I have the distinct privilege of working with some of the most talented cosplayers on the planet. Several times a year, we assemble a group of these amazingly creative people for a day-long studio shoot for compositing purposes. We meet in studio with a gray seamless backdrop and let the creative juices flow.
I’ve been able to work with a couple awesome Batman cosplayers over the years. One thing that has always frustrated me is capes. No matter how cool they look in real life, they’re difficult to control in a way that gives them that flowing, majestic shape we love in the comics (or the CGI versions we see in the movies). Recently, The RAWexchange came to the rescue with the Fabric collection. Finally! A way to create capes that look like the images I have in my head!
The Batman source image for my “Do You Bleed” composite is a gray background studio portrait of Jose (Sulside Cosplay on Facebook) in his custom-made Armored Batman based on the Zack Snyder’s recent DC “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” film. Jose does amazing fabrication, and I knew I wanted to highlight all of the textures and details in his armor
Lighting was a pair of Einstein 640 monoblock heads with Paul C. Buff 14 x 60 gridded stripboxes left and right of (and slightly behind) our subject. Not only does this edge lighting accentuate texture, but it also creates a more moody light that’s perfect for the night-time rooftop composition. I elected to shoot on a gray background (vs. white) to allow for better blending of foreground / background elements with layer blending modes – keeping texture and shadows, and eliminating the need for detailed selection techniques.
I knew I would be replacing Jose’s cape in post, so I simply tucked the cape into his utility belt to keep it out of the way while still retaining the connections to his shoulder that would potentially show in the finished composite.
The background image is a dusk photo of the Philadelphia skyline I captured a few years back with my trusty Canon Powershot G10 point and shoot camera. The image has been in my library for a while, and I’ve used it as a surrogate Gotham City for a number of DC character composites (notably, Batman and Green Arrow).
Creating the Cape with RAWexchange Fabrics Collection
With all the elements gathered, I first created a rough selection of Batman with quick selection tool in Photoshop’s “select and mask” workspace. I knew I wouldn’t be using this mask in the finished image, but it enabled me to separate Batman from the background for the purpose of placing, arranging, and combining the RAWexchange fabric elements that would ultimately become his new cape.
One of the most difficult parts of the process was finding the particular images I wanted to use for the cape. There are just SO MANY to choose from in the Fabrics collection. I knew that I wanted the cape to hang vertically with some subtle billowing, and to wrap around Batman without hiding all of the glorious armor work that Jose had created.
After some experimenting, I found two fabric images that I thought would fit well together and provide me the shape I was looking for without too much manipulation of the individual images. I was able to rotate, scale and mask the two fabric images to create the shape you see here.
The source fabric images from RAWexchange are grey fabric on a black background. To achieve the dark black cape, after merging the masked fabric layers together, I inverted the image (cmd / ctrl-I), converted the merged layer to a smart object (right-click > convert to smart object), and applied both a hue/saturation adjustment and a levels adjustment to the merged layer: decreasing the saturation and crushing the blacks by moving the levels black point slider to the right.
Having created the shape and tonality of the cape, I proceeded to mask the cape layer to fit as needed around my original Batman image. Careful brushing on the layer mask resulted in exactly the flow and movement of the cape that I had in my head. Once satisfied, I merged the masked cape and original Batman layers to a new layer (“Stamp to new layer” – cmd/opt/shift-E ; ctrl/alt/shift-E).
A bit of dodging and burning, and curves adjustment layers followed to increase the blacks of the Batsuit, and brighten the glow of the eyes. Jose actually has white LEDs in his cowl. In person, the LEDs create a diffuse white glow for the eyes (like you see in the movie), but they don’t photograph very well. More on that in a moment.
I use a variety of dodge and burn methods to increase local contrast in my images. In this case, I employed a technique I picked up recently from Corey Barker at Master FX Training. I started by creating a new blank layer over my image and setting that new layer to overlay blend mode. Then, on that blank layer, I painted over the darker parts of the image with a black brush set to about 30% opacity. This served to crush the blacks in the suit. Dodging the highlights was done similarly: create a new blank layer, set the blending mode to “overlay”, and paint with a low opacity white brush over the highlights. Individual layer opacities for these dodge and burn layers are then adjusted to fine tune the effect.
The white eye glow was created with multiple curves adjustment layers. I first made a selection of the eye socket with the lasso tool, then with the marching ants selection in place, added a curves adjustment layer. On the curves adjustment layer, I pushed the midtones WAY up, which increased the brightness of the eye. Then, with the mask of that curves adjustment layer active, using Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, I was able to create a bit of a “glow” around the edges of my eye selection. To get the brightness I needed, I simply duplicated my curves layer several times (cmd/ctrl-J).
At this point, my Dark Knight is looking pretty good on a gray studio background. The next step is to add the cityscape, Bat signal, atmospheric elements, and finish it off with a cinematic color grading treatment.
Creating / Blending the Background
The Philadelphia skyline is a great stand in for Gotham City, but needed a day-for-night conversion to work with this composition. In this instance, I used a combination of Hue/Saturation and curves to create the desired look. For Hue/Saturation, the trick is to check the “colorize” checkbox, and then adjust the hue, saturation, and lightness sliders to taste. I also Gaussian blurred the background slightly to create some depth of field.
Now here’s where it gets a bit unintuitive. To lay the background in behind our hero, I actually placed the background layer ABOVE my Batman layer. Here’s why. Having shot Jose on a gray background, I knew that I could drop in a background layer over top of his layer and change that background layer blending mode to make the compositing super simple. In this case, I actually settled on normal layer blend mode with reduced opacity, but typically, it will be overlay, soft light or multiply blend mode that results in the best result while retaining any shadows from the original image.
To mask the cityscape layer to allow my Batman image to show through, I decided to use another Cory Barker technique. Instead of my typical method of quick selection and refine edge to create a layer mask, I added a layer mask to the cityscape layer, and used the gradient tool to “paint” on my layer mask. More specifically – a radial gradient set to “foreground to transparent” with the foreground color set to black. This gives a nice feathered edge to my mask and allows for great control and finesse in creating the layer mask to blend my Batman and my “background”.
The Bat signal was next. I dropped in the PixelSquid searchlight object, scaled and positioned it to fit. In the same way I did Batman’s eye glow, I made a selection of the “lens” of the searchlight and added a curves adjustment layer with the midtones pushed way up to create the brightness of the light source. A subtle gaussian blur of the curves adjustment layer mask finished the light. Light rays — courtesy of Obsidian Dawn’s high-res light beams brush set –were added on yet another transparent layer. I Gaussian blurred the light beam layer just a bit to reduce the spikiness of the brush in its original form. A Bat logo was added above the light beam layer. I tweaked the opacity of the Bat logo to taste.
Depth and Atmosphere
Adding atmospheric elements helps to tie the various elements together. Here, I added a bit of hazy clouds by creating a new transparent layer at the top of my layer stack, and rendering clouds (Filter > Render > Clouds). This fills the layer with random clouds, but the pattern is usually too small. So, I select a small portion of the cloud layer with the rectangular marquee tool, and duplicate that selection (cmd/ctrl-J) to float that selection onto a new layer. Then, free transform that new layer (cmd/ctrl-T) and scale it to fill the canvas. Adjust opacity, and add a layer mask to this cloud layer to control how and where it intersects the subject layer.
Out of Frame Light Source and Particle Effects
I created an out of frame light source to the upper left (that was consistent with the highlighting on the left side of the batsuit). Start by setting the foreground color to white (or slightly off-white), activate the brush tool and choose a small round brush set to 0% brush hardness and 100% brush opacity.
Create a new transparent layer, and click to brush a soft, round spot in the middle of your image. Free Transform (cmd / ctrl-T) to scale that brush spot REALLY large. Then move the center of the round, soft enlarged brush out of the document window so that only the nimbus of light remains. Adjust layer opacity to taste.
There are a million ways to create particle effects to add depth to a composite. I’ve found that one of the easiest is to add what Glyn Dewis calls a “thingies” layer. RAWexchange Snow collection works great for this effect. I chose an image from the “Snow” collection, dropped it in over the image and changed the snow layer blending mode to “screen”. That knocks out the black in the image. I positioned the resulting particles over the Bat signal, and over the upper left of the image where the out of frame light source is located — which is where we would expect to see atmospheric particulates.
Finishing Touches – Color Grading and Tonin
Color grading serves several purposes in compositing. First, it helps to unify the image. As in this example, the background and subject images were photographed under different lighting conditions: the city skyline under natural dusk light; Batman via studio lighting. Applying a color treatment at the top of the layer stack helps tie these disparate colors together.
Additionally, color grading can be used to create a so-called “cinematic” look popular in images of this type.
There are a variety of ways to color grade: Color Look up Table (LUT) adjustment layer, Hue/Saturation (colorize) adjustment layer, and more. In this case, the color grading was accomplished by a group of layers: Hue/Saturation, Curves, and Levels.
From bottom up:
Finally, to create a bit “graphical” look, I apply an HDR-toning adjustment. The process is pretty simple, but I’ve created an action to set it up since I do it so often. The steps involve duplicating the image into a NEW image (since the HDR Toning adjustment will flatten the document). Then, in the duplicate image, go to Image > Adjustments > HDR Toning.
In the HDR toning dialog, I drop the saturation to -100, and then adjust detail, radius and strength sliders to create an edgy black and white version of the image. I often find that I have to decrease the exposure or highlights somewhat as well in this part of the process. The end result is NOT a pretty black and white on its own, but it’s not meant to be. Once I have a gritty black and white from this process, I’ll drag the black and white HDR toned image back onto my color image. (I do so by holding down the shift key in the process to center the black and white image on the color version). And then change the black and white layer blending mode. I usually find that soft light or overlay works well (usually with reduced opacity). Sometimes multiply blend mode looks better.
In the end, compositing is largely a matter of experimentation. My compositing journey has taught me more than I ever thought possible about layer blending modes, curves, and color grading. I’ve also learned (and am still learning) to pay attention to where light and shadow fit in an image.
About the Author
Jon C. Haverstick is an award-winning professional photographer and educator, specializing in corporate/commercial, wedding, portrait, and product photography. He is also the manager of the Orange County Adobe Photoshop User Group. You can see more of Jon’s work on his website, and connect with him over at his facebook page and Instagram.