A Compositer's Mantra


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