Silly, but Simple, Composites

By Roger (18 October 2015)

My kids and grandkids have been photographed since birth. I have thousands of photos of these people. Our family loves having photos of them growing and changing, but, eventually,  the kids all go through a stage in which they're reluctant models.

They ignore me when I'm shooting candids, but getting them to pose for "nice" photos becomes more difficult as they get older. There are times I need to cajole and bribe them to sit for yet another photo. What do you do? You need to come up with some new ideas that they think are fun to keep them engaged.

Luckily, they've seen me working in Photoshop, so they've seen me changing pixels. Why does this matter? Well, now they can think up ideas for goofy photos that they'll enjoy being part of. That's the method I used to get them into these demonstration photos.

Long intro, I know, but let's get into the very basic steps of making some very simple composites, using two or more merged photos.

If you look online, you can find many great examples of composite photography. The information is in all the usual place: online and some good books. The latest book I've been reading is from Glyn Dewis -  Glyn's book, The Photoshop Workbook, is comprehensive and highly recommended, but we're not talking about that high-end stuff today. I'm going to keep this very simple.

That fall looks bad.

You need to do a little prior planning before you start your session. Think about what you want the final photo to look like. Find your background and point of view before you begin. You want to keep the lighting and lens' focal length consistent for the best results. You'll need to align your photos in post-processing, so I strongly recommend a tripod.

I started with the background photo of the steps leading up from our basement. When we had that photo in the can, we threw in a chair; a grandkid who knew how to fake a frightened look; and pushed the self-timer on the camera. We did it in only three takes.

Behind the scenes

Now, we get to the computer for a little (very little) magic in Photoshop. Open the two photos, as separate layers. Although the camera was on a tripod and didn't move, I aligned the layers (Edit > Auto Align Layers) to be sure.

You have to hide all those unnecessary objects in the stairway. If you're never going to use the model's in any other photos, put the empty stairs as the bottom layer; add a black mask to the top photo with your model; and, with a white brush on the black layer mask, reveal the falling girl. Simple.

You don't want to overdo these kinds of photos, but, if you ever intend to make several others, I'd use a better method to isolate your model. You would extract the model from the background, and save it for another day, another scene. The next time you want to put the model into another composite, you won't have to redo all that work. You never know when it might come in handy.

All you need to do to make this happen is take a single photo. For this one, let's use a Darth Vader look-alike, holding balloons that will carry him away.

Standing on a stool to keep the cape straight

Duplicate the background layer. Use your selection and masking techniques to conceal the background. When you have the mask complete, right-click on the layer mask and choose Apply Layer Mask. The mask will disappear and leave only the part of the photo you wanted. Turn off the bottom background layer, and you'll see an image with transparency, like this:

Now, you have the ability to put your model into any photo you wish, even if it makes no sense. In fact, it's probably more fun for them if it is just plain silly. We're just goofing off here.

What a strange bird

The kids can have fun, thinking up poses and looking for just the right background in your photo database. You get to have fun making photos and learning new Photoshop techniques. And, the next time you ask them to pose for a regular photo, they'll be much more cooperative.

Fairy Tale Huntress

Photowalk Through - Sail

By Roger (29 March 2015)

Photography can often require some problem solving. We all enjoy the times when the light is beautiful; the subject is captivating; and you have the correct gear to capture it. Everything is going just like you heard it was supposed to. Those are the days, huh?

Then, there are the other days. Someone has asked you to make a photograph under less than ideal circumstances. They just know what they want and hope that you can do the work. But don't back away from challenges in your photography. They present you with a chance to learn, even if you'd rather not.

I just, recently, got one of those challenges. I thought I'd use it as an example, since we haven't done a photo walk-through in six months.

Sail composite

Sail composite

Last weekend, I was in Florida for a business meeting, and I was asked to take a photo of a promotional item from a Nordhavn (a yacht company) rally. It was a large sail, hanging on a wall, in a dark, back room. It couldn't be taken outside because it was raining. Luckily, I had a flash to provide some light on the flag. I did not have my wide angle lens or tripod because I flew to Florida on a small jet, with very little overhead storage. I didn't know I was going to be asked to create, so I was traveling light.

The sail was too large and the room it was in too small for me to get it all into one frame. Did I mention the sail was eight feet wide and surrounded by junk? This meant I was going to have to take two photos and put them together in post-processing. Here is a photo to give you an idea of the background and the “fill-the-frame” photo, zoomed out to my widest.


I did a panorama of the two rough photos, combining them into one photo that includes the entire sail. Now that I had everything in one file, I needed to mask all the distractions behind the flag. This was pretty straight forward work. It was made a whole lot easier with the nice edges of the sail. I, also, ran one of my Photoshop actions to enhance the details within the flag. Once all this work was completed, I had the flag on a nice transparent background.

Photoshop screen capture

Photoshop screen capture

Just in case you haven't done this kind of thing before, the checkerboard pattern you see is how Photoshop tells you the background is transparent. When you save the image and send it back into Lightroom, you will see a pure white background. The transparency is still there, as long as you don't flatten the image and save it in that format.

I had what they wanted – the sail isolated, with transparent background. It is now possible to rotate it, so the sponsors could be put upright. All that is required is a suitable background color, pattern, or photo to set off the sail a little more. I sent several background examples. The one at the top is the one that looked best to me. I'm sending some additional examples.

I wouldn't call this a masterpiece by any stretch, but I gave them what they wanted, within the constraints I was given. Believe it or not, this sail is actually worth some money to the company. The owner wants to sell it back to Nordhavn, since only a couple of these sails still exist.

Yes, I've already recommended a better setting and a re-shoot, with proper lighting. For me, it was a chance to practice solving a problem and demonstrating what can be done on short notice. It was a fun experiment and gave the seller ideas for enhancing the presentation.

Composites—the more challenging stuff

By Mark

Last week I wrote about the basic techniques used in compositing.  When you are trying to combine very different elements into a brand new creative image it requires more techniques and even some preplanning.   As humans, our optical systems are pretty amazing. Over millennia, we have evolved the ability to detect when something is just not right in a scene.  We might not recognize just what it is, but we know when something is off.  

The most critical and immediate thing we notice is where the shadows don’t make sense.   Shadows are a natural consequence of the blocking of light.  Our brains see where the light sources are and then know where the corresponding shadows should be.   What is usually the biggest light source?  The sun, of course.   Now for the tricky question; how many suns do we have?  That’s right, only one.  Why then do so many composite fails look like they were shot on Tatooine?   Yep, people put images together with competing suns.

Here are two images that I want to put together.  The model was from last year’s Photoshop World Westcott Lighting both, while the other is a river in New Mexico.   As you can see her lighting came from high up on the right side.  Unfortunately, the lighting for the river scene comes from the opposite direction.   If you just put them together and mask out her black background, it doesn't look natural.  

Luckily, since we are not trying to be photojournalists you have options to correct this.  The easiest thing to do is just flip one of the images on its axis.  Since there is no text in either image it doesn’t matter which one.   I flipped the background and…voila!

More for next week!  


By Mark

Two weeks ago we talked about selection techniques.  Isolating specific elements from an image is one of those capabilities which Lightroom just cannot do.  It requires a pixel level editing program like Photoshop or even elements.  The ability to place things and then work on different layers is also one of those capabilities where Photoshop rules.   Building composite images takes full advantage of these three elements. 

In my mind there are three basic categories of composited images. We are going to cover the first two types in this blog.  The first are the simple replacements—ooh, I don’t like that sky and so I will put in a new one.

Taos Cemetery

Taos Cemetery

.   Starting with this nice happy image from the Taos cemetery, I just used the “color range” selection for the sky to create this mask. I inverted the selection to keep only the ground.   

I then took another big sky image I shot from that same trip and opened it up as a smart object.   Why as a smart object?  Well I wanted to be able to resize it without damaging the original file. 

With the sky as a new layer beneath, it’s a much more dramatic image.

The other two types are more artistic in scope.  The creative composite, where images and effects are layered and blended together and you intend for the viewer to be able to see this as part of your message.   Using that same cemetery base shot and the same mask I created a completely different look.   I shot this at Epcot Center during a fireworks display.  I keep it tagged in my effects and colors.  

When you make this into the sky, you need to add an orange cast to the markers themselves.  I just picked out a color from the new sky and then created a new fill layer on top.  I then reduced the opacity way down, just to give it a little glow. 

The last one, which we are saving for later, is where you take various elements from multiple images and create a seamless effect that could be a photograph from a completely different world.