Composite photography – Top tips for Photoshop compositing

Composite photography

Top tips for Photoshop compositing

Composite photos, which are defined as two or more images blended together to create a final image, makes the process of compositing sound quite simplistic, but the truth is that it’s far from easy. 

The following tips will make creating your own composite image much more straightforward:

  1. Have a strong creative concept
  2. Plan your composite image
  3. Understand the different Photoshop tools
  4. Organise your workflow

Compositing takes time, planning,  a keen eye for detail and a good knowledge of Photoshop helps too, so if you're new to compositing or looking to grow your skills, this article should give you some great advice on how to create amazing composite images using Photoshop. I've added series of compositing in Photoshop videos for members which guides you through this process in detail.

Product photography composite of fireman and surrounding flames

The final firefighter composite, created for our compositing course.

What is a composite photograph?

Composite photos can vary greatly in complexity and if you do any form of post production work, chances are you’ve already created a composite image. In it’s most basic form, composite images  could include focus stacking of a product shot or combining different splash shots into one. Compositing can be a useful tool in cases such as advertising and it can also be used to create much more elaborate scenes that wouldn’t have been possible to create in camera.

While techniques such as focus stacking are fairly straightforward, more complex compositing can quickly become very involved and easily go wrong. It’s important to pay close attention to details such as light and perspective, and having a good understanding of photography and post production is crucial if you want to create a seamless image that is believable.

    Composite image of perfume bottles and water splash
    Although the water splash was shot in camera, the Clinique logos and right-hand product were shot separately and composited into the final photo.

    1. Have an idea

    To begin, it’s important that you have a concrete idea of the final image you want to create. If it helps, write a list of what you want to achieve and outline the steps and considerations needed for each phase.

    Composite photography examples

    If you’re just starting out and looking for composite image ideas, try looking at work by other artists to see what they do and how they do it. Visual artist Erik Johansson, who is an upcoming guest for our live talk show, has a number of examples of great composite photography and he often shares behind the scenes footage of his shoots and post production.

      Behind the scenes of Erik Johansson's Give Me Time image.

      2. Planning your composite image

      Finding & sourcing images

      Once you have an idea, deciding on and sourcing the images you want to use is the next step. For this, you have a couple of options — you could either take photographs yourself (as Erik does), use stock images or create your own CGI assets (we have a complete course on CGI and 3D modeling in our Post Production section).

      Useful stock websites you could try include:

      In our ‘Compositing using Photoshop’ course, where professional retoucher Viktor Fejes and I show you the step by step process of how to create a composite image of a firefighter, we used a combination of pictures — one of my own images, stock photos and various Photoshop tools too.

        Composite photos used include burning room, building and image of fireman.
        The three images used to create the firefighter composite image.

        Image size

        Whenever you’re working with multiple images, remember to consider the size of each. This is especially important if you’re combining your own photos with stock photos, where the quality and resolution can be very different. In this case, you may have to reduce the size of one and increase the size of the other.

        A useful tip that Viktor demonstrated to help ‘reduce’ image quality was to use the Noise filter (you can see how he did this in chapter two of our ‘Compositing using Photoshop’ course).

          Light & perspective

          Other elements to consider are light and perspective. These are crucial if you want to produce a believable image. Mismatched lighting and different perspectives are sure signs that an image is not real.

          These problems can be overcome using simple Photoshop tools such as the Transform tool, which can be used to flip, warp or rotate elements, while adjustment layers are essential for correcting brightness and colour.

            Photoshop composite tutorial - image rotate tool
            When creating composite images, light and perspective are two important elements to pay attention to. Here you can see the light on the firefighter does not appear to match the light from the background.
            Flipping the background in the image composite editor
            By flipping the background, the light on the helmet better matches the rest of the scene.

            3. How to make a composite picture in Photoshop

            Photoshop compositing essential tools & techniques

            Unfortunately there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to how to make a composite picture in Photoshop. Each image requires different treatment and different levels of adjustment. However, there are a few tools and techniques that you’ll most likely finding yourself using time and time again. Below I discuss some of the tools and techniques demonstrated in our composite tutorials.

            Using layers and layer masks

            When it comes to combining different pictures, it goes without saying that you’ll be working with multiple layers, so having a good grasp of layers and layers masks is essential (if you’re unfamiliar with this, you can learn more in this Photoshop layer masks tutorial). Using layer masks allows you a much greater degree of flexibility than simply erasing or deleting part of the image.

            How do you create a layer mask in Photoshop?

            1. Select the layer in the Layer panel
            2. Click the ‘Add a mask’ button at the bottom of the panel. This will apply a white layer mask, which reveals everything on the selected layer.
              Creating layer masks in Photoshop
              To create a layer mask, click the 'Add a mask' icon in the layers panel.

              3. To hide the selected layer, invert the mask (Command I / Ctrl I). You can then reveal what was hidden by using your Brush tool (set to white) and painting over the area you want to show. If you find you’ve revealed too much, simply switch your brush to black (you can do this by pressing X on your keyboard) and paint over the area you want to hide again.

                Invert layer mask in Photoshop
                You can hide a selected layer by inverting the mask and reveal selected areas using a white brush.

                Working with layers also allows you to create adjustment layers and add effects such as noise, blur or colour overlays. By using layers, you’ll have a much greater degree of control (compared to if you apply adjustments directly to the image) and be able to make further changes if you need to, later down the line.

                  Photoshop Pen tool

                  Composite photography often requires selecting and cutting out objects, which is often done using the different Photoshop selection tools. However, Viktor recommended using the Pen tool, a powerful yet often overlooked Photoshop tool.

                  The Pen tool is a great option for quickly cutting out subjects with relatively hard edges or where there is low contrast (as with our fireman’s black helmet set against the dark background), where automatic selection tools such as the magic wand may struggle.

                  You can see how Viktor uses the Pen tool here.

                    Photoshop pen tool
                    The pen tool is a powerful yet often overlooked tool well suited for objects with hard, defined or low contrast edges.

                    Adjustment layers

                    To help blend different objects into your scene, a certain degree of colour grading or adjustment will probably be necessary. Depending on what you want to achieve, you’ll need to use different adjustment layers. For example, if you’re looking to change contrast, you may want to use a Levels adjustment, or if you’re changing colour you may want to use the Hue/Saturation or Curves adjustment.

                      Photoshop levels adjustment
                      Adjustment layers are a useful tool for compositing, where you often need to adjust brightness, hue/saturation or contrast.

                      Blend modes

                      Using different blend modes can also help with making your scene more believable. As the name suggests, blend modes help blend selected layers with the layer below, based on what mode is selected. The different blend modes are split into different groups — Normal, Darken, Lighten, Contrast, Inversion, Cancelation and Component.

                        Photoshop blend modes
                        Photoshop blend modes are split into different groups according to their blend properties.

                        Normal blend group — This is the default blend mode where only the top layer is visible. The opacity of this layer is controlled using the Opacity slider. This includes the Normal and Dissolve blend modes.

                        Darken blend group — Darken blend modes turn the result colours (the colours resulting from the blend) darker. Anything that is white in the top layer will become invisible and anything that is darker than white will have some darkening effect on the layer below. This includes the Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, Linear Burn and Darker Color blend modes.

                        Lighten blend group — The blend modes in this group, which include Lighten, Screen, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge (Add) and Lighter Color, do the exact opposite of those in the darken mode and will turn the result colours brighter.

                        Contrast blend group — The modes in this group are a mix between the Darken and Lighten bend groups. They create contrast by both lightening and darkening the result colors by using complementary blending modes to create the blend.

                        Inversion & Calculation blend groups — Depending on the layer underneath, colours will either be inverted or cancelled out. This includes Difference, Exclusion, Subtract and Divide blend modes.

                        Component blend group — The component blend modes use different combinations of the primary colours components (hue, saturation and brightness) to blend layers. This includes Hue, Saturation, Color and Luminance.

                        In the latest version of Photoshop you can see a preview of each blend mode by simply hovering your mouse over the different options and you can further affect the blend by adjusting the Opacity or Fill sliders. You can find a more detailed explanation of each blend mode here.

                          Smart objects

                          Using smart objects isn’t essential when it comes to compositing, but it can help make the job easier. By converting an image to a smart object, Photoshop allows you to preserve the original characteristics of an image, which allows you to perform non-destructive editing to the layer.

                          Additional advantages of using smart objects include:

                          • Non-destructive transforms — You can scale, rotate, skew, distort, perspective transform, or warp a layer without losing original image data or quality.
                          • Non-destructive filters — You can edit filters applied to Smart Objects at any time.
                          • Link smart objects — If you have duplicates of an image, you can edit one copy and all instances where the image is used will update automatically.
                          • Layer masks — You can apply layer masks that are either linked or unlinked to the Smart Object layer.

                          How do you create a smart object in Photoshop?

                          There are two ways to convert an image to a smart object:

                          1. Using the Filter tab, click on ‘Convert for Smart Filters’
                          2. Using the Layer tab, go to Smart Objects and click on ‘Convert to Smart Object’
                            Photoshop smart filters
                            Converting for smart filters in Photoshop.
                            Creating smart objects in Photoshop
                            Creating a smart object in Photoshop using Layers.

                            Brush tool

                            When it comes to compositing, you can use a combination of photos, stock images and even CGI elements, as I mentioned earlier. But including each of these can take time, especially if you have to transform them and make colour adjustments. If you’re looking to add simple elements like clouds or smoke, the Brush tool can be a useful option.

                            In our fireman composite, we could easily have used a stock image of smoke, but the Brush tool provided a quick and effective alternative. By customising the various brush setting and experimenting with different blend modes, we were able to create a realistic looking smoke simply and effectively.

                              Brush tool settings
                              Creating a custom brush in Photoshop for a smoke effect.
                              Photoshop custom brush tool
                              Using a custom brush to apply smoke to the composite.
                              Photoshop smoke effect brush
                              The final effect of the custom smoke brush created in Photoshop.

                              Customising and creating brushes is covered in more depth in chapter six and nine of our compositing course, where you can see exactly how to create smoke and sparks using the Brush tool.

                                Filters

                                Throughout our compositing course, Viktor applied various filters, most commonly Gaussian Blur and Noise. He used these for blending images together and changing the apparent quality of images.

                                NOTE: If you’re unfamiliar with any of the techniques above, visit our Post Production section, where I cover all of these in more detail in our Photoshop for Photographer course.

                                  4. Organise your workflow

                                  As you include more images and apply more and more adjustments, layers and filters, it’s easy to lose track of what layer is doing what. To help you organise your workflow, there are a few simple practices you can try.

                                  Name your layers

                                  As soon as you create a new layer, name it. This can be as simple as Background or Subject or Noise. This will help you remember what layer is what, should you need to go back to make further adjustments.

                                    Group layers

                                    Grouping layers can also help keep your workspace organised. If you find yourself making a number of adjustments to one element, you can group those layers together.

                                    Save your work

                                    The last thing you want is to loose hours of hard work. Save your work and keep saving as you go!

                                    Recommended Articles

                                    The full firefighter composite can be found in our 'Compositing using Photoshop' tutorials. Below are some additional related classes and articles that you may found useful for compositing. You can also find a great selection of classes focusing on other useful Photoshop skills in our Post Production section.

                                    If you're looking to improve your retouching skills, these two articles provide some useful tips from professional retoucher Viktor Fejes.

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