A composite image is one where you take two or more separate images and then merge them together to produce a final image. In the good old days of film this was achieved either in camera by setting a double exposure or in the darkroom by overlaying negatives. Both techniques required a great deal of skill. Today with digital and programmes like Photoshop the process is a great deal easier.

I recently organised a shoot to produce a composite image and I thought that I would share some of the tips that I learned as I did the process. I will admit that most of these tips have come about because of things that I did not do, and which made my job of producing the final image more difficult. These tips are all about the stuff you will do before the image gets to the computer.

  1. Have a clear goal of what you want to achieve
    Picture in your head what the final image will look like. It is often a good idea to sketch out what the final elements will be because when you start shooting you will not be seeing your final image in front of you. Don’t worry if you can’t draw. The sketch is also a really good tool if you are working with other people as it lets them get a better idea of what you are trying to achieve.

    In the case of my shoot what I was trying to do was to get an image where I was capturing a reflected image of a model but where the reflection was different to the original. One of the final images is shown here.

  2. Plan your elements
    By this I mean think about such things as backgrounds, elements that will be in the image and the order in which you need to shoot them. In the case of my shot the only thing that I knew I would be changing was the reflection. That meant that I should have been able to swap out a solid block of the image. This is a lot easier to do without having to worry about separating the main element from the background.

    However if you are planning of bringing in an element from one image to another, then when you shoot that image, making the background as different as possible from the element will make it so much easier to separate.

    It also pays to take a shot of the background of your final image, with none of the elements in it. This will provide you with an overlay should you wish to completely remove something later from the image.

  3. Allow plenty of time for setup.
    If you don’t want to spend hours on the computer, it pays to take some time up front getting your camera and the image elements into the rights position to give you what you want. In the case of my shot the elements included the room, the lighting, a mirror, the model and several changes of clothes.

    Rather than waste the models time, my daughter ended up being a stand-in while I worked out where the place the camera, the mirror and the lights.

    If you are using people in different parts of the shot place markers on where they should be standing.

  4. Set your lighting for all elements in the final shot
    This was the single biggest mistake that I made. I set the lighting originally to get a perfect exposure on the model in front of the mirror. Then when I started the reflection shots I changed the lighting so that the reflected image was perfectly exposed.

    This was a big mistake because the level of light changed on all of the background elements. This made merging the edges of the two images much harder to match.

    As part of your setup you need to bring the different elements into the image and light them all in such a way that you are happy with the overall result rather than individual elements being perfect, and then don’t change the settings.

  5. Use a tripod
    The key to good composites is that the angles need to be consistent. The only way to achieve this is with the camera on a tripod. Later version of Photoshop look for common elements in image when you stack them which makes line ups a lot easier.
  6. Don’t touch that dial
    Finally if you are compositing a scene, then once you take your first shot the only thing you should be touching on your camera is the shutter release, because every other dial on it will affect the image is some other way.

Photo credits:

“Kiwi Apple” by Chris Parkin, “Reflection of the Soul” by Paul Whitham