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How to Shoot a Composite Image

A Guest Post by Gus Castillo

20120916 untitled shoot 305September 16 2012

One of the joys of the digital era of photography we’re currently in is the ability to harness the power of digital tools to create images that aren’t physically possible and unlock the full potential of your imagination. Following some simple rules we can create composite images using similar lighting and location, a tripod and various images.

The first step is to choose your location. It is best to choose locations with few changing elements. Choose simple backdrops without moving trees, passing vehicles or pedestrians. If you really want to be in control, shoot on seamless paper in a studio environment.

Lock down your camera on a tripod. This is the most crucial requirement. Changing your camera during the shoot will make it much more difficult to make the photo look believable and will make editing a nightmare. Frame your photo and set your aperture. It is a good idea to set aperture at 8 or more and attempt to get a good depth of field and plenty of focus. The more you can have in focus using aperture the less you will have to worry about touching your camera to focus. You can move subjects and elements around within the frame as long as the camera and aperture do not change.

First shoot a reference shot without any of your subjects within the location. You will use this photo as the base layer to fill the others as you mask away what you don’t need and reveal only your “characters”.
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Next, shot your “characters” in their poses. For this photo of a “Selfish Game of Monopoly”, I chose one player indifferent to the left, one player winning in the back and one stressed about losing to the right. It helps to have your characters dressed differently in each shot to make it more believable.

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Once all of your photos are shot, bring them into Lightroom/Aperture and do basic image editing. Adjust your contrast, brightness, sharpness, etc. and sync those settings across all the images you will be using for your composite. You need all you images to have the same editing before you bring them into Photoshop otherwise they will not look cohesive and will fail as a combined image.

Screen Shot 2012 09 16 at 8 11 14 PM?

Next, import all of your images as layers in photoshop. Even though you shot on a tripod, you may want to auto-align layers in order to make sure they are perfectly aligned. Again, the more careful you are about not touching the camera, the better your results will be. It’s a good idea to use a wireless remote of shutter release cable so you never need to touch the camera and risk shifting the image plane.

Using masks filled with black (black conceals, whit reveals), paint in using white on the areas of the selected images you want to reveal. One mask on each character, painting only over the individual person or element you want revealed over your background. Your reference shot should be the bottom layer and can be locked as a background layer if you want to avoid accidentally editing it.

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Make sure you spend particular attention and use a smaller brush around areas of overlap or near overlap such as the hands in this photo.
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Finally create a merged composite layer, which you can use to do your final editing. Cleanup the image by removing any items you don’t want in the image such as loose strings, nails, stains, dust or blemishes. Add any stylization you choose and your image is ready for the world.

20120916 untitled shoot 305September 16 2012


  • Swap heads in a family portrait
  • Make people fly
  • Have dinner with yourself
  • Action shots with stages of motion
  • Appear to jump really high
  • Push yourself on a swing……

The possibilities are endless!

Gus Castillo is a New Jersey based Portrait and Fine Art Photographer. You can see more of his work and read his blog at www.GusCastillo.com. You can also follow him or say hello on Google+ at PlusGus.com or on twitter @GusCPhoto.

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