In recent years it has become much more common to see composite images (sometimes known as a montage) like the one above where a subject is inserted into a background photo during post production retouching. Sometimes it produces amazing results but frequently I think photographers are getting it badly wrong and the final image can be quite poor.
Nowadays we see examples of composite images in all kinds of areas from glamour and nude photography through to general advertising, so I thought it would be worth looking at the philosophy and some best practices in creating images like this. I’m not going into precise technical details because there are endless tutorials out there, so I just want to look at some of the basic points that are frequently forgotten.
First a step back in time…
I took the picture above for a cosmetics assignment about 10 years ago when images like this were remarkably rare compared to now. Photoshop was quite limited in what it could do at the time with few of the clever tricks we have available now. Professional retouching was hugely expensive…
The 8 Core Mac Pro I am using today has 32 gigs of Ram but ten years ago very few photographers even had 1 gig of Ram installed. Previously if I wanted to save a 500MB file including a few layers it took several minutes, whereas now it takes about a second. That kind of massive increase in performance has played a large part in the rising popularity of composite images because they are so much quicker to produce now, especially with the advances in Photoshop.
Given the choice I would always choose to shoot something straight and create the right look in camera given enough budget but it’s not always possible, so if you do have to shoot a composite image or perhaps you really want to there are a few things to consider.
First of all you really need to select your background image before you photograph the model. This is essential so that you are able to study the lighting and composition, enabling you to photograph the model in a way that makes sense. Do the shadows on your main subject match the ones in the background image and is the colour temperature a good match? Try to visualise the final image as a whole rather than as separate elements.
I think the worst errors occur when the photographer shoots a model in the studio with no similar element or lighting to help blend in with the background image. In the photograph above I managed to use some real white sand taken from a beach in Greece and shoot the model against a blue paper backdrop, which was a close match for the blue sky. That allows you to do a far better job when cutting out a path and blending the two images.
Although it’s quite possible to do a good selection path yourself in Photoshop, when I look at the workflow of various professional photographers I know almost all of them are sending this work out to companies who do the job quickly and cheaply to a high standard. I think it’s one of those areas where outsourcing really makes sense, especially if you have a number of images to do.
Another point where photographers often fall down is when there is a large difference in file quality between the background image and the main subject, so when they are joined the difference becomes really obvious. In an ideal world both images should be shot with the same camera and lens but if that’s not possible at least try to ensure there isn’t a huge discrepancy so that you can blend the two images as well as possible.
Ask yourself if the final composite image makes sense. There are some incredible examples of photography that would only be possible with composite techniques which are visually inspiring and technically superb but ask yourself honestly if the combination you are creating really works or if it’s just a badly done gimmick…
The only way to learn though is through experimentation so why not have a go?