Compositing: What, Why and How

All About Compositing

..what it is
..why do it
..how it's made

What Is a Composite?

A composite is a single image made up of one or more elements from other images. A simple composite might be a subject who’s cut out and placed on a different background. Other composites can get very complex, with nearly everything in the scene taken from different sources; Ukrainian photo artist Viktoria Solidarnyh is a master at this.

The point of this post is to give a general idea of how I might work with a client to create a simple composite, such as a background swap; it’s not a tutorial for how to make the composite in Photoshop. If you’re interested in that, I highly recommend Phlearn — in fact, the example photos I’m using for this post are from an old Phlearn pro tutorial.

Why Choose a Composite Over a Regular Picture?

So… when I tell people that I offer full composites to clients, they usually say, “Really? Why would anyone want a Photoshopped picture of themselves?” Well, there are three general reasons: diversity, style, and art. Models, for example, frequently want a diverse portfolio, and it’s much cheaper to pay for compositing than for several photoshoots in different locations. 

Speaking of location, what’s available here in the UAE is quite limited. Say you want a family portrait to suit your country-style living room, maybe the kids at a rustic cottage on a lake with loads of fur trees around. Well, you can fly us to Scandanavia for an on-location shoot, or you can opt for a composite…

Finally, people like unique things, and people like art. When I composite, my style is both intentional and painterly. I try hard to incorporate elements that characterize or emulate the subject, and I love the timeless look of painterly images. So clients commission me to make them something different — not an ordinary picture, but a work of art.

How a Composite is Made

DoorComposite-Bkg.jpg

Choose a background image. Of course, other elements may be added or removed from the background later, but the general scene should be chosen first. This is so that the subject can be photographed in a way that will fit the background — lighting, posing, expression, clothing, and any other props need to match the environment for the final image to be believable. To the right is the background image for our example:

Photograph the client or model. In most cases, I photograph the subject in a studio environment because there, I have total control over the direction, intensity, and quality of the lighting. Ensuring that the subject’s lighting matches the light in the chosen background is vital for making a composite that looks natural. There are situations in which I might shoot the subject outdoors or on a much more elaborate set indoors — it just depends on the concept and what we want the final image to look like.

In the tutorial where this post’s images are from, Aaron Nace does face swap on the model. Indeed, sometimes after reviewing my subject’s photos, I realize that I’d like to (or need to) composite the subject in its own right — changing a face, hands, a patch of clothing, smoother hair… these are all common examples. In the example below, the face from one picture was used on the body from another picture. The combination made the perfect subject for the final image (and by "perfect" I simply mean the pose and expression that I liked the most):

Combine elements and blend together. Now it’s time to cut out the subject (and other elements, if used) and place it/them into the background — that’s usually the easier part. The most challenging part is to blend the elements together to create a seamless look. A believable image relies on the skills of the compositor to, for example:

  • re-size the elements to fit the scene and perspective
  • match colors and tone
  • get rid of common problems like fringing (a halo that appears around cut-out elements)
  • match depth of field (how sharp or blurry various parts of the image appear)
  • add shadows to areas where they would naturally fall, as well as special effects like wind or drops of water, for example, if they weren’t used in the actual shoot
  • remove any distractions or unwanted elements from the scene

See the first image below. If you can ignore the mark-up, you can see that the woman just doesn’t blend into the background. She’s the right size, but she totally looks “Photoshopped” into the scene! After getting rid of the white halo around her hair, reducing the redness in her legs, and adding a natural shadow behind her, she blends in seamlessly. As a final touch, I removed the pipe in the lower left corner.

Stylize the image. After various parts of the scene are adjusted, we can alter the overall tone and color to match the desired look. Notice that my final image below doesn’t look like the image above (right). For me, creating more colors in the flowers make the photo more interesting and desaturating the entire image matches my own style a bit more.

So that’s it — a bit about compositing and how I might create a relatively simple image for a client. The possibilities are endless and the process is fun! More questions? Comment below or hit me up on Facebook


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