Five Tips for Better Compositing


Hi Friends,

No question about it – compositing is THE hot technique in Photoshop these days.  It’s a great way to create an image that couldn’t exist otherwise – since subject and background are typically in completely different locations. It’s also a terrific technique for wrangling lighting for large groups that would otherwise be difficult to control.

Masters of compositing like Joel Grimes, Matt Kloskowski, Calvin Hollywood, and David Palmer have introduced us to the “art” of this technique.  They’re also great sources of information on the process – from shooting to post production.

I wanted to share a couple tips that will help make your composites easier to create, and more realistic with regard to the blending of subject and background.  That said, I’d like to paraphrase a quote I picked up from a Joel Grimes workshop.  When Joel is taken to task on an image by someone who says that the background perspective, color, angle of view (whatever), doesn’t match the subject, his response is pretty much along the lines of, “I’m an artist.  It can be whatever I want it to be.”  So, as not to be shackled by the constraints of realism, here we go…

Tip #1: Shooting for Compositing

Hobbit lightingI prefer a three-light setup for compositing: one light as a key light from either directly above the camera position, or just slightly left or right of camera, and two edge lights behind the subject, aimed at the subject to provide some separation of the subject from the background.

In the image at right (one of the individual images used in the Hobbits composite at the top of this post), Cat is lit by a Nikon SB-800 speedlight in a 3-foot gridded octabox, just above the camera position.  There is an SB-800 to either side of her, slightly behind, flagged (to prevent lens flare), and aimed at the background. Frankly, I’ve done the rim lighting a number of different ways: with and without soft boxes, aimed at the subject, aimed at the background.  Different results with different techniques, but the important thing is to be able to have a good contrast between your subject and the background from which they’ll be selected.

The background does not have to be white, but it should be plain, and light enough to provide enough contrast with your subject so that the subject’s edges are well-defined.  This will make your selection process much, much, much easier.

Tip #2: Learn Photoshop’s “Refine Edge” Tool

Photoshop’s “refine edge” tool is probably the most important advancement in compositing technique in the history of compositing.  Combined with your favorite initial selection technique (quick selection, pen tool, etc.), the refine edge tool cleans up your selection in ways that you cannot imagine.  No more third party masking plug-ins necessary.  You’ve got it all in Photoshop.

Tip #3: Consider your Background

Before you spend a huge amount of time trying to make the perfect selection of your subject, drag your subject image onto your background, and THEN do your selection / refine edge with the view mode set to “on layers” so you can see your selection in place on the actual background.  Depending on how similar the original subject background is to the composited background, you may not need to be as precise as you think with your selection technique. For example, in the composite “The Root of Jesse” cast portrait below, the intended finished background was to be white.  So, I shot the individual portraits on white, and really only had to be particularly clean on the selections where people overlapped other people:

Root of Jesse Cast

ROJ Individual portraits


Tip #4: Layer Masks Are Your Friend

Using layer masks as you make your selection in Photoshop rather than deleting pixels provides you with way more options for refining, cleaning up, altering your selections going forward.  Once you delete pixels, it can be a real pain to go back and recover parts of the image after the fact.

layer masks

Tip #5: Experiment with the Finished Image

To expand upon Joel Grimes’ comment, don’t worry if it doesn’t look “natural.” Typically, composite images are not meant to look like they were “photographed that way” (i.e., as a single image).  You’re the artist. Do it your way.

There’s lots more to compositing, but hopefully, these few tips will get you started in the right direction.  I’d love to hear more of YOUR best practices for compositing.  Post ’em in the comments if you got ’em!

Thanks for dropping by!



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