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How to Create Awesome Composite Photography in Photoshop

Last updated: January 18, 2024 - 11 min read
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Composite photography is widely used. Almost every single photo advertisement you see is a composite. That’s because it’s easier to create a crazy, fictional scene in post-production.
It can be hard to capture something in real life or build a whole set with every detail you need. And a composite gives you complete control of the environment. You can add or subtract different parts as you wish.
Today, we’ll guide you through composite photography. We’ll describe what it is and what it’s used for. We’ll also discuss the crucial aspects to consider when collecting your imagery for your edits.
Finally, we’ll take you through a quick step-by-step guide to a simple composite that will teach you the basics! By the end of this article, you’ll be able to create amazing composite images.

 

What Is a Composite Image in Photography?

A composite image is simply a picture made up of multiple images. Composite means an object made up of several parts or elements.
A composite image takes time and meticulous planning for it to be successful. And a composite image is most successful when it looks believable.
It could be anything from adding a missing detail to a photo to creating a picture of a dog riding a rocket into the sun. It is a method of addition or subtraction to create the unreal.

Composite Photography Is Like a Complex Collage

Composite photography is like making a collage. Most of us have cut different images from magazines or photos and stuck them together to make a new picture.
You do the same in Photoshop for composite photography. But you have added control.
You can change the sizes, proportions, and colors of images. And you can seamlessly blend pictures. These Photoshop techniques are advanced collage work.
And these photo composites come in all forms. They can be these images where you think, No way did a photographer capture that!
Or they can be almost undetectable from unedited photographs. The latter examples use techniques such as focus stacking and even HDR photography to create composite images.

Composite photography image of a man holding a cup with coffee beans falling like rain around him
© Joel Robison

 

Ethics of Composite Photography

A composite photo is photo manipulation. This means we actively change a photograph’s depiction of reality. Images have been around for a long time, and we know that people can edit photos to skew reality.
The internet heavily emphasizes this. I’m sure we have all been fooled by a photograph showing a new movie coming out when it isn’t or one of our friends standing with a car they could never afford.

Know When to Use Composite Photography

Composites are also heavily frowned upon in some photography competitions. It is especially evident in competitions like the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.
The rules specify that “entries must not deceive the viewer” or “attempt to disguise or misrepresent the reality of nature.”
So you must be as transparent as possible when using composite photography and know when it’s appropriate. Do not use it for editorial photography, but use it freely with fine art photography.

Composite photography image of a man sitting on a bare tree branch with a panda
© Joel Robison

 

Planning and Preparing to Create Composites

Step 1: Come Up With an Idea

In composite photography, the concept is everything. And you are only limited by what your mind can think of.
The hardest thing will probably be managing what you have in your head and translating it into set images in a fixed frame. The easiest way to do this is to separate your vision into a few categories:

  • Subject
  • Background
  • Extras
  • Atmosphere

The most important details are the subject and the background. Once you have a simple idea, you can include other things that add to this idea.
Maybe the person on the desk is sitting down with person-sized Lego figures. It’s all about creating a narrative through the control you have.

Photography composite of a man sitting on a swing attached to a poppy stem
© Joel Robison

 

Step 2: Choose Images With the Following Characteristics

Collecting images for a composite is not as simple as choosing the best photographs. There are a few things you need to take into consideration:

Appropriate File Sizes and Resolution

Make sure the background is big enough to zoom into the picture and work on the elements inside without pixelating the image.
This also goes for the subject image you’re choosing. Can it be scaled up to fit in the background without it pixelating?
If it is just going to be used for web purposes, having images as little as 10 cm in length at 72 dpi will work. You probably want around 20 cm in length at 300 dpi for print.
I would recommend the latter option as an excellent go-to size for composite images.

Similar Perspectives

Perspective is arguably the most crucial factor in making a composite image.
Maybe you have a photo of a subject looking up, but the background image is taken level or at a higher perspective. It won’t look right putting them together.
It is best already to have the final background image in your mind. This means you will be able to photograph your subject (or background) with the same perspective and in a believable way.
For instance, if you’re photographing someone as if they have shrunk into the palm of a hand, you will most likely be looking down at them. So get up on a ladder or shoot out of a window to try and mimic this angle.
When sourcing images, you want to ensure all the elements are taken with a similar perspective.

 

Similar Lighting

Lighting is the most common way that you will be able to spot a composite image.
In advertisements, you can sometimes tell the lighting is too perfect on someone in the middle of the frame. There is no way anyone could get this effect with studio lighting.
In less refined edits, there can be even clearer giveaways. There may be a background that is clearly in a basement with no windows, yet there is harsh directional lighting.
Even if there is a light source in the image, people will sometimes mistakenly put the subject where the light cannot fall onto this person.
Determining the direction of light in all images you use in your composite photography will go a long way.
Of course, you can get away with lighting not being 100% perfect. But every tiny detail you cover will go a long way.

Similar Color Temperatures

The color cast in your photos will also profoundly affect your composite.
Each separate image will most likely have been taken in a different light. And different kinds of light have different color temperatures.
This means cut-out sections will not look like they are under the same light as the background image. But it usually just takes a tiny change to the color temperature to match them.
It is usually a case of making the subject warmer (more yellow) or colder (more blue).

Composite photography image of a person climbing a ladder in a rowboat trying to catch a lit butterfly
© Joel Robison

 

Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Photoshop Composites

We will now go through a short step-by-step approach to a simple Photoshop composite. I will introduce a few quick and easy techniques to apply to various situations.
This edit should take you under five minutes to do!
I will use two stock images for this demonstration. I took both from the stock image site Unsplash. I will also later use a brush I downloaded from Brusheezy.

Step 1. Select Subject and Background Images

First, I make a plan for my final image. I want to composite people doing yoga in an extreme place. So I find a yoga pose first (subject).
Two woman holding arms in a yoga pose for composite photographyNow I want to find an extreme place like a cliff (background). When looking for the cliff image, I consider the camera’s perspective in the yoga photo.
The yoga picture looks straight at the subject from eye level. This means I pick a location to place the subjects on the same or slightly higher level. This cliff will work great.
A landscape image of a rock cliff by a body of water for composite photography

 

Step 2: Cut Out the Subject

Now we start the editing process. First, open up your subject image in Photoshop.
Screenshot of a yoga image in Photoshop for composite photographyThen duplicate the background. You can right-click the original image (Background layer) in the Layer panel and click Duplicate Layer.
Or you can drag the Background layer over the Create New Layer icon (+ sign) on the bottom.
Screenshot of layer panel in Photoshop for composite photographyNow we will cut out the two women. There are many ways to do this. As this is a quick guide, I will use the Quick Selection tool in the toolbar (paintbrush icon with a dotted circle).
Start to click on your subject so that the “marching ants” snap to outline your subject.
Close-up detail of Quick Selection tool action in image of two women in a yoga pose for composite photography
Do this for both people. Make sure to use the subtractive brush (with a minus sign) to take out the gaps between their bodies.
Screenshot of subtractive Brush tool icon in Photoshop for composite photographyNow you want to inverse the selection. I do this by holding down Command or Ctrl+Shift+I. The “marching ants” should also be around the border of your image.
Marching ants outline in Photoshop around woman in a yoga pose for composite photographyWith the duplicate background layer selected, press the Backspace or Delete key to cut out your subject. This is how your duplicate layer should look.
You can “hide” the original image by pressing the Eye icon in the layers panel.
Cut out image of woman in a yoga pose in Photoshop for composite photography

 

Step 3: Move the Subject Onto the Background

Next, open your background image in Photoshop. You will have separate tabs for the two files you are working on.
Screenshot of cliff image in Photoshop for composite photographyWith the subject image selected, double-click on your cut-out layer. Then drag it onto the tab of the new background image, which will open.
Screenshot of women in yoga pose image being transferred to background image in Photoshop for composite photographyCut out women in yoga pose image transposed onto cliff background in Photoshop for composite photography

Step 4: Resize and Position the Subject Image

First, you want to resize the subject. Press Command or Ctrl+T to open the Transform box and resize the image.
Make sure your subject is a believable size. In my example, I make sure the height of the people is realistic.
Resize box around cut out women in yoga pose in Photoshop for composite photographyThen use the Move tool (V) to place the subject correctly. Here, I put the women on top of the cliff. This is the base of our simple composite image.
Cut out image of women in yoga pose place on top of a cliff in Photoshop for composite photography

 

Step 5: Create a Layer Mask to Match Color Tones

Now you want to create a layer mask for your subject. I’ll use it to fine-tune the color of the subject images. But you can adjust many kinds of details using a masking technique.
Grab your subject layer and drag it over the “add a layer mask” button at the bottom of the Layers panel.
Highlighted add layer mask button in Photoshop for composite photography
Layers panel showing layer mask in Photoshop for composite photographyNext, in the Adjustments panel, click the Color Balance icon. This opens an adjustment layer for color balance.
Highlighted color balance icon in adjustments panel in Photoshop for composite photographyNow you want to drag your layer mask onto this new adjustment layer. If a pop-up box comes up, select “yes” to replace the layer mask.
Layers panel of dragging layer mask into adjustment layer in Photoshop for composite photographyBecause the background image has a cold and blue look, I add a blue tone to the subject.
Adjusting blue in Color Balance panel in Photoshop for composite photographyThis makes a subtle difference, but that difference goes a long way.
Adjusted color tone of yoga image layer in Photoshop for composite photography

 

Step 6: Add Extra Effects to Create a Compelling Scene

I want to add some fog for an atmospheric effect. You can choose other effects based on your images.
For this fog effect and others, you can find fog brushes online. Download the tools and import them into Photoshop.
First, you want to create a new layer (Layer 1) for the effect. Click the new layer button (+ sign) at the bottom of the Layers panel.
Adding extra effects to composite images in Photoshop
Then choose the Brush tool. And select the type of brush you want to use in the Brush Picker in the top menu bar.
Highlighted Brush tool Fog preset in Photoshop for composite photographyWhen working with fog brushes, lower the opacity and flow of your brushes. This ensures a light effect and application.
Brush tool settings tool bar in Photoshop for composite photographyGradually, start bringing in the fog by brushing it in. Make it look as natural as possible.
Adding fog to image with women in a yoga pose on top of a cliff in Photoshop for composite photographyDo this all around the image. Make sure you use different brushes or change the brush direction to add variation.
Adding extra effects to composite images by using brushes in PhotoshopFor illustrative purposes, this is what your layer should look like if you applied a black background for the fog. (You don’t have to apply a black background to this layer.)
Fog added with a Brush tool preset on a black background in Photoshop for composite photography

 

To fine-tune the final image, you will want to erase the fog in the way. Select the Eraser tool from the toolbar.
Again, you will want to make sure the opacity and flow are low, so you can lightly blend the fog out.
Eraser tool settings in Photoshop for composite photographyNow you have a quick and easy Photoshop composite photo!
Composite photography image of women in a yoga pose on top of rock cliffs by water

 

Conclusion: How to Create Awesome Composite Photography in Photoshop

Creating composite images can be a painstaking task. The most important thing to remember is that it’s not always as simple as it seems. When you start to experiment, you will realize the amount of attention this process needs to make the image successful.
Simple composite photographs are a great way to quickly build your skill and familiarity with Photoshop. Start with small projects like the example above. Then you can add more and more elements to your photos. You will be mastering composite photography in no time!
Try out our Fantastic Photo Adventures video course to create unique Photoshop compositions!