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.
‘Fake’ photographs 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.
Photographs were 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 re-photograph that.
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 audience.
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:
- Deceptive: where 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.
- Aesthetic: where 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.
- Surreal: where 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 photo composites.
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.
Definitely 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 images.
Try Something Different…
I found something fun on Graphic River; Pasulukha’s 30 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:
I 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.
The 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.
- How to Use Focus Area Selection in Adobe PhotoshopKirk Nelson16 Jul 2014
- How to Incorporate Selection Tools Into Your Workflow in Adobe PhotoshopMelody Nieves24 Mar 2015
I won’t go into too much technical detail here, as we have plenty of in depth tutorials 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 Photo Editing in 60 SecondsHarry Guinness07 Mar 2016
- Creating Flexible, Updatable Composite Images using Smart ObjectsBen Lucas08 May 2015
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.
- Photoshop in 60 Seconds: Layer Blend ModesMelody Nieves29 Jun 2016
- Creating a Realistic Composite Photo with Displacement MappingBen Lucas29 Jul 2014
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.
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Top Tips to Making Composites
- Use a tripod if you’re creating a multi-shot, same person composite
- Have a good image editor that will give you all the tools you’ll need
- Think about what you want, do you want it to look realistic?
- Think about your light source and adjust shadows accordingly
- You have 100% of the creative control, have fun with it!
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When you’re 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.