Inside Tips on Building a Great Composite

As a High End Retoucher, I love working on cool images with cool creatives! Over the years I’ve been super lucky to get to work on some really fantastic projects, from movie posters, to ad campaigns, to beauty images. I’ve gotten to work on a wide range of fun projects.

©Columbia Pictures

Of all the genres of images, the ones I get asked to work on the most involve compositing, and, I gotta admit, this is probably my favorite type of project. Pulling off a believable composite involves a pretty wide range of skills. From masking, to color correction, to adjusting lighting, it can take a lot to bring several disparate elements together to create a well crafted image.

©Kate Turning

For this Guest Blog post, I thought it would be good to talk a little bit about some of the most important factors you need to think about when building a composite image in Photoshop. These factors are:

  • Layer Structure
  • Masking
  • Color Correction
  • Lighting
  • Perspective
  • Depth of field

Let’s take a quick look at each of these.

Layer Structure

The basis for building any composite image starts with the Layer Structure. How you arrange the stack of layers, which ones go on top and which below, and how you organize them into Layer Groups and Clipping Groups is essential to building a file that will make it easy to revise and adjust as needed.

As you build your composite, be sure to keep in mind the order of the layers. Think of them as a stack of glass plates, like in the old days of visual effects. This means the background layers should be on the bottom, and the foreground layers on the top. Any layers in between should be placed in order reflecting how far they are from the ‘camera.’

Using Layer Groups and Clipping Groups will help you organize your layers, making it easier to keep track of which ones are doing what. Layer Groups bring a lot of power and usefulness to your Photoshop file.

Masking

Not only can Layer Groups have their own Layer Masks, they can also have Blending Modes as well. The more layers that can be controlled with one Layer Mask, the easier it can be to adjust the Mask so all the edges look just right.

©Roger Hagadone

And speaking of Layer Masks, good Masks might be the single most important part of building a composite. Well-made Masks let you control what parts of the layer, or layers, show and affect your image. While there are many ways to make a Mask, the chief concern is the quality of the edge. As a mentor of mine long ago taught me, the edge of the Mask should be as hard, or as soft as the edges in the image nearby.

This means the parts of the layer you are masking that are sharp should have mask edges that match that sharpness. And the parts of the layer that might be softer, or more blurry should have softer mask edges.

Another important factor is to check to make sure the Mask is clean. Very often Masks made via automatic selections, or by painting, will have spots or gray tones where the Mask should be Black or White. These ‘dirty’ areas will cause holes in the Mask that can prove problematic later on. There is nothing like trying to retouch a spot out over and over again only to realize it was a hole in your mask.

©Gil Cope

Color Correction

Color correction/adjustment is also very important. When combining multiple elements into one composite image, all of the pieces need to agree with each other in terms of color balance and contrast. Mastering color adjustment requires being fluent with several methods, but my preferred method is to use two Curves Adjustment Layers, one set to Color Blending and the other set to Luminosity Blending. And here again using Clipping Groups with your Adjustment Layers will make it far easier to make sure you have proper control over how you get each element to fall into line color-wise.

By the way, one of the best videos I have seen on matching color between elements and backgrounds is from my friend, Nemanja Sekulic:

Lighting

And while we’re talking about color adjustments, making sure the lighting on all the elements agrees is vitally important as well. The light illuminating and falling on the various elements in the composite should all look natural, as if they were actually being lit by the same light sources.

For instance, if you’re compositing three people together into a background that is lit by the late afternoon sun, and two of the three people are lit as if the sun was directly overhead, viewers will know something is off pretty quickly.

©Warner Bros

To some extent we can fake light with tricks, like Dodging or Burning one side or the other. But until we have tools that let us actually relight an image, planning out the scene and photographing your elements while knowing the environment you will place them in, will go a long way towards making your image appear seamless and believable.

Perspective

Next let’s take a moment to consider Perspective. A believable composite has one point of view: the imaginary camera we are using to view our scene. If the elements in the image were shot from different perspectives, viewers will notice.

So when the guy on the left was shot from below while the woman on the right was shot from above, your audience will not believe they belong together. As you start working to build your composite, be sure to plan out what perspective you’re going to use first, then select elements such as backgrounds, props, etc. that fit with that perspective so you can build a natural looking composite.

©Colin McGuire

Depth of Field

Finally, Depth of Field needs to be considered. As photographers know, a camera’s lens has a certain fall off when it comes to the area in focus. This depends largely on the camera lens and the aperture opening used to capture the scene. The larger the opening, the shallower the focus area will be. This gives image creators an important tool, because, when used well, depth of field can help focus the viewer’s eyes on what the artist wants them to focus on.

Most importantly, we need remember that this depth of field needs to be consistent. If the subject up close is sharp, but the rest of the scene fades in and out of focus randomly, something is going to look off. So if the trees in the background are soft, but the deer next to them is sharp, the deer is definitely going to stick out.

©Richard Radstone

Pulling off a well crafted composite image means not only building the Photoshop file well, in a way that makes it easier to refine and perfect, but also paying careful attention to Color Correction, Lighting, Perspective and Depth of Field so the final image comes together as one believable work of art.


Dennis Dunbar’s work as a Digital Artist/Retoucher is all about collaboration. Since 1991 he has been working with top Photographers and Art Directors to create compelling images for the Advertising and Entertainment industries.  With projects ranging from One Sheet Posters for top movies to National Ad Campaigns for major clients, his approach as a collaborator is to make it easy for his clients to realize their vision in creating the finished art.

You can see more of Dennis’s work DunbarDigital.com, and keep up with him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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