Compositing is no beginner’s tactic. Before you dive in, provide time for the proper research and learn the skill set to prior to the job. Like many photographers in the game, initially I had serious trouble with lighting groups of 3 or more. There was always a face with a hard shadow or one more exposed than another. I never had a 6 foot octobox or a parabolic umbrella at my disposal so I picked up a technique that would issue an initial challenge, but be a real game changer for both my clientele and my work.
Although my style has changed the past year, lighting one subject always came easy to me. But when the time came to shoot a group of 9 models for an agency advertisement in a confined space, I was stumped. I wanted “the look” of an dramatically lit individual, but the question was; how can I accomplish that in one setting, with a group and in one shot? The answer: compositing.
I once stumbled on a brief YouTube video featuring a young wedding photographer using this technique to shoot a powerful portrait of a large wedding party. It was simple and straightforward enough, but more importantly the technique seemed like a good solution to my problem. I was nervous to try it out for the first time, but the results were well worth the gamble.
The camera in a static position on a tripod, each subject is individually lit and captured. Then, merge all the images together, mask out the light stand and blend it all together in Adobe Photoshop. Easy enough?
- Set the frame. It’s important to use a good tripod for not only having the ability to “Up The Ambient” but also to maintain sharpness and keep a static frame for compositing. In order to make this whole technique work, each image you capture must have the same perspective and frame. If your camera moves just slightly the entire post-process becomes a lot more difficult and in some cases impossible.
- Find the composition. When setting up your shot, make notes of where the edge of your composition lays. If for some reason that tripod gets kicked or the ball head slips, then you have some reference to where your original frame stands. If you’re using a zoom lens, set your focal length and lock it in. I’ve even gone to the extreme of placing gaff tape over the zoom to prevent any risk of the focal length being altered.
- Talk to your subjects. Let the group know the process, let them know it’s a technique that will take some time to capture. Direct them to a pose and have them stick with it, and remain as still as possible. Then, when you blend all of this together masking won’t be nearly as intricate and “involved”.
- Choose your light. If you’re shooting outside or on location, you'll likely need a powerful strobe to overpower the ambient light. I have always used either Paul C Buff Alien Bee B800 or a Profoto D1 with a small modifier such as a Westcott Mini-Apollo or a 36” Photek Softlighter II. These options work because of their low profile, they don't take up much of the frame, but put off a nice soft pop of light.
- Work an assistant. Although, practicing patience is an important aspect to creating a compelling image, it’s also important to maintain a speedy on-location workflow. When using this approach, instead of jumping back and forth… moving the light, snapping the shutter, moving the light; have an assistant. This process will move a lot more quickly and efficiently. With an assistant, light stand in hand, you can make micro adjustments and find the sweet spot in seconds, which could take a lot of time by your lone self.
- Focus stacking. Using the large single point AF array on your camera, focus on each individual, lock it in and snap the shutter. If the subject is outside the array, focus on a subject that is in the same focal plane. Remember, to keep the camera static and the frame stationary. Use light hands and be very careful when you nudge the controls and trigger the shutter.
- Capture background and backup images. You’ll find that a crucial element to compositing is having the proper background elements and images. Once all the subjects have been lit and captured, ask them to leave the frame. Depending on the mood you want to create, capture multiple exposures levels of the background. I also recommend capturing close-up images of the background elements. For example, walls, texture, floor and ceiling. During the editing process, you may find yourself in a pinch and need to fall back on those high-resolution elements.
- Review. Before moving the tripod to the next shot, be sure to review all the images you've captured for the composite. Pay attention to the details; posing, hands, expressions and lighting. One small error can throw a big wrench in the plan, this is why I always recommend tethering on location. Tethering can be irritating, but my friends at CamRanger and TetherTools have created some amazing workflow solutions for on location tethering.
- Merge all the images. Once the images have been imported into Adobe Photoshop, click “Window” > “Arrange” > “Tile”. That will organize all the images into a tile format. Then, find the background image, tap & hold “Shift”, drag every individual image onto the background image. By holding “Shift” it will automatically align each image to the background image. Once all the images have been merged in one window, close the extraneous images, they are no longer needed.
- Mask and blend. This is where things can become quite time consuming. You will have to mask each subject and blend that layer with the next layer. I work my way down, so from the top layer I mask each subject into view. A soft brush at at 30% "Flow" works magically when blending the subject into the background. Luckily, because everything was shot in the same frame, you won’t have to deal with perspective or any complex compositing situations. If you’re unfamiliar with masking and blending, then I recommend the tutorials of Phlearn. Aaron Nace is an incredible photographer and educator who dives into this process with precise detail.
After masking, blending, re-touching grading and sharpening, depending on the size of the group, your image will range from 30 to 80 layers. It will feel like you just painted the Mona Lisa; a grand display of hard work, vision and time for one stunning image.
It’s never an easy process, but it’s one that is well worth the time and energy. But like anything else, the end results will be a direct output of what you input into the process.