George Lucas, the film producer/director responsible for Star Wars, pretty much made me want to be in the visual arts single-handedly. It came out when I was still quite young, and the visual effects on the screen were nothing the world had seen before, with a realism that had never been attempted on that scale. I was always interested in the how of things - how did they shoot that, how did they make that effect happen? I got my hands on as many behind the scenes books as I could at the time, and tried to grasp the concept of blue screen compositing and mattes. Several years later,  I find that early childhood fascination with special effects very handy in creating my imagery in the world of photo manipulation. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did when i got Photoshop was learn how to make light sabers!

Below is one of my first Photoshop efforts, making my Star Wars inspired lightsaber effect using my first point and shoot (Canon Digital Elph, 2002).

Photoshop is a wonderful tool, but just like a hammer, you can either make something strong and secure or you can beat it to death and wreck it completely. Most people, myself included, go too far with it when they first start learning it. It's natural. Just like everything though, you gain more skill the longer you use it, and while you hopefully never stop learning, you become proficient with getting the job done as you gather more tried and true techniques into your wheelhouse.

Have you ever seen an older film with horrible matte lines or green fringe around an actor who was obviously shot on a green screen stage? Even the older Star Wars films have some issues with the compositing process, and while they were mainly due to the limitations of the pre digital age, the same issues can come up now if you don't take care to avoid potential problems while shooting.

I have a few "rules" when it comes to compositing, and I realize that not everyone has the means or ability to do the same things I do in the same way, but perhaps they can help just the same.

Rule 1: Shoot with a good camera!

In fourteen years since getting my first digital camera, I have used everything from a cheap point and shoots (my old Canon Digital Elph 2.1), a few entry level DSLRs (Rebel Xti and T2i) and now a full-frame sensor Canon 5d Mk II. I also went from kit zoom lenses to 3 prime lenses, no zoom, fixed length, 24mm, 50mm, 85mm. They serve me well, and in the time between my Rebel SLRs to my 5D mk II, I bought these lenses, and even on the Rebels, the lenses made a big difference in image quality. But everything took a big leap forward with the 5D - a full frame sensor means not only a larger image file, but also a higher quality image with more pixels, and pixels mean information, and information means getting better results with compositing images together. Starting off with a high quality photo makes a huge difference when compositing and creating layer masks.

Rule 2: Never cut someone out and stick them onto a background!

This is the thing I see most often, and most of the time it is noticeable. People have hair, mostly, and hairlines are the bane of the compositor's world. There is simply no good way to realistically cut someone out well, no matter how much time you spend, and have it hold up under close inspection. None of my backgrounds are below the subject - they are on top, with a model shaped hole cut into them. Same thing, right? No, big difference, which leads me to my next rule:

Rule 3: Be a photographer, but edit like a projectionist

If you project something over the model softly, the lines around the model-shaped hole are much more forgiving. What does this mean? Well, I shoot all models on a neutral gray backdrop. The backdrop is lit as evenly as possible, and is fairly brightly illuminated. This backdrop acts as a green screen in terms of keying out the model, but being gray means no color caste, no green or blue fringe around the model's edge's, and it essentially acts like a silver screen in the cinema. Because the background is illuminated and visible, the backgrounds can be "beamed" onto this gray backdrop gently. In other words, the blend mode of the background you want to drop in can be changed from Normal (the default) to something like Overlay or Hard Light. This is very similar to having a projector pointed at a screen with a model standing in front of it. The intensity of the image is greatly reduced as it travels to the screen, and the screen's reflective property assists in regaining the vibrancy of the image.

There are a number of things that can assist compositing from this point that are too lengthy to go into here, and frankly, too boring, but generally, that is what I employ: beaming my background elements over the model shot. I usually approach elements in the built up environments logically too: ground first, sky, if there is a sun or moon I put them behind the sky because, well, that is where they are in nature. Close objects are higher up the layer palette, distant ones closer to the bottom.

Rule 4: Try to always shoot with the same camera and lenses!

There are ways to overcome image quality and parallax distortion discrepancies, but they are a lot of extra steps, and all of them have the potential for blowing your illusion. I shoot all my material with the same camera, the same three lenses. This way, there is a basis of commonality - even if Shot 1 was done in January and Shot 2 was done in July - they are coming from the same source, the same sensor. I would not, at this point, even consider using say, an iPhone snap to blend in with my Canon photos - the quality is just going to wildly different.

Rule 5: Do Not Be Lazy!

There were some shots early on in my conceptual work that suffered from being lazy, or just not sweating the details. There is just no reason for it. Do you think your mask is perfect? Zoom in to 300% and look again. Can you make it better? If yes, but you don't want to, put it away for a day and come back when you are in the mood to really nail it. I have gone in and cleaned up masks using a 2 pixel brush just to make sure that if the image is ever scrutinized or zoomed in, no one will see anything sloppy. Is it always possible to be perfect? No, but try!

Rule 6: Stock Answers are Poor Answers

Is there a reason to use stock images? Sure. Did I used to use them? Yes. Do I now use them? No. Pride is one reason, quality is another. Pride in what you create - that's a big part of it. If my image is of a man on a horse with a killer sunset behind him, and the horse and the sunset is a stock image I pulled off the internet, how much of the end result is mine? Just the man. It's not truly yours. I used to use them, and besides the obvious issues: legality, credit, quality of the image, lighting of the stock image as it compares to yours, there is a sense of accomplishment in taking all the shots needed for a composite - that everything presented was a result of your effort and determination. I used to use them all the time. Then, I modified that to be a sort of unspoken rule: If the stock image is a minor feature in the final piece, then it is okay, but not if it is an important piece. Finally, I stopped using them altogether and now shoot everything myself. Another large part of this is quality. Most if not all images you pull off the internet are heavily compressed jpegs. This means that right away the stock image is going to be low quality compared to my model shot. I shoot in RAW mode only - no compression, and edit them that way too, up to a certain point. A pristine shot from a good camera is not going to blend well with a crappy jpeg from the internet. It just won't. Not under close inspection. If you are not interested in anyone seeing your work in large format or print, then perhaps this compromise is fine, but I want something that will hold up at high levels of magnification. This is a personal choice, and my rule for myself. It does not mean it is right for everyone.

Rule 7: See The Light, But Not Too Much Of It!

When in doubt, always under expose. Always. If I am shooting and I see in my display that something is perfectly exposed according to the meter, nine times out of ten I will find that it is too bright when I go to edit it. There are a host of reasons for this - all technical ones involving camera settings a point selections for metering, but I always play it safe here and shoot under by 1 to 2 stops. When I edit these or prep them in Adobe Camera Raw prior to opening them in Photoshop, I can recover the exposure almost every time and selectively darken or lighten certain channels or aspects of the shot. Information that is not visible in the shot as is, hidden in the shadows, is there. If you overexpose your shot, and have some white-hot blown out highlights, the information is lost and is never going to be recovered. A lot of this depends on the quality of the camera and lenses, of course. I believe all rules are flexible and some don't work for everyone, but this one, in the world of digital photography, is the closest I have to a Golden Rule. Always under expose!

Rule 8: Don't be Afraid, It's Only Light

Too many times I see people describe themselves as "natural light" photographers. This usually means that they have no idea how to use lighting kits in a studio setting. Look, it IS daunting and frustrating when you begin, I agree. But in the end, it is light, and best of all, you can control it! If you only use natural light, in other words, shoot with available light whether outside or inside, you are limiting yourself to shooting at the golden hours: dawn and dusk, or on overcast days only, or ramping up your ISO to destructive levels. It's not that I don't believe you can't do those things and still get great pictures, but why limit yourself? Why wait for the settings to be ideal? You can get what you want indoors at any time. Obviously I have to shoot my environments in natural light - I am not made of money where I have a lighting crew to light up a giant field. But shooting models separately, indoors, means that you can schedule shoots regardless of the weather or light conditions, and get exactly what you want in terms of mood.

If you are interested in what I use for lighting, it is quite primitive:

2 580ex II Canon Speedlites
1 430ex II Canon Speedlite

I use the two 580s with big diffuser boxes: One is a 48" strip light box, and the other is a 60"" Octabox. The 430ex II is in a 24" beauty dish. Usually I use two, occasionally all three. They are all fired together using an ultra cheap set of Cowboy Studio transmitter/receivers. A transmitter sits on my camera's hot shoe, and the receivers are all on the light stands. I press the shutter, and all three fire at once. No wires to trip over, ultra lightweight and with the purchase of several sets of rechargeable AA batteries, fairly inexpensive. All my shoots have so far been in my home's little basement space. Three sets of batteries will last a good 3 hour session, and the gray seamless paper will last 1-5 shoots, depending on how messy things get.

Now, these rules work for me. I have been compositing images in Photoshop for 14 years, and these rules have evolved over trial and error, doing bad composites and good ones. But the thing about rules and Photoshop, there really are not rules - or one way to do something. Whatever works for you is a good way to do things. The preceding information and processes mentioned are the things that give me good results for now, but that could change in a few years!

Just for fun, here are some old composite pieces from several years ago - older cameras and older techniques, and yes, using some stock images! 

Michael Bilotta



This blog entry is surely not going to be a very popular one, and will likely be taken as a defensive posture, but it's been something on my mind lately and since it's not going away, I decided I must say my piece and get it all out. That last phrase, "get it all out" will have some bearing on the words to come, and is at the heart of this blog. We all strive for happiness in life, most of us generally regard the pursuit of happiness to be a basic human right and desire we share in common. I would never say I was contrary to that sentiment or goal, but…

Lately there is a cult mentality forming in the obtuse world of social media which has largely replaced old-fashioned human interaction, and sadly passes for our friendships now. The Cult of Happiness, the Purveyors of Positivity, the Negaters of Negativity. In other words, those that have a zero tolerance policy for anything they perceive to be "negative" or pessimistic. I tend to fall into their radar often, and these are not just casual, online acquaintances, no, some are my friends, some are family members. They criticize anything you post that they perceive to be negative. They offer up advice in replies starting with "you should" or "why don't you…" Unsolicited advice, often.

I see many of my contemporaries doling out the refreshing Kool-Aid of positivity too, as if being a reservoir of good tidings will make people love what you create even more. Perhaps it does, but then, consider your audience, and why they need an idol of happy to warm themselves around. I see people creating art in my genre (for lack of a better term) focusing on their "message" of glad tidings more than their art, and I see their art suffer as a result. This is of course my opinion, and I will never name the names - it's an observation I have had for many months now. I see their desire to be thought of as positive outweigh their focus on their art, and I have to ask why, why is the attainment of "happy person" status more vital to you than your creative work? Who is that serving? Is it all just a marketing strategy? It may well be, and it may be working in the short term, but the more forced your outward appearance becomes, the more it becomes something to maintain, the more your focus is strained away from your art. You are not required to be an inspiration to anyone, and if you are indeed an inspiration to some, it should be as a result of your work, not your words or happy thoughts. Being inspiring should be a by-product, never the goal.

In our modern culture, we see these self-help gurus everywhere: on television, the insipid infomercials, and tome after tome of how to change your life and outlook and level of happiness. it is almost no longer allowed to express any dissension about anything, lest you be branded a malcontent. This puts me in the dubious light of defending negativity, and in a way I am, but only for the sake of rationality, honesty, and reality. But of course, it is also a defensive posture, as I have often been called a Negative Person. This category, this label, is something attached to people by the majority, otherwise known as the bully mentality, and it is no different than terms like happy, jock, ditz, brainiac, nerd, slut, or idiot. By calling someone negative, you are summarizing their entire being into a convenient category, one created by the majority for the convenience of you, the accuser, to organize your life and minimize the randomness.

In terms of art, the demands of the happy produce very little to sink your emotional teeth into. Maybe pretty pictures are okay for some, but I look to art as a reflection of the zeitgeist, the human experience creatively expressed through the changing times and resonating in a fundamental way. Shakespeare, for example, one the most profound writers of our history, produced sonnets, comedies, tragedies, and I am betting that the more popular or more often produced works of his are the tragedies. If you take the cultural phenomenon of "Star Wars" and ask any diehard fans of the first three films which was the best, it would be the second, "The Empire Strikes Back," the tragedy of the trilogy. There were no happy endings in that one, and all the heroes were suffering and darkness was winning. Why are we drawn to the antihero in the arts? Why was "Breaking Bad," "the Sopranos," "the Walking Dead" and even "the Dark Knight" so popular? Why do they endure? Why do they receive such accolades?

Once again, this is my opinion, my take on things, and I say the answer is, well, because tragedy and darkness is the more common experience in the human condition, and happiness is the rarity. Dark art, or tragic art, speaks to our own struggles, our fears, our experiences more than the lighter side of things. We connect to it because it is a shared experience, and in seeing that connection in art - be it visual or song, we feel a deeper connection to the tragedies in our own lives. The Cult of Happiness is around of late because in this epoch of human history we have more free time to ponder, more time to waste, and more time to complain than ever before. It is a luxury, this pursuit of happiness, and many do not have that luxury. Again, I am not opposed to being happy, I just prefer to consider the source of this happiness, and seek the legitimacy of its claim.

Saying you are positive does not make you so. Saying you are happy does not mean you are. Shunning what you perceive to be negative will not eradicate it from your life. Mantras do not work, and cannot be wielded as a talisman against the sadness. I wish it were so, but I am a realist, a pragmatist. I am also an artist, and I think filtering your thoughts is exactly the worst thing you can do to your creative output. We are born into a hostile world. The birthing of a human is pain, the consciousness of the human able to perceive their own mortality is to be afraid, and the crimes both physical and emotional we commit are terrifying. Our history is bloody, our emotions are strong, and we all carry a large amount of stress with us in our lives. How we choose to deal with it is a personal decision, but the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to society and reflect back creatively how we are.

I choose to examine the darkness in my concepts. I choose to speak of loneliness, the silence of God, the hopes betrayed, the depression I experience. I am a live wire with no insulation - have been since I was a child. It is who I am. But then the Cult looks at my work, my penchant for sarcasm, misinterprets my sense of humor as defeatist, and labels me "negative." What they choose to overlook, or what the strangers in his Cult do not know about me, is that I have a quiet life, have my basic needs met, have a loving partner and a devoted dog, and a fairly satisfying creative life. To say I am happy is not exactly true, but then, those labels of "happy" and "sad," "negative" and "positive" are too simplistic, and I think they are naive. There are things I wish were different, there are things about me I wish I could change. Who doesn't? But this label continues to follow me around, and I decided here to speak to it. You can take your limited information about a person, about me, and reduce it down to a label, or you can examine the whole picture and see what nuances lie beneath.

The truth of the matter is, our need to label someone always speaks more to the person assigning the label than the person they are describing. What you are really saying is "this person is not like me, and I do not like that." It's really that simple. And then you need to peel back another layer and ask yourself "why do you not like that?" What's behind your attractions or aversions? As tempting as it is to reduce things into convenient categories, it's just not very realistic, and batting back the randomness or unseemly in life is only an exercise in futility.

And so here we have social media, where we express our thoughts, share our witticisms, provide our points of view and share things we find funny or disturbing. It is a platform of celebrity wannabes, all of us included, and we have the stage and a potential audience for every post. If you continue this metaphor, you are alone on the stage, a microphone in front of you, and an audience in their seats. What do you say? What do comedians do? Do they express what makes them happy and keeps them satisfied? No, they do not. Comedy is derived from the darker stuff, the stuff we all find maddening, the fights we have, the miscommunications, the push and pull of life. You need to hook your audience, and most of all, you need to be real with them, and not a caricature. You cannot step up to the microphone and list things that make you smile, things that keep you nominal, and only say positive things. That is a different audience, that is an audience looking for answers out of their misery, the self-help flock - exactly the perfect audience for the Cult of Happiness to cater to.

So, for the record, I do not validate the dumb categories in this world, and I refuse to own "negative" or "positive" or any such artificial classifications. You need to term me so, I do not. You need to bat back the darkness, I do not. I am choosing to hold it, to get it out in another form, to hopefully transform it into my art. And you know, in those simplistic terms, I think that is the most "positive" thing you can do with it. As for my sarcasm, it is intended for the audience seeking to be entertained, and if you find my pessimism or "negativity" off-putting, I suggest you may be in the wrong auditorium - the Tony Robbins lecture is in another room. In this room, it's just the truth as I see it, and you might not want to hear it. You don't have to.

As a footnote to all this, recently I saw one of my images shared on another person's wall. The image was shared without the title or the explanatory notes that usually accompany my work, and the comments of the piece shared on another's wall were all decidedly optimistic. The piece I did, at the top of this blog, was about trying for an escape but everything is conspiring against it, and it was certainly a "dark" piece, and yet, depending on who is looking and their own personal outlook, the piece read as optimistic to some. I really loved that - it meant that it was open-ended enough to allow differing interpretations. It meant that for that one image, and therefore me as its creator, I was supplying something optimistic to some, and not only "negative."

Michael Bilotta


I have, in the past, posted pieces I had completed that were not published, mainly due to questionable quality or a concept gone awry. This time, I am posting pieces that were not published but I actually like. They are casualties of the journey, the soldiers that brought the idea home by sacrificing themselves along the way! Take this one, for example, the final piece of a process that involved four completed images before settling into what you see here, in "Death In The Afternoon."

The idea was improvised during the shoot, with the model playing with some poses and red fabric. With what he was wearing, his features and hairstyle, these was definitely something Spanish and matador about him, though we did not have a real matador costume during the shoot. When I started editing, I started trying to hone in on this concept and what I could do with it. My first idea was the concept of a young man practicing, training to be a matador, and symbolically what that could mean. I built up two images from the best shots of this "series:"

Sadly, although I like the tonal qualities and poses of these images, they didn't sell the idea successfully. Why was he practicing in a field? Why indeed - I do not have shots of a bull ring, so that was not going to be possible. Gradually, the concept evolved into the bullfight as a metaphor - learning to fight, the fight as a dance, the fight as growing up. That idea gave me this piece, with the working title "Learning to Fight:"

Now, I really like this image - I like the colors, the overall flow of it, so why not post it? Well, despite the concept being there, the pose is fairly static, placid, and the knives do not seem much of a threat, so this warrior in training seems a little inept, a little too posed, where more motion and action would work better. I wish I had those shots to do over, but I don't, so this one was left on the sidelines.

At this point I had three images with none of them exactly working well enough to sell the idea. Once i merged elements of both, I pretty much got my intent completed, using the pose from "Learning To Fight" and the field and environment from the Matador pieces:

It takes a lot of restraint and discipline to hold something you work on for a long time. I used to post anything I completed, and over time, I started removing the clunkers from my online portfolios, to publish only ones that I was confident with and proud of. Nevertheless, when you spend days working on something to make it as good as it can be, it's hard to put them in the folder and tuck them away. Especially these, which I classify as "close calls." So at least they can appear here, on this blog, as a little evolution of an idea, and how it got from beginning to end.

Thanks for reading and watching!

Michael Bilotta
March 3, 2014