Compositing, or photo compositing, is a more advanced Photoshop technique where multiple images are combined to create an entirely new image. Compositing is often used in advertising and sometimes in journalism, but the best uses of it can be seen in fine photographic art where completely unique designs are created from existing pictures.
Often, you will see compositing used in surreal or “impossible” images that require lots of creativity and Photoshop skills to create. If you are just learning to use Photoshop, you should probably check out Foundations of Photoshop before continuing as this guide is considered slightly more advanced and you may not understand some of the concepts being discussed such as Layer Masks.
What’s great about compositing is how much easier it has become thanks to postprocessing software such as Photoshop. Historically, compositing techniques were very difficult and time-consuming as everything was performed in the darkroom. Now, with some knowledge of compositing in Photoshop, anyone can create surreal photographic art to share with the world.
The process of properly planning your composite before you begin is extremely important. Although you may not always end up following your plan exactly, without a pretty good idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re likely to get images without clarity of purpose or that look incoherent, muddy, and scattered.
Some of the best photo composites may look impossible, but somehow they seem to go together well. This is something that you will learn as you become more accustomed to compositing. In other words, your first few composite images are unlikely to be masterpieces.
The images you use to make up your composite should fit together seamlessly in terms of color, intensity, and patterns within each image. The direction of light should also be similar or the composite just won’t seem “right” to viewers.
Creating a Composite
Fortunately, creating a composite is not all that difficult using Photoshop but it can be time-consuming to do correctly. Remember that the most important part of creating a good composite is planning it out before you begin or you risk producing an incoherent design that is visually unappealing.
For a good explanation of the compositing process (as well as various other techniques), Photoshop 101 is a great course for beginners and professionals alike.
The first thing you should do is collect all of the images you plan to use in your composite into a single folder; a project folder if you will. It’s unlikely that the images you will be using are already “near” each other on your hard drive, so taking a few minutes to collect them is a big timesaver.
Resize and/or rotate each individual image so that it properly fits within your composite. If you are making images smaller you can usually get away with using the Scale tool within Photoshop. If you need to make an image significantly larger, you are probably going to need a third-party plug-in to accurately resize the image without deteriorating its quality.
Also, some images will need to be resized before adding them to the layer stack, while others can be resized once they are already part of the layer stack.
With all of your images resized as necessary and rotated into the correct orientation, the next step is to arrange the pieces of the composite into a layer stack.
Here comes the most time-consuming part. You have to use layer masks to “paint in” the appropriate portions of each photo that will be seen in your final image. This could take hours if you’re working with many complex images and this is where you will probably have the most difficulty when you are first starting out with compositing.
If you are not familiar with manipulating layer masks, Photoshop Selections and Masks will help you understand the basics of using layer masks effectively. Basically, a layer mask is a diagram which shows the portions of the upper layer that are visible in the composite.
Remember that a completely white layer mask shows the entire layer while hiding the layers underneath. A completely black layer mask hides the entire layer while showing the layer underneath. The areas in the layer mask that are neither black nor white partially reveal the layer you are masking. In other words, using a gray color in your image mask will display that part of the layer with much less clarity and “pop” then you would get with a completely white layer mask.
Now that you’ve added your images as layers and combined the layers using specific layer masks, you should archive a copy and flatten the resulting photo composite. Unfortunately, your work is not quite done as you will rarely have a composite that does not need a little more work to make sure the details are in alignment. You can learn more about retouching an image in Be a Photoshop Guru.
Before making any fine adjustments, create a duplicate layer to work with so you can experiment with various tools without affecting all the hard work you just put into your composite. You will find that most of your final touches are accomplished using the Clone Tool and the Brush Tool, both of which are applied directly to the duplicate layer.
It’s not uncommon for these final touches to really make the difference between a composite that is “believable” and one that is just too outlandish to be appreciated as art. You should definitely take your time when creating the composite, but you should take even more time going through the flattened image with the Brush Tool, Clone Tool, or any other tool that you may need to get your composite perfect.
The great thing about compositing is that it represents the cutting edge of digital art. Compositing techniques are being used in everything from the latest video games to art shows that are devoted to surrealist compositing projects.
Once you have played around with compositing, you may quickly find yourself becoming a composite addict and trying to manipulate every picture you take using these techniques.
Have fun bringing your creative workflow to completely new heights with compositing!