Creating realistic photo composites or photo manipulation isn’t as hard as it looks. The steps you have to take to create a good composite are actually all pretty logical. I will try to explain the steps and common mistakes many people make in the following article.
[editor’s note: we are huge fans of Aad Sommeling. Aad is big about sharing and we are quite happy that he allowed us to share this primer, if you want to get deeper into the world of compositing, there are also a few workshops he made that will help you get started]
It all starts with a good idea, with a concept. If you have an idea, try to draw this idea on paper. It gives you something to hold on to during the process. It also gives you an idea of how to get most of the power out of your new concept. Imagine you want to shoot an advertising image for a new product, this product should be the main focus in your image, unless your client asked you to create a kind of mood around the product, in that case the visibility of the product can be less important. A drawing can also help in your communication with the client, so you both know what to expect from the final image. If your client is an advertising agency you often get a sketch from the art director.
Where To Start With Your Composite, Models Or Background?
I prefer to start with a background photo. The reason for that is simple. When you have a background photo you see where the light is coming from, so you know how you have to position the light around the models to simulate the light of this background on the model.
If you do it the other way around, you have images of the model, you see how the light is falling on them, but now you have to search for a background that has the same light direction, intensity and hardness. If you see a beautiful background, but the light is wrong you can’t use it if the light on the models is different. And you can’t easily change the light of the background… ever tried to move the sun? ;) Well, with models and speed or studio lights you can easily change the light. So that’s why I prefer to have a background image first as my reference.
Of course you can use any background for a composite, but there are a few things you have to think about.
First of all, your background photo should already look great, without putting anybody in the scene yet. If you have a beautiful background photo and you put a person in it, it only becomes better. If you have an image that just looks fine, the final image can still become beautiful, but with a good background photo it can become awesome. Don’t forget that often the biggest part of your final image is that background.
The second thing you have to think about is if there is enough space to position the models in the scene. If you have a concept in mind, you will probably take care of that automatically, but often you will shoot photos that you may use for a future composite, while you don’t have a concept yet. In this case, make sure there is space on the ground where models can be positioned. If there is no space in front, you can still put models in the scene, only not full body, unless you put them further away in the image, but often an image becomes less powerful this way. For fine art images not such a problem, but for advertising images it can be.
The third point to be aware of is, are you able to simulate the background situation in the studio, or at home? For example, if I want to put a model in a birdhouse in a tree, I can take an image of that birdhouse from below… but am I able to take an image of the model I want in that birdhouse from the same angle and with enough distance? Those are all the things you have to think about when shooting background photos for you composites!
When shooting the models you are going to simulate the same light that is in your background photo on the models. If that is hard light, like the light that comes from the sun, you should use small light shapers to simulate the sunlight. If it’s cloudy or indoors in front of a window you probably want to use soft boxes to simulate the soft light (soft shadows). I will explain more, in a next blog, about how I shoot with studio lights or speed light, when shooting models. It is good to know that you don’t need expensive lights to lighten your models. Almost half of my images are shot with only two cheap speed lights and that works great as well.
Shooting the models is not only about light. It is just as important to simulate the situation as it was when you shot your background photo. This means you have to shoot with the same focus length and you have to tilt your camera in the same way you did when shooting the background. Aperture and ISO are not important, but focus length and the tilt of your camera are. A good composite is all about perspectives that match. You want the lines of your models and objects that you shoot at home or in the studio to have the same horizon as the background photo. Sometimes, if they don’t match completely you don’t see that immediately, it depends on how strong the lines are in the background photo, but even if you don’t see it, your unconscious will notice it and tell you there is something wrong in the composite.
Another thing to take care of, when shooting the models is that if you have a background photo and you want to put a model in it at around one meter away from the camera, you also have to take the photo of the model around one meter away. If you don’t do that the perspectives won’t match again. This is much more visible with objects near the borders of the image where the distortion of the lens is the highest. So, don’t take a photo of a model or object from a distance of, for example, one meter away and put them in the image at 5 meters away, or the other way around. Don’t shoot a photo of the model at a distance of 5 meters and place the model in the composite close to the edges.
One thing I shouldn’t mention, but I am doing it, because I still see people making this mistake. If the light on the background is coming from behind (backlight) on the right side, you also position the lights on the model behind the model at the right. You can’t create a realistic composition if the lights in the scene are coming from all different directions. True, you can do a lot in Photoshop, even simulating light, but you can never simulate it as good as real light and your images will look much too photoshopped if you like to draw all the lights in manually.
After you cut out your models in Photoshop, you can position them on the background. You will notice that it all looks fake. This because there is no shadow yet. Shadows are the most important part of creating realistic compositions and maybe also the hardest part. Shadows are complex and often (in my case) you draw them by hand. A friend om mine, Renee Robyn, shoots the models on a grey background and she includes the real, original, shadow of the photo in the composite. That can work but often it won’t because you will see that a shadow of a model taken in the studio is too soft to simulate the shadow of the sun.
To be able to draw good shadows, you have to understand how light works. Light comes from a light source, which can be the sun, but this is not the only light that hits your model. Light is bouncing everywhere around you. Against walls, clouds, the floor, everywhere. If that wouldn’t be the case the world around you would look dark. Look at the difference when you shoot a model with one light in a studio that is completely black, or in a studio with white walls. You get completely different images because the light in the black studio hardly bounces, but in the white studio it bounces everywhere. Because of the light that bounces, there isn’t one shadow, but lots of shadows. The body of the model is not only blocking the light from the sun, which causes a dark shadow, but the body also blocks the light coming from all directions. And although your eyes hardly notice it when the sun is shining, the shadow is there. Only because of the bright light of the sun it’s almost washed away. It is more clear when the sun is less bright, when there are some thin clouds in front of the sun. So… it is important to realise that light is bouncing and also casting light, soft shadows.
In my workshops, when we go outside and the sun is shining, I always ask the question what do you see at my shadow? Because the sun is a small light source relative to our body, it give hard shadows. But does the shadow of me standing in the sun have the same hardness everywhere? No, it doesn’t. If you look carefully you will notice that the shadow at my feet, is much more sharp, compared to the shadow of my head. If you look to the shadow of my head, you will see that the shadow already becomes more blurry. That is because light is lightly bending as it passes around the edge of an object. You get some diffraction and the higher an object is above the ground, the more diffraction you will see in the shadow on the ground. That’s why the shadow of my feet is sharper compared to the shadow of my head. Try to notice this when you walk outside. If you see the shadow on the ground of the roof of a building, or the shadow of the leaves in a tree. They are blurry. Try to mix that with your own shadow and you will see the differences.
I like to dodge and burn my images. In fact for me it’s the most fun part of the composite. Maybe because I was a painter and it feels like paining with light. I like it. But what am I doing when dodge and burning my models and objects? Well, I like to give my models a 3D look by emphasising the natural shape of it. We are built out of cubes, cylinders, spheres etc. By shooting your models in a white studio it can be that your models, look too flat when you put them in the scene. This is because the environment in the studio isn’t exactly the same as your background photo, where the light was bouncing in a different way. So they can look like 2D images in a 3D scene. With dodge and burning I try to correct this.
Not only do I use it to emphasise the 3D shape, but I also use it as a contrast correction. I can do that with adjustment layers, but I also do this with dodge and burn. What many people do wrong is that they go wild on the dodge and burn part and add too much contrast in on the models. What is important when creating a composite is that your background is your reference!! Look at the contrasts of your background look at the intensity of light and shadows. The contrast of your models should be the same as that of the background. To keep that in mind, you can blend the image with the background perfectly!
I do one more thing with dodge and burn and that is some skin correction. I try to reduce the eye bags and some other parts that might be too dark or look dirty. I don’t go into detail like some fashion photographers are doing with the frequency separation and other retouching techniques.
Color correction is often needed. Again, your background is your reference to see what needs to be corrected. You shoot the models in the studio, so the light and colors can be different compared to the light and colors of your background photo. Imagine you have a background image with a sunset. The colors are more orange, so you also have to change that on your models. Or it’s early in the morning and the overall color is blue, you also have to correct this on the models. Same with the shadows. You will see that often the colors of the shadows can be a bit blue. If you draw the shadows with a black brush (like I always do) you have to correct this color later on, otherwise you will notice the differences between the background shadows and the ones you draw.
All the situations above are important when creating a realistic composite. It’s not so important how you do it, it is more important that you realise why you are doing it. In my tutorials I show you how I work these situations out in Photoshop.
About The Author
Adrian Sommeling is a photographer, digital artist, educator, graphic designer and web developer based in the Netherlands. With over 26 years of experiance Adrian has worked for both national and international brands and agencies. You can see more of Aad’s work on his webpage, Facebook and Twitter. You can also buy his workshops here. This article was also published here and shared with permission.