Composition on the mind shooting for the composite

In this installment of «Photography Secrets,» we’re going to take a look at how designers and creative photographers use the powerful tools in Photoshop to combine photographic elements into seamless composites. Whether you’re using graphic elements, stock images, or images that were specifically shot for the composite, you can create a unique image that would be nearly impossible to capture in one shot.

So what does it mean to shoot for the composite? Many traditionalists want to be sure that it’s right in the camera when capturing that next great shot. As a designer, I’m more interested in twisting reality to serve my vision, so I’ll use whatever is available. Photography is a means to that end, but when you’re shooting for a composite, there must be some planning involved.

This concept is similar to the way scenes in a feature film have to be planned, lit, and filmed in a way that remains consistent with the rest of the visual effects that have yet to be created. You must shoot your subjects to suit your concept, not suit your concept to the shot. In some cases, you might not have control over what and how something is shot, and you’ll have to change the final design to accommodate the shot. In my experience with those scenarios, have found it’s better to rework the design a bit than try and force something to work.

If you have the resources and the ability to shoot your own subjects, then all the better. I was recently involved in a scenario where that very concept played out. We had to put together a poster for an event we were going to host at Photoshop World in Las Vegas last year. I thought what better concept for a Vegas-theme poster than the movie The Hangover? We had just the right amount of guys here in the office to pull it off.

Using the original movie poster as a reference, we were able to get the lighting really close. I posed for my images first because I needed to make sure the rest of the shots looked consistent. This produced a very good place to start with the design. The lighting and everything looked good. Notice we shot against a white background. This makes it much easier to extract the subject from the background. White works well, but depending on what the subject is wearing you may have to use another solid color. I always take at least a half dozen shots to be sure. Sometimes focus can be different for each subject and that can ruin the image, so always have more images than you need. If you think the last one you shot is the one, shoot one more for good measure.

With the setup complete, getting the rest of the shots was quick. If the subjects can’t be in the studio at the same time, just make sure the lighting is consistent. In our scenario, each of us had a specific part to play, and we had to assume the mannerisms of the characters. The poster is a static image, so it needs to speak a lot visually. It’s also important to shoot each subject in the right proportions in the frame. That way you won’t have to do a lot of scaling or distorting in post. This is shooting with the final design in mind. The less you have to do in Photoshop, the better.

«Using the original movie poster as a reference, we were able to get the lighting really close. I posed for my images first because I needed to make sure the rest of the shots looked consistent.» extracting the subjects

Once all the subjects are shot in the necessary lighting conditions, it’s time to start building the composite in Photoshop. First, let’s get the subjects extracted and ready to place in the composite. Start by opening the model shots and select the best ones for the final design. In the first shot I wanted to use, I grabbed the Quick Selection tool (W) and, since the background is simpler than the subject, I clicked-and-dragged around the background to select it. Once the selection is made, just invert it from the background to the subject by pressing Shift-Command-I (PC: Shift-Ctrl-I).

This gives us a good selection around the subject but it probably needs some fine-tuning. This is where Refine Edge comes in. This feature is a retoucher’s dream as it allows you to create a much more accurate selection, especially in the case of hair and such. After clicking the Refine Edge button in the Options Bar and pressing В to view the subject on a black background, I painted around the edge of the subject using the Refine Radius tool (E). This cleans up the selection, and in some cases, it does so well that you won’t even need to use the other edge detection features in the Refine Edge dialog. Since the background is never going to be used, I simply chose to have the selected area copied to a New Layer without a layer mask in the Output To drop-down menu. Click OK when you’re done.

Now you can see why the lighter backdrop is a good idea. It makes this kind of extraction much easier. Simply repeat this method for each subject. Now would be a good time to save the extracted files so you don’t have to labor over extracting them again.

the composite

The other elements involved in this design are a stock image and some text, which we’ll add last. Let’s start by creating the poster document for building the design. I wasn’t sure how large we were going to print the final poster, but I didn’t want to make it too small either. To keep in proportion with the size of a standard movie poster, which is 27×40″, I decided to make my dimensions proportionately smaller while keeping it at a higher resolution. So, I created an 8×12″ document at 300ppi.

For a composite, I’ll typically work from the back to the front. I found a stock image that was similar to the background marquee lights in the original poster. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and find the actual stock image used in a poster. With a little tweaking of scale (Command-T [PC: Ctrl-T]), and even a little warping (Right-click in the Free Transform bounding box and select Warp), it looked like these lights would work just fine. Adding a little bit of glow coming from the bottom finished off the background.

Now let’s add the models. I started with the shot of Matt, placed him in the center, and scaled him down just a little so it would look like he was further back in space. When you’re combining people in a shot whose pictures were shot separately, it can be quite challenging to get the scale in relation to each other just right. It takes some tweaking and playing with the position. Sometimes I’ll make the layer a smart object (Layer> Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object) just so I can scale each layer without worrying about the quality. Then, I’ll rasterize the layer when done.

After the subjects are in the proper location and at the right scale it’s time to «Hollywoodify» the overall image. Here are some layer tricks you can use to help get that Hollywood look. Duplicate each subject layer by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J), then change the layer blend mode of the duplicate layers to Soft Light in the Layers panel. This immediately adds a little contrast and color punch.

Finally, when all the elements are together, I like to try my secret weapon. Go to lmage>Duplicate to make a copy of the document and flatten it (Layer>Flatten Image). Then, go to lmage>Adjustments>HDR Toning. Take the Saturation to -100% then increase the Detail almost all the way. In the Edge Glow section, check on Smooth Edges and play with the Radius and Strength sliders until you have nice, high-contrast, grungy finish. Click OK.

Using the Move tool (V) and holding the Shift key, drag this layer back into the original document, and place it at the top of the layer stack. Then, change the blend mode to Soft Light. This will add a cool contrast effect that will unify the overall look. You can even colorize the layer (lmage>Adjustments>Hue Saturation) to unify the temperature of the image, as well.

Shooting for the composite definitely requires some thought as to what the final image is going to look like, and shooting your subjects at the right perspective and the right lighting conditions is crucial. Just to give you one final example, my friend Douglas Sonders does a lot of really cool themed shoots. This was one he shot for a project a while back, and you can see the various images that make up the finished composite. Each character was positioned with respect to how they were conceived to look for the final design.

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