Composite photography is a popular medium, not in small part thanks to
the ease and availability of digital cameras and related software. Here we’ll
look at what a composite is and why you might want to create one. We’ll even
throw in some inspiration!
What is a Composite?
A composite is two
or more images ‘stuck’ together to create a single picture. This is not a new
or purely digital concept. It was invented by Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s,
whereby multiple exposures were taken on the same photographic plate.
are nothing new either; you might remember Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths
from England, who fooled the world for a brief time with their photographs
appearing to capture fairies at play in their garden in the 1900s.
also spliced together by photographic studios, to include people in a family
portrait who couldn’t be present. They’d cut out a photograph of the missing
person, glue it to the photograph they wanted them to appear in and then
For the purposes of
this article, I’m discounting combining bracketed shots as composites. If you’d
like to know more about that, you can read my article on HDR photographs.
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Ethics and Aesthetics: More Than a Question of Tastes
The reason I
mentioned the examples above is to demonstrate that there are many ways to, and
reasons why, someone might want to create a composite. When you look at whether
this is ethical, you have to consider the original motivation and the intended
Above, you have two
very definite cases of different intent. Elise and Frances sought to deceive
with their photograph, albeit a harmless and childish prank. The studios would
put together photographs for the purposes of a family being able to have an
image of everyone together—they all knew that person wasn’t present on the
day the photograph was taken and all parties were complicit.
Stripping it back
to basics, I think there are there are three types of composite:
the photographer tries to pass off a composite as truth. If you’re a
photojournalist, then it’s unethical to create a composite, or to edit the
photograph in any way that changes it somehow. Most major publications won’t
accept images that have had more than the most basic of exposure or colour
corrections. Certainly nothing removed or added.
elements are combined with the purpose of creating something which is nice to
look at, but isn’t being represented as a “straight” photograph. A photographer
taking night shots might want to combine a long exposure of the stars with an
accurately exposed picture of the foreground, for example.
elements are combined to create something that isn’t possible (or would be
extremely unlikely) in real life, and is usually easy to spot. Creating a
photo-manipulation such as one of our examples , where running shoes
are running without the aid of anyone wearing them!
What You Need
This depends what
you’re trying to achieve. You might want to put together a series of images
into something that tells a story, in which case you can use your own, or even stock
images, to get exactly what you want.
If you want to do
something fun, like take pictures of yourself or someone else and have them
appear multiple times in the same shot, you’ll need a tripod to keep your
camera in the same place, and steady.
Last of all, you’ll
need a good image editor like Photoshop or Lightroom. The former will allow you
to be more creative and artistic, the latter is great for simple, realistic
Flight to Paradise
This is nicely done and is looks
reasonably realistic. The composition could have been improved by shifting the island and plane into a more balanced alignment, but the elements are nicely
blended. As a photo-illustration, it really works: I could easily see this being used as an advert to travel to
tropical climes; it sells an idea.
Who hasn’t imagined what an all-dog birthday party would look like? Well,
wonder no longer. I love this image, it’s fun, it isn’t pretending to be
anything other than it is and the individual images are put together in an
effective and entertaining way.
Running in the Rain
This image tells a story in an entirely different way from the previous
picture. It’s surreal for sure, but not without drama and a sense of movement.
Although surreal and so, not supposed to be realistic, I think the skewed
perspective (the trainers are too large and far apart in comparison to the
road) stops this from having the impact that it could if it more accurately
portrayed how we’d actually see this.
Although split, half under-water pictures are possible, this isn’t one of
them. It’s still effective though and the light both above and below the water
works really well.
an image made to look realistic and presumably, put together simply for
practical purposes. Although it is possible to get this in one shot (by
manually adding light to the foreground with a torch), there’s no way to get
the stars, campfire and people so clear and well exposed without combining two
Try Something Different…
found something fun on Graphic River; Pasulukha’s
Multi-Layer Pop-Up Effect action. It lets you cut layers from a single
image and then run the action to get a composite, ‘pop-up’ effect. The action’s creator has provided an
example image to try it on, so here’s how it works:
gave it a go on one of our earlier images. I cut out the shoes as one layer,
the mountains and road as another and the sky as the final one.
I’d clearly not got the hang of this, and so decided to try a different image.
picture is on a stand, for sure, but the dogs seem to have become one with the
background and it feels more like a still from The Fly than anything I can look
on with pride. I think I probably need to work on my selection skills.
In any case, there’s
no doubt that this is a cool action though and I think with the right (easy to
cut out) elements, it works really well.
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I won’t go into too much technical detail here, as we have plenty of in
where you can follow step by step guides to making a composite. Instead, we’ll
look at some best practices to follow.
Use Simple Images
Images that have a
lot going on in them will take a lot of time to cut out effectively. If you’re
just starting out then ideally, you need subjects with strong lines, that are
distinct from their background.
Work on Separate Layers
Working with each
image or element on a separate layer will make your life a whole lot easier. If
you want to remove or change an element in some way, you can do it without changing
the rest of your image.
Using smart objects
can help too. They allow you to make changes on the original image and then
have those reflect in your composition. It also means that making an image
smaller or larger won’t affect its quality, so long as it doesn’t surpass the
bounds of the original.
Non-Destructive EditingNon-Destructive Photo Editing in 60 Seconds
Smart ObjectsCreating Flexible, Updatable Composite Images using Smart Objects
If you’re using a person in your composition then it’s tricky to place
them on a background and still have it look completely natural. The most
obvious ‘tell’ is usually feet. They’re on the ground in a strange way and the
shadows are never quite right. You can try darkening them (and the ground
around them) to distract the audiences’ eye, or you can just not include them.
Adobe PhotoshopPhotoshop in 60 Seconds: Layer Blend Modes
CompositingCreating a Realistic Composite Photo with Displacement Mapping
Think About Light
Lighting is the place where many people
struggle when working
on a realistic looking photo manipulation. Your source images might have light originating from
different points, and you’ll need to do your best to correct that and blend
within the composition.
Shadows are tricky
too. Think about where the light is coming and try to think logically about
where that would place the shadows. Our course on using
light and shadow in photo manipulation might help.
Top Tips to Making Composites
a tripod if you’re creating a multi-shot, same person composite
a good image editor that will give you all the tools you’ll need
about what you want, do you want it to look realistic?
about your light source and adjust shadows accordingly
have 100% of the creative control, have fun with it!
- How to Create a Dark Lady Photo Manipulation With Adobe Photoshop: In this tutorial, we look at how you how to create a dark photo manipulation in Adobe Photoshop, featuring a creepy lady with a foggy forest, a dark gate, flying bats and an eerie atmosphere.
- Adobe Photoshop for Kids: Mini-Me!: Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective and some creativity to find the remarkable hiding in the ordinary.
- How to Add Drama to a Rainy Scene With Adobe Photoshop: You’ll learn how to add a colorful background using blending modes, retouch the model and take care of details, make rain using a custom brush, adjust the color, and enhance the depth of field.
selecting images to use, start out with ones that will be easy to cut out in
your editing software. Avoid anything that blends into the background or has
lots of tricky edges.
Think about your
light source. The images you use might all vary in where the light came from,
so you may need to make colour and brightness adjustments to get everything
looking right. Add shadows to give the images more depth and realism.
The real question
to ask yourself is why am I making a composite? Is it to tell a story? To fool
people into thinking something is real? Maybe just to ditch a dull part of your
photo and replace it with something more exciting? Your intent is what makes or
breaks an image. An audience is happier to see something wacky or have their
eyes ‘tricked’ if there’s no actual deception involved.
Composites are fun,
no matter if you’re simply replacing a dull sky in your photograph or going for
a Mad Hatter style tea-party consisting entirely of cats. You have all the
creative control so, as clichéd as it sounds, have fun with it. You can play
with concepts and stretch imagination in a way that sometimes isn’t possible
with photography alone.