Step-by-Step Composite: UO Acrobatics

As promised, I’ve put together a step by step image guide to show how the final image came to be. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about this project, I was pretty much given complete creative freedom. So, this is the concept that fit best in my mind with the photos we had shot. Originally, I planned on creating a triangle with one set front and center but felt like this worked better.

Step 1: Base Image

Of course the obvious question is why is there a giant black bar the top? Okay, not obvious at all since the background of the page is black but if you open up the image you’ll see the black bar on top. In order for the composition to work I needed to add a little extra space to the top of the image. In the final composite, you can barely see half of the stand in the middle section so I new blending the top into the black bar would not be an issue at all.

Step 2: “HDR” Processing/Hyper Real

The reason I put HDR in quotes is because this isn’t an HDR image at all. Quite often people confuse my Sportraits for HDR images and that’s just not true. I used to create HDR background when doing composites like this (much like Joel Grimes does) but I’ve found that if I do the same processing that I do to my Sportraits, it makes the composite more cohesive.

Step 3: Exposure Change

This is just a simple curves layer to darken up the image and add more drama. This is absolutely one of my favorite tools in Photoshop. If you know how to use it properly, you can do a lot of amazing things. I use curves to dodge and burn my images.

Step 4: Blur

You should barely be able to tell this image apart from the previous one. In fact, If I didn’t mention anything most of you probably would have thought that I accidentally posted the same image twice. However, look at the O’s on the chairs. In this image, I’ve added a Gaussian Blur with a gradient layer mask (black and the bottom, white at the top). I do this because it’s going to be pretty rare that you shoot a portrait at f/16 or f/22. So, I want to create a little separation between the girls and the background by having a little less depth of field. There is no reason for everything to be tack sharp in this image. Your eyes will naturally go to what is in focus rather than what is out of focus. So if everything is in focus your eye will bounce around. I’m already trying to cram in 11 pairs of people (you’ll see in the upcoming images) into this composite and I want to maintain the focus on them as much as possible.

Step 5: Gradients

This is another one of my favorite tools in Photoshop and the difference between these two images should show you how powerful it can be as well. I really wanted to background to look like there was a spotlight in the middle of the court. I did this by not only bringing in some dark gradients from the sides and bottom (and the top to blend that black bar) I used white gradients to highlight the center of the court. Using this combination pulls off the spotlight effect.

Step 6: Final Background Toning

Once again I used a curves layer to lower the exposure just a little bit more. I also added in a hue/saturation layer and desaturated the background slightly. I don’t want the background to draw too much attention away from the subject and by doing these two things it doesn’t make it stand out as much.

Step 7: Insert the Subjects

I know there are so many different ways to cut out subjects but I usually stick with using the magic wand tool to get a rough outline. After I’ve selected the subject, I add a layer mask and then hand paint in where it needs help (I do this using a Wacom Intuos4). The only thing you can’t really hand mask is hair but it wasn’t much of a worry here. Since most of the background is black I ended up being able to not have to have an exact mask (especially for the girls on top). I then used the refine mask tool to smooth out edges and get it exactly to where I want it to be.

Without a doubt, the most tricky part of a composite is the shadows. I created these by duplicating the subjects and then filling the layer with black. Since I already have a layer mask it just looks as if I’ve covered the subjects with black. I then move it behind the first subject layer and use free transform to flip it vertically. Then, I match up one of the feet (whichever one was closer to the bottom of the frame) and then use the puppet warp tool to match up the other foot with it’s shadow. One thing you’ll realize is that you have a very sharp shadow so to fix this you just add a Gaussian Blur and that softens the edges. The last thing I do is paint a small black area right underneath the feet on a new blank layer. And then once again add a not so drastic Gaussian Blur. This is more of the hard shadow that will show up right where the subject connects with the floor. (If there is enough interest I may do a future post on how I create shadows).


Step 8: Stadium Lights

After I had taken the photos of the girls and they had left I took the photos that I needed for the background plates. If you have ever seen Matthew Knight Arena you know there is a giant O underneath the jumbotron and one of the original ideas was to have that in the image. I wasn’t able to fit it in but I did capture a bunch of images with stadium lights when shooting the O. So I cropped out just the lights and then added this last piece to the puzzle. I used a screen blend mode which drops off all the black in the image and leaves everything else. The great thing about this is since it’s the top layers some of the star bursts actually fall onto the subjects and light them up. I feel like this gives helps pull the image together just that little bit more.

And here’s a little version where you can scroll the center bar between the starting and final image. This gives you a better idea of the overall transition from the base background image to completed composite (plus it’s just super cool to move that bar back and forth). Now that I figured out this trick, this will be something I start adding to all of my composited images I post here on the blog.



I want to be clear that this isn’t the exact order of how the composite came to be. A composite is really a dance between the subjects and the background. You edit the subject and then you edit the background to fit it accordingly. In this case, I processed all of the girls first and then brought them onto the background layer one-by-one and cut them into the background. I was already really happy with how they looked so most of the background edits came after the girls were in place. By editing all of the sets of girls the same and then trying to get the background to match I’m creating something more cohesive.

At the end, you want to double check your work and see if there is something that really screams “FAKE!” But, at the same time you have to realize that you are going to be way more critical than anyone else is going to be. For the most part your audience isn’t going to be photographers or artists at all and because of that they aren’t going to be looking for a composite, they are going to be looking at the entire image. There may be a few subtle things that I see that scream fake to me but the biggest is just the fact that I was able to get 11 girls to hold up 11 other girls and for everyone to look bad ass without anybody getting injured. However, that is something that I can live with!

Next week I’ll be posting the image that I shot for the University of Oregon’s Women’s Tennis Poster. Once again, another crazy composite but it turned out amazing. If you want to get a sneak peak, head over to and if you look carefully you’ll be able to find it!

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