Creating Dynamic Composite Images

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Have you ever wanted to photograph someone standing at the edge of the Grand Canon or beneath the Eiffel Tower but had to face the reality that your budget didn’t allow for this kind of shot? Well the good news is that nowadays we can accomplish the impossible with editing software. In this article we examine a few ways that you can use creative lighting and stock imagery to create dynamic composites. Once you have these skills in your arsenal, the sky will be the limit on what you can create.

Lighting Sources and Direction
The first, and most important, aspect of composite imaging is lighting. It is imperative that you match the lighting of your subject with the lighting in the background image to achieve realistic results. You can make it easy on yourself when starting out by selecting images with clear clues as to the direction and source of light. These clues are shadows, reflective surfaces and anything that helps estimate ambient light.

In the first example below it is easy to tell that the sun is directly to the left of the camera and fairly high in the sky. Later in the day as the sun goes down the shadows will slant more as the angle of the sun changes. So to add a subject to this image we know that we need one broad light source, placed above and to the left. This may leave the right side of your subject a bit dark though, so it makes sense to also add a white reflector on the right side to mimic the ambient light that is reflected from the sand and surrounding surfaces.

In the second example below it is also easy to see that the light in the frame is coming from behind through large café windows. However, if we were to add an object to the table, we would need to also account for the reflected light from the shiny surface of the table. A muted reflection in the table would also need to be created like the ones you see for the coffee cup and plant. Not impossible but definitely challenging.

In the third example below, the challenge is even larger with a mix of light sources. The light is pretty equally split between relatively soft overhead tungsten lights and cooler and broader window light coming from right of camera. If we were to add a subject in the middle of the frame, facing front, we would need to use a soft warm key light from above front and a cooler rim light on the right side.

Shooting with Chroma Key
A very common method for photographing a subject to composite into a separate background is to use a green screen or Chroma Key backdrop. This can be done with backdrops of any color, but green (and sometimes blue) are used most often because they differ the most from human skin tones, making them easy to isolate. This technique is even more popular in video and film production.

The main drawback to using a green screen with photography is that there can sometimes be a green (or blue) color spill onto your subject, which is caused by light reflected off the backdrop. This can be corrected by moving your subject further away from the backdrop and strategically setting up your lighting to reduce color spill. You can also use black flags or fabric to reduce any reflection caused by nearby walls. However, if you cannot avoid the issue, color spill can be carefully removed with editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. Many tutorials are available online to help with this and we will cover a few techniques later on.

Isolating Your Subject
After your subject has been photographed, there are a few ways to remove the Chroma Key background and add your chosen image. The method most photographers start with is the magic wand tool. Selecting the Chroma Key background with the magic wand helps to create a quick layer mask and then the edges of your subject can be cleaned up from there with the brush tool. The type of tool you use to refine your subject’s edges depends on the type of subject you are working with. Subject isolation can be a topic in itself so please check out this in-depth tutorial from Adobe on how to best isolate the subject you are working with if you need assistance with this aspect.

Why not just use a white background? With subjects like the example below, the glass edge is difficult to distinguish from the background when white is used. Using a green screen helps to show defined edges.

Removing Color Spill
If you have a color spill issue on the edges of your subject after isolation, we recommend first trying a combination of hue/saturation and the history brush tool to remove it.

1. First, make sure you have your subject’s main layer selected (not the layer mask) and then go to Image>>Adjustments>>Hue/Saturation.
2. In the dialog box that opens choose Greens from the drop down menu at the top. Use the saturation slider to remove the green cast until you no longer see any evidence of it on the Preview. Click OK to return to your image.
3. Next, go to your History group and select your last action before adjusting Hue/Saturation. Then check the box on the left next to Hue/Saturation action. You have just enabled the history brush to sample from this action.
4. Next, select the history brush from your toolbox and set the opacity to somewhere between 85-90%.
5. Set the edges to a soft setting and slowly paint over the effected areas. If you see any remaining spill, you may need to repeat this process removing yellow, blue or cyan.

Adding Your Background
Now that you have your subject isolated and any color spill removed, you can add your background image. Bring your stock photo or background image into Photoshop as a separate layer and place it beneath the layer holding your subject. From here you can move your subject and resize as needed to fit the context of the background. In the example below, the liquid in the bottle was adjusted slightly for opacity to allow the background to show through slightly. The sand was also darkened to match the sand mounds in the stock image.

Results and Finishing Details
In the example below, the subject was photographed using the Photoflex FlexDrop 5x7 backdrop in open shade. A Photoflex Triton battery-powered monohead was placed behind and to the right of the subject to simulate the bright and direct sunset light in the stock image. The open shade offered enough ambient/fill light falling on the rest of the subject that only a key light was needed.

It is important to look at all the details of your subject and background to make sure there are no giveaways that the image is a composite. For example, once the background was in place, a reflection needed to be added to the sunglasses on the subject’s head, as they would naturally be reflecting the sky above. Part of the clouds in the sky were sampled and carefully added to the reflective surfaces of the shades. The back of the subject was darkened slightly to reflect the contrast of the dramatic sunset light and with that the image was completed.

In the second example below, the subject was photographed in a studio setting without ambient light so two lights were needed to duplicate the look of the background image. A Photoflex FlexFlash 400W with an OctoDome small was placed behind and above left of the subject to simulate the bright broad sunshine on the right side of the frame. A second FlexFlash 400W was used at the lowest setting with a LiteDome: Medium softbox to fill the light on the other side of the subject and illuminate the face, clothing and bike. The white panel of a Photoflex 42” 5-in-1 MultiDisc was also added on the right side of the subject to fill shadows on the face.

During the editing process some warmth was added to the headlight to enhance it as in studio the light was not bright enough to look switched on. If the background image had been taken later in the day we could have brightened the headlight effect for a more dramatic image.

Now that we have examined the basics of composite imagery, we hope we have inspired you to try some composites of your own. Share your results with us by emailing images to and we may feature you on our Facebook page.

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