The Logistics of a Composite Photograph

The Logistics of a Composite Photograph

Composite photography can seem overwhelming, particularly when trying to tell a story and using photographic elements from different locations. Let me break down how I created this narrative piece to provide some helpful insight.

One of the best things about composites is their potential for complex narrative. If you're not shooting everything in one location on a tripod, it can be incredibly hard and often expensive to take a complicated concept and bring it to life when one must coordinate the schedules of models, hair and makeup team, gear, travel, pay for location fees or permits, and deal with the other aspects required to create the image all in one shoot. Creating a composite is an attractive option because the photographer can head to the location alone and take backplates during the perfect time of day without wrangling the crew, and then shoot the models in studio when their schedules allow, without worrying about losing the light or paying travel fees.

So, if you've committed to creating a composite, here is something to keep in mind before you start.

Have a Solid Plan Before You Start to Work

It's best to have working sketch, lighting diagram, notes about camera height, focal length, and angle, as well as distances between subjects/blocking if necessary. This gives you a blueprint to work from so you can make sure that proportion, perspective, and light match up between backplate and subject(s).

If you can't get out to the location you want to use or you haven't built up a library of your own, you can use a stock photo such as the photo used in this composite, by photographer Mike Birdy. It can be incredibly time consuming to search through stock libraries for photos that fit your vision, angle, etc., and you may come up empty handed, so I recommend shooting your own backplates if possible. Settling for a photo that doesn't quite match your vision might leave you doing a lot of postproduction work in addition to searching.

As You Work, Pay Attention to the Details

  • Light direction
  • The color of the whites and blacks
  • Shadow density
  • Light quality
  • Depth of field
  • Overall color tone
  • Proportion of composited elements in relation to the background
  • Perspective

Keeping these things in mind, here is the process I used to create my most recent composite.

My concept for this composite was a woman in her nightgown carrying a lantern at night, stalked by a lurking figure. I planned for this to be the first first photo in a series, with the second photo in the series showing the confrontation between the woman and her "nightmare."

I wanted the photo to be cinematic, moody, and to feel like it came right out of a storybook rather than looking absolutely photorealistic. For the nightgown I purchased, I knew I'd need a back blate that had a vintage historic feel. I also needed to find a photo that was either taken at night, or could be edited to look like a nighttime photo. Here is the photo I chose, cropped for my composite.

Photo by Mike Birdy

Once I chose the photo, I needed to bring in the model I photographed in studio. To change the photograph from daytime to nighttime, I googled some reference photos of night scenes for reference and used an array of adjustments layers to make the following changes:

  • Desaturate
  • Change the overall color tone
  • Change the contrast and dynamic range
  • Selectively darken the highlights
  • Adjust the angle for perspective

I selected this shot from my studio session with the model, Kayla Raine, for the light and her expression.

Model Kayla Raine photographed in my studio using a gelled speedlight shot through a 6' x 4' scrim

I removed the model from the backdrop with a rough lasso selection. Once I had her positioned in the frame, I masked out the rest of the backdrop with a color selection, and careful brushwork.

After that, I changed the color toning and contrast of the model so that she matched the location more closely.

After the model fitted into the landscape, I began adding the details that would make the shot more believable and help tell the story, such as the flame and flame reflections in the lantern, and the hooded figure in the background. These elements also needed to match the color toning of the scene, with the blacks moving toward blue. The hooded figure also needed a shadow that matched the intensity and angle of the shadows at the foot of the trees. Since I introduced movement into the image with a fan to blow the models hair, I made sure to draw the cape so that there was matching movement in the fabric. 
I also added a halo of light from the lantern.

I wanted the night itself to feel mysterious and dangerous, so I added blowing leaves to enhance the feeling of movement. I used a leaf brush in Photoshop, chose the option to bevel and emboss the brush strokes with light direction that matched that of the backplate, used a Gaussian blur to match the depth, and then added a motion blur. To keep the model "in" the scene, I made sure to add larger leaves in front of her and followed the same process as before. It's important to make the blur level matches the blur of the depth of field. 

Since I wanted the image to have a cinematic, storybook feeling, I added a ground mist to increase the sense of mystery and foreboding. It also created some contrast between the hooded figure and the manor house in the background. The mist was created using Photoshop brushes with Gaussian blur and motion blur applied to match the movement of the leaves.

When creating mist, it's important to remember that mist and fog appear thinner between the viewer and objects close to them, and thicker between the viewer and objects that are far away.

Once I felt like I'd created the mood I wanted, I noticed that the image felt a bit too green overall. I wanted to create a blue/yellow color palette, so I added more blue to the shadows, increased the magenta in the yellows using a selective color adjustment so the yellows wouldn't look like pee (let's be honest, it's not a pleasing color) and added a bit of mist in front of the model to push her just a bit farther into the scene. I also strengthened the highlights on the trunks nearest the model so that it felt like the lantern was throwing subtle light on the trees, which I intended to help the model appear more connected to the backplate.

Since I wanted the photo to lean toward an illustration rather than chasing photorealism, I also added a subtle oil paint filter to finish the image.

You can see the full process below.

While I'm always learning and honing my skills, I hope this walkthrough gives you an idea of how one might approach creating a composite, and points out some of the details you need to pay attention to as you create your own masterpiece.

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Pete Tapang's picture

nice work! it's great to see composite photography in a positive light!

Lachlunn Valente's picture

Yeah I don't think it often gets the respect it should from a lot of photographers and blogs. It's a very powerful storytelling skill set. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with other Togs about being a compositor and they look down at you because they think getting everything 'in camera' or 'in one shot' is somehow a more admirable skill. I get the feeling that a lot of photographers are just afraid of photoshop and what you can do with it.

But at the same time, there are Way too many compositors that don't know what they are doing. The lack of attention or respect could be a result of a vast amount generally low quality work.

David Love's picture

The reason there are so many that are bad at it is lack of planning, creativity and not spending the time to make it right. Most of what I do is composites with cosplay and I spend as long as it takes, I shoot my own stock instead of slapping people onto stolen google pics or stock images that have lighting that is off and I light people to match the idea rather than burn and dodge them to death to make them match lighting that wasn't originally planned. How you take the image goes a long way to making a composite believable.

Lachlunn Valente's picture

Totally agree! The ultimate aim is to shoot 100% of the image. But I've often found that the concept needs assets not immediately accessible in my area or even country. So it's often cheaper to use a decent dedicated stock like PhotoBash.

Still, that doesn't give you the understanding of perspective, light, colour, and tone that years of practice does. And then there's the creativity which I 1000% believe is a learned skill. But yeah, most pixel smashers arent there yet.

David Love's picture

Understandable if you can find stock images that match the lighting or you get them first and shoot to match. The eye just scans an image looking for what's not real.

Jeff Colburn's picture

Good article. Thanks for the info.

Have Fun,

Great tutorial! Nice work!