Backgrounds & Montages
Create A Unique, Custom Image For Your Portrait Clients

All Photos © 2004, Woody Walters, All Rights Reserved

Ansel Adams once told me that it is the background that makes or breaks the image. The background is what will tie all the key elements of a photograph together. I learned very early in my career that it's true whether you're shooting large format landscapes or even if you're shooting digital senior portraits, weddings, commercial, or any other category of photography.

My wife recently wanted to open her own portrait studio. We talked about the many different directions she could take in order to separate herself from the run of the mill average studios that were in our market share. She did not just want to make traditional types of portraits. In my fine art career, I have been doing montages for sometime now, so I suggested creating montages for her customers that would tell a story of one or many of their personality traits. I cannot tell you how quickly and how rapidly her business began to blossom when these images were created and shown to the public.

First of all, what is a photographic montage? It is an image that combines two or more elements together that make up an illustration that tells a story. With all my montages I try to have a visual theme that conveys my vision of how I see and feel about my subject. So what is an element? An element is a part of a photograph that is selected in Photoshop and combined into another image.

In this article we will work on the image I call "The Quarterback." In this image we have one element that is the background image. The second element is the main portrait of Nick shot in the studio using a main light and a reflector. The third element is a close-up of Nick in full dress and helmet, also taken in the studio. The fourth and fifth elements of Nick throwing the football and running with the ball were shot outside in our local ball park. I knew that my main element would be the portrait of Nick shot in the studio without the helmet. When I say my main element, this is the element that the viewer's eyes will see first. The main element is always the predominate element. Then you will have secondary elements that are more storytelling in nature. The reason I always have a predominate element is that I need to anchor the viewer's eye. The viewer needs to be locked into the image; then the rest of the background image and secondary elements can tell the story.

Figure 1
The background image was created using a sunset photograph that I shot many years ago and combined with a lightning image which was brought into Photoshop and liquefied, distorted, smudged, blurred, and finally colorized. It took about three hours to create, but painting a 9x9 canvas would take as long, if not longer. I now have hundreds of different background elements, and by blending them and changing their colors I literally have thousands of backgrounds from which to choose. By using the Hue and Saturation command in Photoshop, I can adjust the slider bars that will change the color of my background until it matches or complements the jersey color of the football uniform. The reason I chose this particular background was that I really liked the horizontal lines in the background, which creates motion in the image to add to the theme of football.

Figure 2
After selecting the background, I added the main element of the portrait of Nick in his football uniform. In the studio, I photographed Nick using one main light and a reflector. I used a white paper background set about 3 ft behind him, which will turn to a neutral gray with the light falloff from the main. This will allow me to select Nick very rapidly in Photoshop using the Magic Wand tool.

Once I've selected Nick, I will copy and paste him onto the background image. You now want to scale the main element (Ctrl+T). This will allow you to compose the main image, and also allow you to see how much of the background image you have left to add to the other elements. Hold the (Shift) key down and drag the anchor point from corner to corner. This will allow you to scale in perspective. If you cannot precisely decide how large or how small to scale an element, scale the element on the larger side. You can always go smaller later if required. If you scale small and then try to scale larger afterward, you will lose image quality, and you never want to do this.

The next step is to set up a Layers mask on Nick and fade him into the background. I will start my masking techniques using the Gradient tool. (You might want to change your Gradient option bar from "Normal" to "Foreground Color to Transparent." This will allow you to make multiple gradient masks at one time.)

Eric1's picture

Indeed, the background is an important factor that will define the work. - Eric Ludy