The Gentle Art of Compositing
Clive R. Haynes FRPS
Almost since the dawn of photography, photographers have sought to combine images together. The combinations can be for aesthetic purposes, for reasons of practicality or to produce a 'vision' that exists in only the imagination of the artist.
Digital imaging affords yet more scope for the photographer/artist.
Generally speaking, the more subtle the combination the more pleasing the result, however, some crude cut & paste amalgamations can have a primitive delight all of their own. It all depends upon what you wish to achieve and communicate.
There are many considerations to be made before one begins to combine images and here are some thoughts.
The relative scale of the individual component image
Most of the problems are best resolved at the 'taking stage' by the art of 'previsualisation' - that is to say wherever possible be aware of the final picture you have in mind as you photograph and 'assemble' the various components for the image.
Taking the above topics one at a time, below are thoughts and practical advice.
Scale of the individual images
It’s possible to overcome this problem to some extent by wherever possible ensuring the individual images for the intended composite picture as close to the scale required as possible.
Imagine a finely delineated landscape to which a dramatic sky has been added. An example would be where the sky originated from a high ISO setting whilst the landscape was taken at a low ISO value. The evident granular quality of the sky would not sit easily with the image. There would be a lack of 'textural integrity' and the image would be uncomfortable.
Should you be faced with the problem of a too obviously ‘noiseless’ area in an image where the noise should be visible to give some veracity, add some 'Noise' via, Filter > Noise > Add Noise, however do this on a separate layer. A better and more flexible method is to make a new (empty Layer) above the problem Layer, fill this with 50% Grey (In Photoshop via Edit > Fill > 50% Grey > OK). Everything will go grey! Next, change the Blend Mode for this Layer from ‘Normal’ (top LH of Layer Palette) to ‘Overlay’ (image returns). Next: Go to Fill > Noise > Add Noise. Adjust the amount to integrate with the image. You can alter the opacity of the Layer and add a Layer Mask to refine the area.
Direction of Lighting
Indoors or under artificial lighting where there are multiple light-sources you may get away with it but outdoors in daylight, where we expect there to be just the one light source i.e. the sun, two or more shadow angles will bring the image into question.
Don't forget the direction of the ‘key light’, as the highlight-side of the area you're working on may also need attention to render the image convincing.
If it's really difficult to change things without it looking obvious - and Photoshop can't help with everything – and if you’re in any doubt- don't risk it – someone will notice the error, so choose something else or shoot the required item again.
If you have to work on post RAW images or jpegs then make these adjustments with an Adjustment Layer for each image concerned. You’ll need to make a ‘Clipping Group’ for each new image layer.
Use one of the following to make these changes and it can be tricky, all via Image > Adjust >
Sincerity is about what you are making with your image and what you intend. Whilst it's true to say that in art there are really no 'rules', only 'conventions', think seriously about what you are doing - stand back for a moment and consider. Is the effect you're striving to achieve rooted in some form of reality? Will it confuse or intrigue the viewer? Is the overall effect merely an effect for its own sake? - in the "I can do it, so I will - aren’t I a clever person!" school of art. Yes, we've all done it, we've all been there and we've all seen images of strange and distorted faces and wings fitted to things and the like.
Sincerity is a vast issue and there are no black and white answers, only shades of grey.
The important thing is not to get carried away with an idea or series of effects for their own sake. Try to remain faithful to your internal vision and not to be side-tracked by the weird and wonderful things you can superimpose on a scene.
The most telling pieces of work are those with a simple and direct message, delivered in an uncluttered way.
The very problem with making the statements above is that many examples can be found that appear to contradict them. At least I hope I've made you stop and consider.
Finally, when you’ve completed your masterpiece, leave it for a while then return to it. If when you view it your conclusion is: ‘that’ll do’ – it most certainly won’t. Be critical, others will be less forgiving. Remember what you’re aiming for can be summed up in just seven words, ‘Fidelity of representation with insistence upon detail’. Exercise ‘quality control’ at all stages.
For more information about Layer Masks, Adjustment Layers, Adding and Managing Shadows,