Combining photographs in Photoshop (aka Photoshop compositing) is a great skill to have up your sleeve. Composite Photography adds a whole new dimension to your storytelling, and can produce a punchy impact.
The reasons people composite images and use Photoshop are diverse. Perhaps you’re creating a surreal art project, showing off your dog’s acrobatics, or depicting three generations in one photo.
My main reason to mix things up in Photoshop is to have fun, play with my kids, and create some funny pictures.
Regardless of your inspiration and motivation, there are some key tricks and tools to keep in mind. For this article, I’ll discuss how to create a basic composite image in Photoshop CC 2018 using planned or existing location shots.
Planning Your Composite Photography Image
Before you even pick up your camera, there’s a bit of homework prep to do. Planning your composite photo project is essential.
Even for my quick and funny Photoshop projects, I still plan how the finished product will look, and have a clear understanding of the components I need to include.
What’s the purpose of your image? Is there a main theme? How will it be presented, and who is the audience? What’s your story?
Photoshop creations don’t need to be complex and fancy. Subtle and understated can be equally effective with a strong story or theme (the ‘less is more‘ concept definitely applies to Photoshop).
Choosing Images For Your Photoshop Projects
Sharp and well exposed photographs are the foundations of a strong composite image. Clean your camera and lenses to avoid having to remove spots and marks in post-production, and keep the ISO as low as practical to avoid excessive ‘noise’ in your photos.
Use a tripod and shutter release cable when possible, and always shoot in RAW to capture as much information as possible.
If you’re starting your Photoshop project from scratch, you’ll have great control over the quality of your images. Light is particularly important when making photos to composite. In a perfect world, you would photograph all your subjects/objects at the same location, on the same day, around the same time.
This might not be feasible in practice for your project, but it gives you an idea of how consistent light source and direction need to be! A photo of a child with sunlight on the right side of their face will look odd (in a bad way) if the sun in the background is to the left.
A tree on a cold winter’s morning will have a very different type of light to a background sky made at sunset.
Consistent light is trickier if you’re using old photographs or stock images. Consider flipping an image so that each of the individual photographs in the composite is telling the same light source story. You might need to create some shading and adjust contrasts and highlights to balance things out and provide consistency.
The temperature and intensity of the light is also vital to get right. Be fastidious when selecting photographs to include. Even if an individual photo is perfect in every way, it doesn’t mean it will work in a composite image.
Once you have your folder of images ready with light and colours tweaked, imperfections removed and shadows in the right places, you’re ready to get started with the fun stuff!
Photoshop Challenge – Stage One
For this example, I’m going to put Cam in the driver’s seat of the Lego truck by combining these two photos in Photoshop CC 2018 on my Windows computer.
The photos were taken on the same day, around the same time, so that the lighting is consistent. I’ve already made basic adjustments in Adobe Camera Raw to both images.
Opening the Files
- Open the RAW file of the main photo in Photoshop. For my image, it’s the one featuring the green trucks.
- Open the folder with your other Photoshop-ready photos for the project, and drag them onto the main image in Photoshop. I only have one extra photo I’m using.
- Right-click on the titles of each of these new layers on the lower right of the screen, and click ‘rasterize layer’ (this converts vector layers to pixels).
- Duplicate each layer – right-click on the titles of each layer and click ‘duplicate’ (then ‘enter’). Drag the copied layers so they sit above the originals. This creates the ‘stack’ of layers.
- Double-click on the titles and type in a new name for each layer so that they’re easy to find.
Selecting Cam’s Shape
- To make sure I could see Cam, I dragged his layer to the top of the stack at the lower right of the screen.
- Click on the layer you want to adjust. For this example, it was ‘Cam copy’.
- Use the Transform tool (CTRL T for PC or CMD T for Mac) to move your photos around. Click enter when you’ve finished moving them. You can see I moved Cam to the approximate area of the driver’s seat, and reduced his size. To avoid warping the photograph when you’re changing its size, hold the shift key as you drag the corner of the photo.
- Use the Polygonal lasso tool to click around the part of image you want to use. It will create a line of ‘marching ants’ around this selection.
- At the top left of the screen, click Layer – Layer Mask – Reveal Selection. Cam’s face has been ‘cut out’ (roughly) and is now ready to refine. The layer mask has been created and is attached to the ‘Cam’ layer. Because we’re working in layers, nothing has been permanently deleted.
Photoshop Challenge – Stage Two
The next bit involves holding your breath and zooming in CLOSE (CTRL + for PC, or CMD + for Mac) while you carefully use the brush to ‘paint’ over the bits you don’t need, to refine the edges. Remember to zoom out (CTRL – for PC, or CMD – for Mac) regularly to check progress.
Refining the Layer Mask
- Use the brush tool. Adjust the hardness and size of the brush (you’ll need to make it quite small for fiddly images). You won’t be permanently deleting anything, so it’s ok to experiment with the brush tool here.
- Click on the layer mask of the layer you’re working on. Make sure you click on the actual box, not just the title of the layer.
- On the lower left, switch between the black and white foreground colours to either hide or reveal parts of the photo as you use the brush.
- If you want to hide or reveal very straight lines, use the Polygonal Lasso tool to create a section, and paint inside this section while the ‘marching ants’ are marching. Click CTRL D for PC or CMD D for Mac when you’ve finished to deselect (clear) the marching ants.
Textures and Tweaks
- When you’re happy with the placement and edge refining, look at how the images blend. Do you need to reduce contrast or add blur so they work more cohesively? For my image of Cam, I needed to make him look like he was behind the windscreen. I created another duplicated layer of the original background photo, dragged it to the top of the layer stack, and reduced the opacity of that layer to 28%. But that also made his arm look faded, so I created a layer mask and used the brush tool to hide the opaque layer over his arm.
- Once I’ve cropped the image, I usually save it as a JPEG and as a layered Photoshop file (I like to come back to it the following day with fresh eyes and coffee).
There are multiple ways to achieve these results. That’s the cool thing about compositing in Photoshop – there’s a technique to suit your style.
Think you’re up to speed with the basics? Investigate converting channels, adjustment layers, groups, select-and-mask, etc.
Photo compositions are not only one of the more fun things to Photoshop. The process encourages you to evaluate your photos with fresh eyes, and gives you a crash course in composition.
The discipline of refining edges and creating layers also provides great lessons in patience and perseverance.
The best way to learn with Photoshop is to experiment and make loads of mistakes (accompanied by coffee). I’ve restarted numerous projects again and again after making gigantic mistakes and scrapping hours of work.
Once you get the hang of it, the world’s your oyster – whether you’re getting paid big bucks to create an image for an advertisement, or simply putting your children in their Lego creations to make them giggle.