The Art of the Composite

I’ve been tossing the idea around about how I can give you all a better idea of how I do my work and not really sure what the best way is to share that with you all. I think at this time, the clearcut winner would have to be to purchase some screencasting software so I can do some walk through post processing tutorials, as well as, just some general “time-lapse” videos of a start to finish image. But, until I have the software (and have it figured out) this is the best that I can do.

My recent “Winter Kelly” image, has to be one of my favorites in a long time. I always like when I’m able to try something completely different out and still get a great result. As I mentioned above, I’d love to be able to show you a time lapse video of start to finish this image but #1 I don’t have the software and #2 I’ve already completed this image and there’s no way I’m going to spend another 3 to 5 hours reworking it! So, I’m going to break this into two parts, the Background and the Subject. This will give you an idea where the image started and where it finishes. And then of course, I’ll post the image again at the very bottom showing the two parts composited together.


The biggest issue with a composite is you need to know your two parts before you start. In my case, I downloaded this background image from iStockPhoto because I knew I wouldn’t be able to take something similar. I knew I wanted my subject to basically have white skin tone so I knew this background would work perfectly. The reason I suggest knowing your background and your subject is because it’s easier to match tones that way and get a seamless look. It’s much harder to edit the subject and then find the background plate and try to make the two work. I find I like to have a clear vision of where I’m putting the subject so I can match tones as much as possible (and in this case the tones are essentially white).

Here’s the stock photography shot that I chose for the background with only a slight modification. I selected a little section on the righthand side and transformed it to widen the frame and give it a more panoramic feel. Besides that, this is straight from the site no edits.

In my mind, the concept for the winter image needed to be simple and nothing over the top. I felt that a single tree in a snowy field would work perfectly (hence why I chose this image). However, this was far from where it needed to be to create a cohesive composite. The first thing I did was remove the inconsistency in the snow. I wanted it to look as if no one had been there. So I cleaned up the snow and then the next thing I looked at was the scene doesn’t look surreal and if you know my work that’s what I tend to go for. I needed the tree to look a little less realistic and I did that by adding a lot of contrast (which also helped me get better whites in the snow).

At the very end, when I had composited the image, I decided to add some gradients to make the sky look a little more gray and not totally blown out and also to balance the lefthand side with the righthand side. Here’s what the background looked like after the processing.


Unfortunately, this one is going to be a little hard for me to explain because there is just so much going on in this image and really working on one of my images takes about 3 hours and then with the composite work a little more. This will be more or less a side by side of where I started and where the portrait finished. Although, I will tell you, the trick to getting the skin tones to look so stark white was to use a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer and bring down the red and yellow tones but also at the same time bringing up the lightness in the red and yellow tones (lightness is a slider in the Hue/Saturation adjustment panel). I will admit, I’ve been told more than once to never play with that slider and I’m not exactly sure why but I did and it gave me the result I was looking for.

Also, I obviously retouched her skin because once again, I’m not trying to portray reality whatsoever, I’m trying to create something surreal and the requires the skin to look flawless. But, I don’t think I ever take it to the extreme where their skin looks like plastic. I’ve seen some photographers/retouchers who make the skin look like a barbie doll and that’s not the look I’m going for. I want the skin to sill have texture but no imperfections. And, I will tell you that there is a million different ways to do it and I suggest just doing a google search and create your own workflow. I think mine is a combination of three different articles/videos I’ve seen.

Now, here’s the before and after.

the composite.

Now, here’s where you put all the pieces together. There are so many different methods for doing a layer mask so just choose which one works best for you. In this case, since there wasn’t much different between the dress and the background I chose to do it all by hand. It probably would have been best to use the pen tool (learn to use this tool if you don’t know how to already) but I just hand painted it out knowing that a lot of it would blend into the background if I missed something. Then, the final step is to match the two. Earlier I talked about how I added in a gradient to the sky and since I didn’t flatten the image, I can go back and play around with the opacity to get the tone best where it looks the most natural. The last and final thing I did was to take a low opacity brush on the subject layer mask and just go over the edges of the hair to blend them into the background a little bit. It’s hard to paint out all those little pieces of white from the initial picture so I just blend it all together.

And thus, you have a final composite:

Hey, like this post? Why not share it with a buddy?