How To Photograph Real Estate and Vacation Rentals

The Art of Composite Photography: Part Two

What's up? Glad you could make it for part 2 of my Art of Composite Photography series. Last week we spoke about pre-vis and planning. I hope you found it helpful and most importantly I got my point across that it is not the tools you have that count, it's the vision. This week I will be discussing the three unbreakable rules of composite and why background comes first.

Composite is an updated version of cut and paste. The thing you used to do in pre-school with plastic scissors and UHU glue. You cut up magazines and Frankensteined some person's head on to a torso, with random legs and arms. It looked ridiculous because the colors are different. The way the photographs were taken were all completely different so the lighting doesn't match. And the photographers of the photos were all shooting from different positions. Well jump forward twenty years and we have the power to do this digitally, and not only that, we can do it in a far less sticky way (you all know you had at least 3 fingers glued together by accident). We can also manipulate each severed element separately to match the others. In my first years of practicing composite, through repetition, I began to see patterns emerging in the workflow. Some things you could get away with, and some you couldn't. This is where I formed my three unbreakable rules of composite photography. Forged through the repetition, trial, and error of my learning.

Composite is all about selling the fake. You can have lots of fantastical elements but some rules have to be adhered to, to sell the reality of the fake. What are these rules? I hear you screaming at the screen. Okay, Okay I digressed. Let us jump in and dissect them. The three unbreakable rules of composite photography are light, color, and camera position. Life-changing hey!


Light is our first unbreakable rule. It encompasses not only the light on our subject but also the quality and tone. The light of your subject should always match the light of its surroundings. So for example, if your model is shot with rim light coming from the back, but the background light is coming from the front. I'm sorry but that is a big fail! I see this all the time in social media Photoshop groups. And I agree rim lighting looks cool, but the surrounding light has to be coming from behind the subject.

Also, be sure to make sure the direction of your light sources matches up. If you have a background template with a warehouse, which has spotlights on the left, then when it comes to shooting your model, you need to light that model from the left also. Which leads us in nicely to quality of light. The spotlight in the warehouse will more than likely be a hard light source; a bare bulb, bright and harsh. Which means when you shoot your model from the left you also need to match the quality of the hard light. You could do this by shooting with a flash with no modifier. Hence creating hard light upon your model. See, it's not rocket science, just common sense. But like last week's article, a little pre-planning, goes a long way.


What you call "color" I like to call "colour," but because most of you are American I am forced to spell it incorrectly! Anyway, let us not get into that debate. Our next unbreakable rule is color. The color of your subject should match the color of its surroundings. Again common sense but I see this mistake all the time too. If your model is shot indoors they will usually have a different color balance to a background that is shot outside, or sometimes even indoors, depending on window light, etc. The model can be more of an orange color and the background will be blue balanced (if shot naturally). What you need to do is match one to the other. If the background is blue, well you need to turn your model from an orange color balance to a blue color balance. Easy-peasy.

Because we are in the realm of composite, more than likely you will have multiple elements to composite in, all with their own specific color balances. Every element has to be color-matched. As with Photoshop, there are a thousand ways to do the same thing. I feel that curves color adjusting gives you the most control. Later on, you when you color grade the image that will also help tie these elements together color-wise.

Camera Position 

Unbreakable rule number three: Position of the camera, or in layman's terms, angle and height. The angle and height of your subject must match the angle and height of its surroundings. See a pattern emerging here? Again, another common mistake I see all the time. 
Let's say you shoot your model in the studio and you are crouched down on your knees. Then whilst you are out walking, shooting background templates, you do so from a standing position. When it comes to adding your model to the background, the angles will be off. Your model will have a completely different horizon point than your background. Pretty much no manipulation in Photoshop will realistically fix this. Out of all three rules, this is the hardest to fix. Height can be worked out by using ruler lines to find the horizon point in each image. But angle... angle is much harder.

Again all it takes is five minutes of pre-planning and thought to work out what height and angle you want to work at. Again if you are using third party background stocks then you can use specific techniques to work out the horizon point and then shoot your model to the correct height. Hopefully, this is all common sense and something you can pick up easily. Once you are good with these three rules, I'm pretty certain your composites will jump in quality to a higher level in a short amount of time. But I have a hack for you; something that will make your life as an aspiring composite artist even easier.

Are you ready? Shoot your background first. All of these rules I have bestowed upon you are so much easier if you shoot the background or acquire the background first. If you have the background already (which is the unmovable object), all the clues are in front of you to reveal how you need to shoot your model (the moveable object).

Your background will show you the type and quality of light needed and the color balance you have to aim towards. I prefer to color match my background color as it seems to blend better. And finally, shooting your background first will help you find out what height and angle you need to shoot at. It is like a road map of everything you need to know to build your composite. By all means, feel free to shoot your model first, I still do sometimes if circumstances force me to. But it always leads to little complications which I don't need. Trust me when I say background first is the way to go.

So there we have it. The three unbreakable rules. From here on out anything is possible as long as the rules are followed and respected. See you next week for part 3.

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Corey Weberling's picture

I freakin love this stuff. Composites are so cool.

Clinton Lofthouse's picture

Thanks man

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Thanks for showing the before and after with the elements that you used. I need to start a library of those extra things. Like a boat and a goat.

Clinton Lofthouse's picture

Haha or you can use Shutterstock or a similar site. I sometimes use a mix of my own stock and paid stock.