Group Composites: How to Get the Shot

Annie Leibovitz is well known for her group shots that have a high fashion aesthetic. The posing, lighting, and color toning are signatures to her images. While most photographers may not be shooting for Vanity Fair, learning how to create the staging and composites for family sessions can give you the leg up on wowing your clients. 

If you are where I was sitting eight years ago, in a cubicle hiding behind my computer with the sound off, reading articles and tutorials on photography (while the boss was within ear-shot), fear not. You can read along with the video so you can get some quick tips on how to create the look.

The accompanying video shows how to stagger clients while creating the perfect lighting for each subject. Keeping the fill light at half-power above the camera, the main light at full power was moved to light each subject individually using a Bowen 200-watt mono light in a 120 cm Octabox. Each individual subject is then added in post production for composite layering. The lasso tool is used to cut each subject from the original image into the final working product. The best option is to place the subject so it can be used as a smart object and resized when needed (File>Place Object). Using a low opacity blend on the mask, the subject is seamlessly fit into the image.

Blending the hair can be a little tricky, but there is a workflow toolbar from SMP Pro Workflow  that will speed up the process. Clicking on the dodge layer and adding it above the background, you will be able to paint softly in order to blend the transition on the hair mask. After each individual subject is placed, use a brightness/contrast layer to verify the darker areas were blended properly (do not forget to turn off this layer after reviewing).

Creating the Tones

Adding textures to a seamless paper backdrop will give it the signature look by masking out the subjects and placing the texture file on the backdrop only. A slight blur and reduction of opacity to around 80% will blend it in nicely.

One of my favorite parts of the tutorial is the color range selection. While there is a function in the SMP workflow for this work, it can also be easily found by going to Select > Color Range. Within this menu, there is an option for skin tones. It will select the skin tones as well as any tone that is similar to a skin tone. Adding cyan (or using the tab within the SMP workflow) will give the cooler look.

A last tip on the video is to add film grain. This can be completed by reducing the opacity of the film grain to a soft light of 10%. Once in the layer properties (double click on the layer), take the sliders on the Blend If property by clicking "alt" or "option" to bring the blacks into the whites on the underlying layer. This in turn reduces the grain in the shadows and balances it out with the highlights.

Once you are at home and away from the boss, turn this video back on to watch it in its entirety. It is loaded with great information on this technique that can be applied to nearly any image composition you are about to attempt. Use this link to see the PSD file as well to follow along with each layer step.


If you had success with this technique, link the image below in the comments!





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Phil Newton's picture

Love this style of work, in particular gritty film and tv cast shots. Definitely got to improve my photoshop skills to come up to this level of work; I shoot everyone in the one group on a tripod and have a blank image of the scene for fixing, but I'm a photoshop novice. Thanks for posting!!

Jimmy Schaefer's picture

THERE ARE SO MANY BETTER WAYS... I don't know watching this video I feel like he took so much more time then needed. There are so many quicker ways to do the things he is doing starting with just taking the photo. Ehhhhhh not trying to be a downer just didn't make sense to me personally maybe im above this lvl of Post.

Mark Davidson's picture

I saw this as a perfectly reasonable mehod for composites. There are always a number of paths to a goal.
Maybe you can share some of the ones you feel are more effective?

Jimmy Schaefer's picture

its just hard to watch when you learn one way and someone else does it a different way... non the less this is whats great about photoshop there is no wrong.

gabe s's picture

I would have to agree with you. He said he spent a whole day doing mask layers. At a day rate, you could afford enough cheap flashes to light everybody at once.

Michael Kormos's picture

Photographers are like plumbers. The first thing they do is tell you the previous guy did it wrong, and they have a better way.

Jimmy Schaefer's picture

very true, How many people does it take to capture a photo???


one to take the photo and 3 to criticize and say they could do it better.

Jeff Morris's picture

I'm guessing the only reason not to keep the camera on a tripod and just shoot all the models in-place is to reduce distortion at the edge of the 35mm lens? He didn't say that he's centering each model's image in the frame, but that's really the only reason I can see for giving yourself so much extra work in post.

Rex Larsen's picture

Well we all know from watching online tutorials there often is a better way. What's helpful is the better way being shared and explained. Nearly every time I use Photoshop I think to myself, 'I'm sure there's a better way that a lot of people are doing.'

Xavi Galvez's picture

So i might imagine there is no real proportion between subjects when resizing them. No way...

Andrew Ptak's picture

Can you explain the last part again. I get what is being done - adding grain - but why and why this way? Thanks.

Jennifer Tallerico's picture

Andrew I believe the photographer was working to balance out the grain. ( this is not my work but a repost of his tutorial). The reasoning behind adding the grain was to bring the film look as that is a signature feel of the style.

Chris Kisela's picture

I used this video as inspiration for a shoot last week, here are the results