The ability to combine images together is a very useful skill for photographers. Although most want to get the image right directly in the camera, there are instances where merging images together prove useful (and necessary). As well as this, the image we have in our mind may not always be physically possible to produce during the shoot, and merging multiple photographs together can bring that vision to life!
There are many different ways to merge images together. Of the hundreds of approaches to this task, the best one is the method that works for you. This tutorial will showcase my personal, manual preference of merging images. There are ways to automate image merging in software, but it is better to know the manual method before doing so (as they say, learn the hard way to be able to use the easy way!). The manual method also offers significantly more control.
Before we begin with the tutorial, there are several key concepts to keep in mind:
- Make sure that the images are the same resolution. If one image is 300 dpi (or dots-per-inch), and the other is 72 dpi, you will need to convert one of them to match the other.
- Try to pick images with a similar light source. Although you can add artificial shadows and highlights, it is quite difficult to ensure that these simulated sources look natural (although absolutely possible). It is far more convincing to find images that already have a very similar lighting situation.
- Try not to over-complicate the merge. Attempting to add elements that are extremely convoluted (due to having very fine outline details or other types of intricacies) can be frustrating to blend realistically.
How to Combine Images
I can think of many instances in which a photo shoot could be better enhanced by combining different images together. When merging from the same location, the benefit is that, presumably, the lighting and shooting settings are the same (or similar). As well as this, the location being the same makes for an easier merge. If you are merging images from a different location, try to pair elements that can blend in well together! Burning edges can be a great way to blending images together.
On to the steps:
Begin by planning what elements of the individual photographs you will want to combine together (see two images below).
Make a selection – then copy and paste
Secondly, take the lasso tool in Photoshop and draw around the object, model, or animal you want to add to your base image. You can also utilize the selection tool or quick selection tool to do this. In this particular image, because the colors and tones are all very similar to one another, I found the lasso tool to be a much faster way of selecting the part of the image I need. Other photo editing software will likely have very similar tools.
Note: You cannot do this kind of work inside Lightroom. A program that utilizes layers is needed, and that is a function which Lightroom does not offer.
Next, paste the image into the spot it belongs in the other image. I like to lower the opacity when placing so that I can see exactly where the subject should be positioned. You can then raise the opacity back up.
Blend using a layer mask
Fourthly, to blend the image into its rightful place, I utilize layer masks and the brush tool. The benefit to these two tools used in unison is that if you accidentally erase a part of the layer that you want to keep, you can always undo your mistake. Likewise, if you find later that you would like a certain part of the first layer to show, you can do that without issue.
All you need to do is select the top layer, click “add layer mask”, and then select the brush tool. When utilizing the brush tool, the black color will act as an eraser and remove the top layer, while the white color will bring the top layer back. Make sure that the brush is very soft, as that helps blend. Change to a harder edged brush for straight edges.
Note: Make sure you paint on the mask not on the actual layer!
Keep blending until the image looks to be a natural part of the frame.
Repeat the steps as many time as necessary.
Adding or Changing a Background
Adding a new background is quite possibly the most common use of the image merging skill. Whether you shoot your subject in a studio or just a snap out in nature, changing the background can add an entirely different feel to the photograph.
The same steps apply to this type of merging as with the aforementioned. If you’re working with hair or fur, a tip is to try to pick backgrounds whose light and dark areas match with the original background, as that allows you to not have to work around those very fine details (and can leave them untouched). In the photo example here, the new background elements were matched to the dark parts of the photograph, which allowed me to not have to select the fine fur details (see the ear and snout fur).
Changing Animal Heads
Animals are notorious for not sitting still, blinking, looking away at an inopportune moment, or otherwise being uncooperative for photographs. A very common practice in animal photography is to swap the heads out.
Similarly to the aforementioned merging methods, follow all of the same steps. Make sure you pay attention to how the fur flows, and use that to your advantage when blending! In the photo example case here, the wolf’s neck and head were placed onto the body of the base image. After some basic additional retouching (cloning out the leash and lightening the eyes), I got the finished result.
Swapping Human Heads
Like animal photography, sometimes it is necessary to take a head from one image and put it on the body of another. Occasionally, you will like the model’s pose but not her facial expression, or like the model’s expression but not her pose. The key is to make sure you align the neck correctly, or else your model will look disfigured.
For a more detailed look at head swapping check out: How to do a Head Swap using Photoshop
There is a good overview of how to merge and combine images in Photoshop. If you didn’t know that the final images in the article had been altered could you tell they weren’t shot that way?
What other applications can you think of to use this technique? Please share your ideas in the comments below.