Building Great Photos
Compositing Multiple Frames To Create One Great Image

By now you're no doubt aware that you're being fooled on a daily basis. You know what I mean--that new car looks much better in the brochure than in person, that catalog full of furniture has the same sunset outside of every window, and the weatherman on the local TV isn't really standing in front of a giant map.
Chromakey, the effect where the weatherman stands in front of a green screen and the maps are inserted electronically, has been around for 30 years, so we should be used to being tricked. For photographers it's been a recent thing. While serious photographers have always built "slide sandwiches" of different objects with a slide duplicator, the advent of the computer as a darkroom and Adobe Photoshop in particular has made it very easy to build composite images from a collection of parts.

While those fanciful "Pig with Wings" images are popular in some circles, I tend to assemble images in order to create effects that I just can't get in real life. Clients are getting so used to a certain level of Photoshop compositing that I'll often get asked to take pictures of incomplete product prototypes, unfinished office complexes and wintery exteriors, only to insert product logos, full parking lots, and summer greenery post-shoot. It is now common practice to shoot a product clean and simple on a white background and then insert a fanciful surface and realistic looking drop shadow.

In order to create really convincing composite images you have to have the finished product in mind when creating your originals. I shoot a ton of film and digital images every year, but often I find that it's tough to put two images together without having a plan at the time of the shoot.

This is especially true of the background. In order to create good composites you'll need lots of great backgrounds to put your subjects into. I always shoot background images whenever I travel. I have shots of New England winters, L.A. evenings, and Cubs games at Wrigley. I have panoramic shots of the Arizona desert and of Times Square. I shoot everything I can at all times of the day, and I archive the film scans and digital images on CD-ROMs. By doing this, I not only build up my own royalty-free stock bank, but I ensure myself a good selection of unique images.

Clients are starting to get fed up with the "me-too" clip art disks that everyone is using. It's embarrassing when four different advertisements in a magazine use the exact same New York City skyline shot!

Film Capture
In general, I prefer to shoot all of my backgrounds on medium format film. That way I have a really high quality original from which I can pull incredibly high-res scans if I need. If I shoot it digitally with a good camera like a Canon D30 or Nikon D1X then I'm limited to a 10-17MB file. I routinely generate 70MB files from my scanner that are amazingly clean and sharp, so for now film still has a place in my work.

Background Separation
When shooting foreground images for composites you need to keep in mind the amount of work that you want to create for yourself back at the computer. While there are dozens of programs designed to strip images out of their backgrounds, the fact is that delicate objects will require a great deal of hand tweaking. I love the three tools in Photoshop 6.0--the Extract tool, the Magic Eraser tool, and the Background Eraser tool--but I still find myself reaching for Corel KnockOut 1.5 and Extensis Mask Pro 2.0. Even with all of those tools at my disposal, I'm still using the Pen tool and massaging selections by hand using the Quick Mask option. I'm not going to go into a heavy Photoshop lesson here, but before you can create composites you need to develop some expertise at separating objects from their backgrounds.

Of particular importance when stripping out your foreground images are the edges. Even if you manage to cleanly pop the image out of its background you'll need to figure out how hard or soft you want the transition to be, how dark or light the edges are in relation to the lighting, and whether there should be a drop or cast shadow created by the object. To give you an idea of how effective this technique can be check out the images on these pages and the accompanying notes. In each case I used a combination of images and techniques.

Combining various original images to create composite final images is a fairly powerful technique. Thinking digitally when shooting, even with film, makes it much easier to achieve the desired effect back at your desktop. I shot almost all of these images on film and used Photoshop to create the composites. In the old days many of these effects would be impossible to create, yet now, with relatively modest skills, you can do as well if not better with your own images.

Here I took four separate images and combined them to create this nice picture. I was liberal with the color and contrast controls to create a dynamic looking photo.
Photos © 2002, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Surreal Composites
--A great technique is to take a collection of original images and combine them to create a fanciful and surreal final image. For this other-worldly desert scene I took four original film shots of cactus plants taken in the Arizona desert. I scanned each cactus and carefully stripped them out from their backgrounds. I then scanned a rather spectacular desert sunset panorama shot I had and went to work. I placed the four cactuses on top of the background panorama layer. I moved them around and re-sized the various elements until I had a relatively nice grouping. Once everything was in the right place I went to work on the cactuses themselves. I used the Hue and Saturation controls to really enhance the color, and used Levels and Curves to really make these plants "pop."
I always loved this shot of the Casino sign, but felt it would look better with a palm tree and a little sky. Three separate images were composited to form a very realistic looking finished image.

Enhancing Reality--This shot taken on Las Vegas' famous Fremont Street has always been a popular image of mine. The original shot was the "Casino" sign against a black sky. To really make the image more dramatic I painstakingly traced the outline of every bulb on the edge of the sign, then deleted the background. I then took a shot I had of some palm trees in Los Angeles and stripped out one long palm tree. I placed the tree behind the sign and used the Lighting Effects in Photoshop to create the effect of a bright orange light in the middle of the tree. Once that was done I zapped up the color of the Casino sign by adjusting each color channel with the levels control. To finish it off I created a nice cloudy evening sky using the "Sky Effects" portion of KPT 6, a Photoshop plug-in. I think the finished shot looks realistic, but extremely wild.


Sometimes it's just easier to composite a few shots to create an effect. Here I shot the Akteo watch mounted on a metal fixture with a few white cards to make it easier to strip out later.

Compositing As A Production Tool --Special effects are nice, but sometimes a client asks for a look that is a lot easier to create in the computer than in front of the camera. A perfect example is this shot done for French watchmaker Akteo. In order to get the watches in exactly the right position and with the right strap curvature we needed to mount the watches on custom-made metal fixtures. To make the fixtures totally invisible takes a lot of propping and fiddling. In the old days we would struggle with each watch, hiding the fixtures and lighting the watch and the background as perfectly as possible.


Once I had the watch separated from its background, it was easy to drop it onto this nice purple background and add a realistic drop shadow.

Today we have Photoshop, so the client has figured out that it is much easier, faster, and cheaper to just shoot two watches on a large fixture with a Canon D30, clip the watches out from their background, and then add a background and shadow later. Here you can see the original image in all its glory. Once the background junk is removed the watch is given a hot green background and realistic drop shadow. After a few hundred of these you get pretty good.

Sometimes it's just about fixing what Mother Nature didn't provide. For this shot I never liked the relatively plain looking sky.

Adding Drama--I always loved this shot of rock guitarist Earl Slick, known for his work with John Lennon, David Bowie, Little Caesar and Phantom, Rocker and Slick. Shot just north of Los Angeles, the original was a dramatic shot and in my portfolio for years. Recently, when I revamped my book, I thought this image could use a little sprucing up. I found the original transparency and pulled a clean unaltered scan. Once I had the image in digital form I carefully clipped out the original bright afternoon sky, producing just the foreground on a layer. I searched through my files looking for a dramatic sky shot and found a very cool 35mm transparency shot from the Griffith Observatory overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Once scanned the image had to be pulled and stretched to fill the frame, and I had to clown a little bit here and there to remove the city lights at the bottom of the frame. Now I had the same image with an unbelievably dramatic sky, and it looks like it was shot that way.

With a dark and angry sky added the image looks much more dynamic.