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What is a Composite Photo and How to Create One

What is a Composite Photo and How to Create One

Let’s say you’re travelling in the Alps (because… why not?), and you want to take a photo of a magical mountain ridge at dusk to upload to your stunning online portfolio. The sky is pictured perfectly in the first few shots, but alas – the mountain looks so dark, you’re almost afraid of being attacked by an ork. Yet, when you visit the same place tomorrow in the afternoon, you capture that mountain in it’s most gorgeous palette – the green grass, the grey stones and those little yellow flower-dots all come together perfectly in a single shot. If only you could capture the beauty of the sky at dusk and the colorful mountainside in one magical moment… That’s exactly where composite photography comes in.

In fact, compositing has an endless variety of uses, as different types of photographers use it for completely different purposes. If you’ve wanted to know how compositing is used and how you can benefit from it, then we’ve got you covered. In layers 😉

Wait, what is a composite exactly?

When photographers say “composite” – they refer to an image that was constructed from two or more different photos. Most composites these days are done by layering images one on top of one another and then masking out the unwanted pieces using different methods. Another option is blending the layers together using various blending modes.

Compositing is the combining of visual elements from separate sources into single images, often to create the illusion that all those elements are part of the same scene. (Wikipedia)

Believe it or not, but composite photography wasn’t out of the digital era, it was already applied more than a hundred years ago. At the dawn of photography, portrait photographers would make their subjects sit for minutes without moving to make one single frame, and then develop the sheet of film in a dark room. Surprisingly, even back then, photographers like Louis Daguerre already used different layering techniques to create composites.

black and white photo of photographer photographing himself

Back to the future, composite images are used to achieve a vast variety of effects – from the “surrealist” of photos to the (supposedly) untouched nature landscape. Let’s take a look at how this technique can be applied to create both obvious and subtle photo manipulations.

The artistic composite

Here’s a set of examples of different composite techniques used to achieve something impossible. There’s not a lot of room for doubt – the use of layering in these is obvious from the first glance.

I believe I can fly

Some fine art photographers use the ability to mask out parts of the image to create “levitating” photos, where it seems like a person or object is floating through the air. How is this achieved? An image of a person on a chair is placed on top of the same image’s background, where the chair is masked out.

Levitating woman dancer
Levitation By Brooke Shaden

Clone yourself (or anything you’d like)

Another popular usage is to create multiple occurrences of the same person or object, using the same technique of layering different photographs on top of each other.

clonesof a young guy in a wooden house
Cloning by Photo Extremist

Mike Kelley, for example, used this method to create a visualization of airplanes taking off and landing at an airport.

Watching time go by

Some photographers use compositing to show the passage of time. One popular use is to create a “day to night” photo. For this effect, the photographer takes a photo every couple of hours from the same exact spot. Layering the photos together allows you to show the same scene at different times of day, or even seasons.

day to night composite photo of the Serengeti in Tanzania
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, by Stephen Wilkes

Scream or dream?

Another great example is Peter Funch’s artistic project titled Babel Tales. Here compositing is used to find certain elements that recur in a busy street scene. The various images are composited into one that stresses that element in a striking manner.

The technical composite

In addition to artistic implementation, compositing can be used for correction purposes creating a much more subtle effect, which can be hidden even from the most professional eye.

Too much light

Remember the dramatic dilemma of the landscape photo? Since the sensor of the camera is limited, when shooting a landscape the photographer needs to decide whether he wants to get good exposure on the ground, or the sky. It’s hard to have it both ways due to the large dynamic range – the difference between the two is just too large for the sensor to capture.

One possible solution is using a graduated filter on the lens. Just like sunglasses, the filter darkens the sky enough for the whole scene to be exposed correctly.

But other photographers use a different technique – they take two photos! Holding the camera still on the tripod, they take one shot exposing for the sky, and the second – for the ground. Later in post production they layer the two parts on top of each other and simply mask out the parts they don’t need.

Too many people

Another subtle way to use compositing is when shooting in a busy touristy area. All you want is to capture the beautiful landmark, but unfortunately – you’re not the only one. It’s as if the bustling crowd is walking inside your frame with a clear intention to ruin your shot.

Similar to the landscape example, you can use compositing to reach the perfect result: take multiple photos on a tripod, layer the pieces on top of each other and get rid of anything you don’t want to see in the final photo.

Staring at the stars

Not only for photographers – compositing is also used by scientists and space hobbyists to see farther into space. The problem that they need to tackle is the visual “noise” that infiltrates into long exposure images of the night sky. Using a technique called “Stacking”, space photographers layer multiple images of the same spot on top of each other and eliminate all the “noise”, leaving only the beautiful sights of space.

Show me your legs

Back to the photography universe – macro photographers are also compositing specialists.

When photographing little insects with a macro lens, the depth of field also comes out tiny. This means you’ll only be able to see the beetle’s eyes, but not its lovely legs in the back. That’s where the “focus stacking” method comes in: macro photographers take multiple shots, focusing each time on a different part of the bug. Then they layer the photos on top of each other, and use the sharp focus of each part they need to create the final image.

macro photo of a green frog
Red-eyed tree frog by Erez Marom

Beginner’s guide to compositing

Now that we’ve seen the various uses of composite photography, let’s try to create one on our own, using layers and masks in Photoshop. Do try this at home!

  1. Choose a photo that will be the background of the final image.

  2. Add a new layer with the image that contains the element you want to add. In this case – the added element is a hot air balloon.

  3. Use the Magic Wand (or any other selection tool) to select the added element (i.e. the hot air balloon).

  4. Now click the ‘Mask’ button below the layers, to mask out the element. To remove the background in the hot air balloon photo, paint the mask square white.

  5. Now click the ‘Mask’ button below the layers, or cut the selection into a new layer. If you choose a Layer Mask you can always hide or reveal parts of the original photo by coloring the mask layer in white or black (white to reveal; black to hide).

  6. Voila! Our lovely hot air balloon has landed in the scene. Now you can add as many hot air balloons as you’d like, or anything else that you think will fit nicely in the final image.

Contributed by photographer Ronen Goldman, and Julia Ronen from the Wix Photography Blog.

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