Photoshop Digital Compositing

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What is Photoshop Compositing?

Digital compositing in Photoshop is a creative way to create scenes and place subjects in them digitally.  This technique can provide your clients with literally an unlimited section of backgrounds or environments.  Photoshop has many features that make compositing less of a chore and more of a creative collaboration between the client, photographer and software.  While the idea in your head may be clear and the vision is sharp, getting that idea to translate in a believable way into a composite is tricky proposition.  In this brief tutorial I will explain my process that works well for my style but feel free to develop your own techniques that work best for you – keeping the principles I lay out here in mind.

Step 1: Choosing a Scene

Selecting the scene you would like use as your background is important since your subject will need to be photographed in a similar way that the scene is shot.  Many times I use a photograph that I have shot as a scene so that I know the exact position and settings of the camera. Stock footage of scenes can be a valuable resource as well.  Stock images present a challenge since usually you cannot determine the precise camera location, lens or settings used.

Step 2: Photograph your Subject

When photographing your subject, if possible utilize the same settings and lens that was used to photograph the scene you will be placing them on.  If you can place the camera in the exact location as the scene then your perspectives will line up very well.  Be aware of the lighting used in your scene and light your subject in a similar manner.  Getting the angle, color and strength of light correct makes for a very convincing composite. I prefer to photograph my subjects on a white or gray background.  Using a neutral background prevents your subject from getting any kind of color bleed from the background.

Step 3: Extract Subject from Background

Removing your subject from the background has become much easier with the advent of the “refine edge” tool in Photoshop. Using my “lasso” tool I draw a rough outline around the subject. After doing so, the “refine edge” button appears on the top menu bar.  The Refine Edge tool gives us sliders to control how sensitive Photoshop will be in detecting the edges of your subject. My sliders stay at 0 except for the “contrast” slider at 25%. I like viewing my selection on black, use “smart radius” at 4 pixels.  This is just my base setting and each image is different so I usually adjust as needed. Use your brush to paint areas that need further refining.  When I am satisfied with the selection I output it to a new layer that can be placed on top of my background scene.

Step 4: Place Subject in Scene

Most of the scenes that I prefer are shot with a wide angle lens.  As with all wide angles the center of the frame results in the least distortion.  Placing your subject in the center prevents having to alter your perspective to match the distortions on the edge of the frame.  The size of your subject is especially critical if the subject is a full length shot.  If you photograph your own scenes, placing a reference item of a known size in the scene can be a big help. As long as you photograph your subject with that same reference item you can simply match up the sizes (and even perspectives) of the item when placing the subject in the scene.

Step 5: Blend Subject & Scene Together

I believe blending the subject and scene together is the most important part of the composite process.  Adding shadows below your subject takes a keen awareness of the direction and intensity of the light source.  Some of the tedious work of adding shadows can be eliminated by only placing a tighter crop of your subject into the scene.  I use an exposure adjustment layer clipping mask above a copy of the scene where I decrease the exposure (decrease gamma also) of the entire layer, mask it, then paint it in the desired areas.  After the shadows there may be a need to darken the lower half of the subject showing some light fall-off.  A curves layer in “color” mode clipped to the subject allows us to change just the tone of the subject to match the scene.  I may also overlay a texture (in soft light mode) to further blend the images together.  As with any photograph, adding elements to the foreground may increase the believability of the composite as well.

I trust that this brief tutorial gets you excited to try out some Photoshop digital compositing!  As with all things photographic, trial and error is a great learning tool.  As you do more composites you will refine or even develop your own techniques.  Always keep layered files since as your technique improves you can further tweak past attempts!  Good luck and happy compositing!

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