Photo composites – it used to be said that “the camera never lies.” We used terms like “photographic evidence,” and “photographic memory.” We believed whatever cameras captured were literal representations of fact depicting exactly what you would have observed had you been a witness to the scene.
Then, as editing techniques improved, photographers learned ways to enhance and even alter images.
Well before the days of digital photography, dodging, burning, airbrushing, layering of negatives, hand-painting, and a host of other “analog methods” were used by skilled photographers seeking to enhance and manipulate their images. Sometimes this was in the name of art, other times to fool the viewer.
Enter the world of digital photography and desktop editing programs.
It wasn’t long before we used the term “Photoshop” not only as a noun as the tradename of an editing program but as a verb describing the manipulation of an image using that tool. When we now say an image has been “Photoshopped,” we are saying it has been digitally altered. The camera might not lie, but the photographer can if they choose.
The ethics of photo alteration
So, is altering your image a bad thing? Unethical?
I’d say that depends on your intent and the context in which you’re using the image. We’ve all heard the term “fake news.” If you are a photojournalist whose job it is to depict a scene truthfully, then the rest of this article is not for you. Move along… “creative photo editing” is totally taboo for you. Enough said.
For the rest of us, is photo manipulation acceptable? How much? What kind? Under what circumstances?
Let’s come back to those questions a little later after we’ve looked at some kinds of photo “enhancements.”
Have you ever had the misfortunate of watching a really bad magic show, the kind where the unskilled magician clearly doesn’t know his craft and the illusions are obvious? You know, without question, there really was something up his sleeve? Bad photo manipulation is like bad magic; neither should be performed for an audience.
If your techniques aren’t convincing, if the substituted sky doesn’t look right for the scene or the person composited into the group shot looks like you cut him out and pasted him onto the photo, you might not be ready to perform your photo magic. Learn how to do the “trick.” Practice, practice some more and show the result to a single critic. When you finally pass muster, only then show your creation to the masses.
Most of us do at least some standard photo editing. I always smile at those photographers who say with pride their images are “Straight-Out-Of-Camera” (SOOC), unedited. That they always “get it right in the camera.” Really?
Unless you’re making only .jpg images (where the camera itself is doing some editing using the built-in .jpg algorithm), you have a Raw image that needs at least basic editing even to be presentable.
Sure, make the best exposure you can in the camera, frame your shot so no cropping will be needed. Pick a white balance appropriate for the scene – those are all good habits. But having to edit your shot to bring out its best? – That’s only logical, IMHO.
Creative photo composites
Now we get to what is clearly photo manipulation, the creation of an image from multiple pieces. This is the assembling of a final photo composite from separate shots carefully crafted to make something better than you could make with a single exposure.
Do it well, and you can make scenes that depict your creative vision. Create things of beauty that never were but should have been; landscapes with great clouds, gorgeous sunsets, or maybe portraits done in fields of flowers. Do it well, and people will marvel over your creation, unaware of your magic. Do it poorly, however, and you’ll wind up with a Frankenstein monster, a badly-stitched horror assembled from unmatched pieces and parts.
So let’s look at some things to consider when creating convincing photo composites.
Light and shadow
Let’s use an example where we might add a person to a scene they were not originally in.
You have the image of the scene, and you have a separate image of the person. The first question to ask yourself is, does the light direction match? Look at where the light and shadows fall in both images. If the light in the person image is coming from the left, the light in the background scene must come from the left too. Fail to check this, and even the untrained observer will look at your photo composite image and know something isn’t right, even if they can’t put their finger on it.
Sometimes you can flip the person or the background image so the light direction matches; it depends on the scenes you’re working with. Other times you’ll have to look for a different background with a better match.
The scale may not be correct, but creative compositing is a new fun way to play with your grandson.Pay close attention to the direction and quality of shadows. Compositing images where the light in one piece is harsh with hard shadows and the other where the light is brighter, darker, softer, or in some other way different will be a giveaway of something fishy.
Sometimes you might have to add a shadow manually. Say you’re adding an image of a car to another image of a road. Consider where the shadow of the car would fall relative to the light in the scene. Then blend in some shadows if necessary to make a more convincing photo composite.
The camera angle and focal length of the lenses used to make the separate shots should match as closely as possible if you want to make convincing photo composites.
A high or low angle background with a differing angle composite overlay isn’t going to look right. This even applies to sky substitutions.
If you want to make photo composites of a landscape and change out the sky for perhaps one that has a nice sunset or better clouds, take a look at the angle of both shots and the focal length of the lenses used.
You’ll be able to tell if something just doesn’t look right.
Sometimes this can be the toughest one in getting good convincing photo composites. Images at different times in different locations are almost guaranteed to have slightly different white balances. Mix a cooler piece into a warmer scene, one where the tint is slightly different, or other subtle differences exist, and once again, your viewer will detect that card up your sleeve.
See if you can set a white balance in Lightroom for your base image and then, using the Sync feature, apply that same white balance to your inserted image. Then take both into Photoshop for your compositing work.
Sometimes the best option for avoiding a fight with color differences is to avoid color altogether and go monochrome with your image. A monochrome composite is far easier to pull off than a color one. It’s a good place for beginning “photo magicians” to start.
Pay attention to match the relative size of images in your photo composites. Unless you’re trying to make the model in your shot look like a fairy on that forest log, matching size counts.
The student who missed the group shot of his class, but you later composite him in, probably won’t appreciate it if you make him look like he has a giant head relative to the others in the shot.
Whatever multiple pieces you use to make your image, consider how their relative sizes match.
Anything funny here?
After working to create a convincing photo composite, it can be hard to be objective. You’ve worked hard to get it just right but sometimes may have misgivings about whether everything looks natural.
Or it could be the other way; you’re convinced you’ve created the perfect composite, but have overlooked what to someone else is obvious fakery. This is the time to bring in someone else, someone who has no idea what you’ve been working on, to look at your creation.
Simply ask, “How’s this look?”
Don’t immediately tip them that you did something to the image – see if they detect anything. If they don’t, drill a little deeper.
“See anything unusual?” Pay attention to their answers.
If this is someone who knows your skills, they may suspect you switched out the sky, put that cute bunny in the forest scene, or digitally shaved some pounds from the model. However, even then, they should be able to tell you if your creation is convincing.
Because you can…
The second part of that saying, “…doesn’t always mean you should.” Or as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, (aka Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.”
With practice, you may become highly skilled at photo composites. Alter a photo, replace the sky, make it jaw-droppingly beautiful, and no one thinks twice. Even fellow photographers marvel over the sunsets you always seem to catch, the great light, the pristine beaches with no footprints, litter, or people. They chalk up your beautiful images to stellar photo skills, hard work, sacrifice, and a healthy dose of good luck. They don’t realize you made your own luck, as well as that incredible ocean sunrise, with creative photo compositing.
Until one day, the truth comes out…
You’re just an average photographer but a great Photoshop artist.
One guy who understands where to draw the line is noted landscape photographer, Nick Page. I once had a chance to interview Nick on the subject of swapping skies in landscape photography. In addition to being an exceptional landscape photographer, Nick is also a gifted editor. If anyone could fool you with a creative composite, Nick could do so easily.
He could, but he doesn’t.
“With my Landscape photography, I have drawn the line in the sand, (in my head anyway), that I will not composite or swap skies. For me this comes down to two things,” Nick said.
“My favorite part of landscape photography is trying to chase the light, and have that great light line up with a great location. This takes tons of planning and effort, and I love that aspect of photography. If I were to start dropping skies into my landscape photos, I would be robbing myself of the joy of “the Chase.”
And the second thing? “I want people to know and believe the photos I take are real,” said Nick. “So many of the photographers I follow, I can’t always trust that amazing light they always have in their photos. Yes, it is an art, but I really enjoy the extra effort of trying to get it for real, and I want people to know and trust that I put in that extra effort.”
As easy as a click – the rise of the robots
We’re headed for a major change in photo editing as we enter the dawn of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) age. For some time now, computers have been able to “recognize” images. Tell Google Photos to search the entire internet for photos of even something improbable, green dogs, and it almost instantly finds many. This is not a keyword search; it “recognizes” the image of a dog and the color green and finds the photos.
Facial recognition? Lightroom can do that.
We already see better and better implementations of AI photo editing tools too. How long will it be before an AI editing program can do a better job than you? Maybe that day is almost here.
Skylum Software recently announced its new Luminar 4 editing software with “AI Sky Replacement.” Not only can it replace the sky in a photo, but it also does it with no selections, layers, or masking. It claims to handle even detailed images such as fine tree branches extending into the sky. And, it goes even a step further, using the colors of the replacement sky to better match the scene.
I must confess, I have mixed emotions about software editing tools that better the skills I’ve learned after hundreds of hours slaving over a hot computer [Me too – Editor]. Or that don’t require I earn that great shot by setting the alarm for 4:30, shivering in the pre-dawn cold, and hoping the clouds and color are just right only to be disappointed. One-click to a beautiful shot?
Could I, in good conscience, enter a contest with such a shot and accept an award for “my” image? The one made with artificial intelligence instead of just my intelligence and skills?
Photography and “real” art
I have to think that when photography first entered the scene, traditional artists, painters, sketch artists and those who created their art from scratch by hand had to scoff. Photographers had no artistic skills, and they weren’t “real artists.”
Later, we transitioned from purely mechanical cameras to automatic ones and from film to digital. Autofocus? Auto exposure settings? Auto white balance? Pshaw!
How about processing negatives and film in chemical baths, working with negatives and enlargers, dodging and burning with real tools and real photographic paper? Do you say you do that all now in a computer with a few clicks of a mouse? That if you make a mistake, you can simply undo it and not have to throw away your work and start all over?
You call yourself a “real photographer?”
You get the point. As technology marches on our tools change, we find easier ways of doing things and more people are able to become involved, not having to spend years learning complex skills. More people can, with some technological assistance, produce better images.
One last thing to remember however, the human touch, the “soul” of your photography, your personal vision will never be replaced by “artificial” intelligence. Wise photographers still appreciate the special skills of artists who create beautiful images by hand. Wise digital photographers still appreciate the skills of analog film photographers who created great photos with very basic equipment. And, perhaps one day, you and I will appreciate the skills of a robot photographer and an AI editor. Or maybe not.