take examples of really well retouched portraits, and then feed those into the machine opposed to saying, machine, what do you think about this image, create something for us? We're saying no, no, follow our lead, learn from what we've done. And we can train it, we can keep improving it. I always like saying, it's like a puppy. You know, it, it can be taught and the more you just tell it to do the right thing. It slowly adapts to it. And puppies aren't scary. No, no, no, they're actually they're actually great to have around in the last year. We all know that. It's it's been something that we all desperately needed. But we didn't know. And they're ubiquitous. And they're actually one of our best friends. So yeah, it's kind of it's funny to put it in that term. But no, it absolutely works as a metaphor for it.

Gary Pageau  7:00  
So So you were able to use your family database, if you will, to help do the training, I would say leverage

TJ Rak  7:08  
is a good word for you, maybe building up the ability to grab and get my hands on a fair amount of data to start training the algorithm. But I had to go kind of learn retouching set up another studio. And then in this third iteration, which is Skylab, go back to university, specifically the one I graduated from. And I engaged with the comp side department to build a project with me, which was taking a lot of this data and this idea and this concept, and then going and coating out some algorithms to, you know, attack this problem that we currently have

Gary Pageau  7:49  
color corrections. And another one that you say you approach. How difficult was that? Because that seems to be like that's one of the areas that there's been a lot of color science, a lot of development in that space, especially when you're dealing with different ethnicities, different lighting scenarios. Mm hmm. That itself would be a major achievement.

TJ Rak  8:11  
Yeah, it's a different problem. It was one of those innovation by necessity type of problems for us this past year. I think we all know, we won't talk too much, but the Panini but you know, we couldn't have a lot of our operators get to the office, they couldn't get into the darkroom. And we had to figure out a way to keep production moving with the short staff. So really started looking at data and statistics of what particular changes were consistently being made to images over a 10 year period. And after looking at that, and collecting enough data, and making sure to have all seven nations of you know, skin tones covered, what were the what were the changes made in each one of these lighting environments that we would do. And there were enough consistencies in those to bring the color back to you know, that point that it was just printing at a level that we were okay with the right, the interesting thing with color is that you're comparing the machines results to, you know, someone that's been working in the company, typically for 15 to 20 years opinion of what the color should be, right? And in 10 years, in 10 years, their opinions have changed goes back to you know, even smoking if they ate that day. Right? What do they have they exercise like you enough, all those types of things. And when the machine starts giving you a ground truth of a color value that you're shifting from it turns into a Okay, how do we make this your friend not your enemy and you're not competing with it, you can work with it. So it turns really into into managing the expectations of how to use this. Use this tool. That's what it is.

Gary Pageau  9:53  
Because you're in the volume, photography space. You kind of know what you're gonna get in the sense It's gonna be a head, probably in the upper third of the picture and hopefully exposed well and in focus, so you don't have a lot of variables you're working with. So what do you think is the amount of improvement you can provide to a picture that is already probably starting out pretty well,

TJ Rak  10:18  
like you said, if it's shot properly, sometimes it's subjective. But there's actually variation in the typically the power settings on different kids, it could be literally the amount of natural light hitting a kid this year, there were just a lot of changes to photo setups site. So we had a lot more outdoor, a lot more variation on on lighting styles, people couldn't sit down, so the shadows were different. So we kind of we thought it would be more of a very specific, narrow adjustment. However, this year gave us a lot more variation in the data and to bring it back into a printable setting was was kind of the key for us.

Gary Pageau  11:04  
It was a bigger challenge than you thought actually. Yeah, bigger challenge, bigger

TJ Rak  11:08  
reward, you know, it was, it was fun. So yeah, to put a picture to print one that got approved, we framed it, we put it up in the studio, it really is the signal of it's a new era. And you know, just like that digital transition that you've talked about on your show a couple times, this is another one and, and they're going to get faster, and there's going to be more waves for all of us to continue to ride together.

Gary Pageau  11:33  
So let's talk a little bit about the business side of it. Right? You've got some technology that you're going to try and enter. You're integrating it in other platforms, you're gonna work with partners, or is this going to be a service you're providing? What is the business for Skylab?

TJ Rak  11:49  
Yeah, great question. So it'll be a standalone that people can use. But then we also are plugging in, like you said, to other services to make sure that people can use our API to plug into and I think some people always ask, What's an API? No, you know, but it's basically a handshake in between two different technologies that make them work together.

Gary Pageau  12:11  
Could they have it on their site? and call your API to do its thing? And never leave the site? Or is it going? Or how is that going to work? That's

TJ Rak  12:20  
exactly it. And that's where it gets fun. Because Yeah, we're talking about how to save labor, and how to expedite or supplement the production staff. But what we're talking about now is, oh, okay, a user goes through a cart that's on e commerce, and then you want to upsell them this perfectly color corrected, cropped and retouched image, right, in one second, you can offer that you can charge a premium now, because people really want that immediate gratification. And they're going to pay for it. So we're creating this new, this new profit center, utilizing the technology.

Gary Pageau  13:00  
Do you think that's feasible in the market? Now? Do you? I mean, I'm just curious, is that going out in the market now where I know people can select backgrounds? and that sort of thing? But do you think people will upsell to a better color,

TJ Rak  13:12  
I think color is expected for what we've created. But I would, I would, I would suggest, and I have data, and we are already in the market for that retouching upsell. And I definitely can see them being bundled together, as you know, the perfect product straight to your phone, you're ready to go, you're off to the races. You know, I

Gary Pageau  13:33  
think it's funny, just as just to going off on a tangent, please. I was talking to some photographers recently, and they were talking about how filters like Instagram, and some of the other ones have kind of rude expectations for students because they want that look. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you see, it's gonna do you think that would be an upsell at some point is, we're going to make you look like an Instagram cartoon.

TJ Rak  13:58  
Yeah, yeah, we call that Barbie darling. And it's, it's kind of interesting, because like you said, has has power shifted to these big tech firms that aren't photography based? Yeah, we've seen that. But then you know, in that divide comes the opportunity for us pros. Now to present some tools and some best practices for them to start looking at as that's professional, I want that, you know, when DSLR is really on the uptick before the first iPhone, we saw image quality go up as almost like a cultural thing. And then all of a sudden, images just really started sucking again. And that's not to their fault. They were given cameras and their phones and weren't really taught how to use them. Right. And like, you know, you talked to a bunch of people, Kelby was saying that you're seeing like a lot of mobile interests and people buying books about how to get better on the phones, they're also going to be looking for how do I get better results? How do I get a better end image so there is gonna be a very interesting opportunities when we really start colliding with that. Sooner that's coming back, or better yet, we just keep overdoing, stay really good at photography and make sure that we can continue to sell to that marketplace.

Gary Pageau  15:09  
Because I think that's one of the things that's come out of COVID has been the awareness that there's a lot more products and a lot more opportunities for upselling than there ever have been, because photographer, school photographers and photographers have had to do that to create revenue. So I think one of the opportunities you might have as a AI supplier is, you know, you can kind of tune pictures based on what circuits it's going to be printed on, to some extent, right, if someone's doing something on an ornament, that's a different term surface than a piece of paper. And that's something AI can do very well.

TJ Rak  15:51  
I love it. And like I think the the funnest part about talking to people in photography, and once they get over, you know, this might not be a scary thing is we start dreaming together of the possibilities, like you just said, I mean, as long as people and we keep taking good photos, encourage people to take great photos, there's gonna be opportunities and print substrates, different ways of packaging, different ways of seeing things, the tech will keep creating opportunities for us like that, as long as we kind of maintain that innate trait of any professional photographer to be entrepreneurial, and keep being creative. Well, we'll keep going.

Gary Pageau  16:34  
It is one of the interesting things about photographers is, especially in the volume of businesses, they've had their business by necessity change, right? So volume photographers didn't really deal with end users very much he just dealt with the schools or school boards or administrators, and now they're talking directly to parents and kids. And so that's a whole different conversation that they've had learned to have right how to upsell, how to sell. So I think as new technology provides new platforms for them, it creates another opportunity to have conversation.

TJ Rak  17:07  
Yeah, absolutely. It's a good chance for us to really like focus on that customer experience, and then rally them around the new tools that we have, and usher in what we think that they will like and kind of bring in that professional side to the photo experience for them.

Gary Pageau  17:25  
So you also mentioned extraction as one of the products. We talked a little bit about it earlier, how is that beneficial in terms of creating new products and services.

TJ Rak  17:37  
This year, it became more important with not having the ability to take an entire group of students out into a field, have them stand shoulder to shoulder and smile at a camera. We weren't able to do that. So by us doing the individual portrait and then extracting and then using a team building software, we were able to give the school a full you know whether it was a great 12 or a grade eight photo of every student there. That's that was that was a lot of work to create that. Now I think the schools they liked it, they liked the fact that we didn't need 40 to 50 minutes to corral tire. Wow, wow. Did your animals outside and try and get a photo?

Gary Pageau  18:19  
Right, right. Right.

TJ Rak  18:20  
We just were able to do it. So we've now I think, read it again, some demand for a product that wasn't necessarily part of our original offering.

Gary Pageau  18:29  
Getting back to the business side. you're providing tools? Where are you on your development path? You have customers now? And where do you think you're going?

TJ Rak  18:39  
So we we had some pilots out for two years, we've put ourselves through the wringer First, we always like to alpha everything in house, make sure that we're using it that it's capable that it can help people and then we typically go out to a group of small users and make sure that they're happy. And then and then we go into the public. Yeah, we've got a couple of tools that are that are available now where we're partnered up, it can be accessed through a couple of providers. And we're continuing to push each element of it forward. It's developing, it's constantly improving. There's requests for how it could change and get better. A great example being eyeglass Claire, a very difficult thing to solve. But with enough of a scientific approach added enough data we can start actually minimizing that Claire using AI after so not there yet, but definitely on the roadmap.

Gary Pageau  19:35  
Probably taking braces up to Yeah, that's solving COVID You name it, but like it's all good. Oh my goodness. One thing that is obvious was something like AI is the efficiencies that you may get. What are other ways that AI is going to prove ROI for people who adopt it in their production process?

TJ Rak  20:00  
Good question. How I'm looking at that is there's a recovery coming, I hope we all do, I guess, and it won't really be linear nor synchronized. But it seems like the bases are loaded for everybody in the industry, and everyone needs to capture as much as possible this year. Now how to do that in a tightening labor market with a skilled labor shortage. And then you couple existing physical constraints. This is this is where we kind of have to do this, we have to find ways to, to, to really multiply our efforts without doing too much. And again, this this tool set just fits perfectly for us, because we're doing the same thing so much. So we're, we're like it's the perfect marriage and the timing. Could it be better for our industry to adapt this eight these AI tools?

Gary Pageau  20:52  
Do you think it's going to lead to new products? new offerings for studios?

TJ Rak  20:58  
Absolutely. I think with AI, there's like, not a crystal ball on how it looks or what happens next. But I think the results and all the trends are pointing in the right direction for how we're able to, firstly, deal with some of that overwhelming amount of work that we typically have to do once we clear that up, then we can start really focusing on new products, customer experience, and doing what we've just done of, you know, sitting around a whiteboard or having a coffee and thinking through, here's an issue, okay, is there a need? And then picking? What technology should we use? Sometimes it's not even AI that could solve our problem. It's simply a good spreadsheet would have solved that. But you know, but just to have people starting to focus on on the on the solutions, the technology will be there. So it's really just freeing ourselves up to have that opportunity. Now, that's

Gary Pageau  21:52  
the one thing about the volume business is they really do focus on process. Yeah, I mean, more so than other photography segments where they may focus on the art, or the expression, or, you know, the size of the print or the occasion or something really bought. That's why it's called volume photography. I think it's because it's really about the process and driving that efficiency, being able to photograph you know, 500 students in a morning.

TJ Rak  22:23  
Yeah, absolutely. So how do you do that? But bring the quality up? And how do you stay in love with good quality, and keep people there? Like, I think that's where the technology can really come in and bring up the level of the photography and experience for everybody.

Gary Pageau  22:40  
So what do you say to people you talk to who say, you know, this is great, but I just don't see a need for it yet. I'm doing okay. Now. I'm going through now, how do you overcome this? The get the conversation going to say, this is going to radically improve your business? Yeah, cuz I'm sure you've heard that a bit. Right on Yeah, you hear people go, Oh, I got car correction already. I already got extraction. I've already got, you know, some of this stuff. I don't really need to do this.

TJ Rak  23:11  
Yeah, no. And, you know, everyone's got their own way of doing things. And I respect that. The way that we used to do was we'd move sampled sampled sandpile, one system into the other. And now we're able to do all those tasks in one second, without having to go in and out of programs without having to process too heavily. So I think that's the first and foremost improvement they can see. And a little bit though, I think comes from the right mindset. And I guess with the talk that I had last month or so two months ago, and even the talk today is, you know, this is a tool that's out there, it's widely available, and I'm just trying to encourage people to learn a little bit about it. Don't go too deep down like the Terminator two rabbit hole, because that's, that's not going to do you any favors. But look at look at the positive sides of how it can work and literally test it. I think people have to have that moment they test it they see an image to see what happens. Aha happens and then they see and start imagining how could they use this and that's what I've found with everyone that we've been talking to and dealing with and engaging with about the tool set and yeah, happy even you my friend I'd like for you to try it out and have some fun with it.

Gary Pageau  24:26  
Speaking of trying things out I think one of the things that the school photography and buying photography business are running into is you running into a very sophisticated customer because they now know what digital imaging can do. So I think the expectation is going to be when you get an image back from a school photographer, it's going to be as close to perfect as possible.

TJ Rak  24:49  
Absolutely should be so I guess we have to consider or two clients or you got you've got the parent and you got the student you speaking about the 1718 year old are you talking about adequate.

Gary Pageau  25:00  
That's what I'm saying. Oh,

TJ Rak  25:01  
yeah, absolutely. I mean, as long as they're seeing an image of themselves that they like that maybe they can perfect because they know what angles they like now. Yeah, but they also know what good editing, good editing is. I

Gary Pageau  25:16  
can tell you embedded in it. I've seen a lot of bad at it. Absolutely.

TJ Rak  25:19  
Right. So if we can keep them away from that, social media Pitchfork, I think we're well ahead of the game. So yeah, just staying one step ahead of the consumer. That's something our family's always been about. And something that I think will continue as an ethos for Skylab,

Gary Pageau  25:36  
where can someone go to get more information about your company and what you folks do? For sure, I

TJ Rak  25:43  
was thinking of giving everyone your personal phone number and letting them come after you. But if not, in that case, you don't want that. It's live, everyone's gotta live that Skylab So it's just the words and we just built out a quick test site, because I really wanted people to have an opportunity to just see the results.

Gary Pageau  26:04  
So of course, you have somewhere to go to, they could upload pictures and see the magic happen.

TJ Rak  26:11  
That is absolutely the thing that I would encourage them to do. And we'll be able to coach them along from there.

Gary Pageau  26:17  
Well, great. Well, now that we're in the beginning of the school season, I imagine you're probably not getting too many phone calls these days because everyone's out shooting. But will you be back next year?

TJ Rak  26:26  
Absolutely. But going to that actually just as people are starting to season, the more and more needs we're having and people flooding in getting some support. So no, it's been fun. And I look forward to definitely being back and seeing you there. Well,

Gary Pageau  26:39  
thank you much for your time and have a great shooting season.

TJ Rak  26:43  
Thank you. Good luck to everyone out there. And thanks for your time, Gary.

Erin Manning  26:48  
Thank you for listening to the Dead Pixels Society podcast. Read more great stories and sign up for the newsletter at www,

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