Creating Composite Images

April 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Well, the sun actually came out today for the first time in what seems like months so I am guessing spring is finally on the way. It also means it is high time I posted something new on here to keep you all interested!

It was an enormous pleasure to photograph a new band the other day and I thought it would be fun to create a composite of some of the images. In this blog I want to show you how I, and I am not saying it is the correct or only way to do this kind of thing, created a montage of the band members.

The technique I use involves adding a layer mask to an image and then painting out the bits I do not want to see in the final image. I repeat this for all of the individual images I want in the final montage and then basically stack the layers and their layer masks on top of each other. Sound confusing? It's not really and hopefully I will explain it here.

I took these 6 images to start off with. These were originally colour images but I had already converted most of them to black and white.

I usually start by creating myself a blank canvas to work on by going to File->New, choosing a width and height, setting the resolution to 300 dpi (my preferred print resolution) and ensuring the colour mode is RGB.

Next I open up my first image. Let's take our first image to be in the montage.



Use the Command A or CTRL A key combination (Mac or Windows) to select the whole image followed by Command or CTRL C to copy the image into the computer clipboard. Now select the blank canvas you created at the start and hit Command V or CTRL V to paste the selected image into the canvas. You can use Command T or CTRL T to select the transform tool which will allow you to resize or rotate the image after you have pasted it in. When resizing hold down the SHIFT key at the same time to keep the aspect ratio and not squash or distort your original image. We now start working on our new canvas and can close the original picture if you want.

I first want to add a layer mask to the image.  The layer mask will allow me to apply an effect to selected areas of the image. The easiest way to add a layer mask is to click on the layer mask icon on the bottom right of the PhotoShop screen as shown above. If the Layers palette is not being displayed go to Window->Layers to display it.  You will see PhotoShop puts a small white rectangle next to the thumbnail image in the Layers palette as shown in the image above.

Now all we have to do is paint black into the parts we want to hide from the final composite.

Select the brush tool from the tool bar. Hit the 'D' key to set the default colours for the foreground and background (black and white). To start with set the opacity to 100% and then finally make sure you have clicked on the white rectangle mask icon on the Layer Palette to ensure that you are about to paint on the mask and not the image itself.

Work roughly to start with with a large brush to remove the bulk of the image you do not want in the final composite.  Then as you get closer to the details, i.e. around the edges of what you want to keep, use a smaller brush (you can use the left and right square bracket keys [] to reduce or increase the brush size). You can also reduce the opacity of the brush - I drop it down to 20-30%. I find that reducing the opacity helps around areas like hair because it just fades the image. You will loose details in fine hair but fading the image allows you to blend it into the final background colour (I use black a lot for the background) and have a more pleasing effect than a sharp cut out. Also with composites you usually want to blend images over the top of each other. You'll need to take some time over this. If you make a mistake or want to 'un-fade' a bit you simply swap your foreground colour to white and paint back in the bit you have hidden. Swapping between black and white foreground colours, and adjusting the opacity and brush size allows a lot of control.  There are quick masks and things in Photoshop but this method provides me with the most flexibility.

Eventually you end up with an image like the one below.


Around about now I find it a good idea to drop my back ground in. I do this by adding a new layer and using the fill tool to paint it whatever colour I want.

Create a new layer by hitting the icon that looks like a piece of paper with a turned corner on bottom right hand side of the screen.  You will see it create a new layer on the layer palette (in the above example it is layer 2 because I already have other layers although I have renamed them. The fill tool is the bucket on the left hand tool bar. Select this and then click on the layer. It will be filled with the foreground colour you have selected. You may need to click and drag the layer to the bottom of the layers palette as it is shown on the above example. By being at the bottom it ensure it is behind any other layers (thus showing you beautifully cut out image). 

Now open up your next image and repeat process of copying it to the clipboard, pasting it into the composite canvas, resizing it and positioning it as you want,  adding a layer mask, and painting out the bits you do not want.

You can hide layers by clicking on the little eye symbol next to the image thumbnail in the layer palette.

Hiding the background layer sometimes helps you see where you may need to tidy up an image. As you build up layers in you final composite make sure you click on the layer mask icon to the right of the image icon in the layer palette before painting black and white into it to hide or show details. In the example above you can see I have renamed the layers I have added. You can do this by double clicking on the layer title and changing it. 

In the above example you will see I have hidden all of the other band members and the background.

You can use the move tool to reposition a layer.

Click on the move tool icon on the top left of the tool bar as shown above. Now select the layer you want to reposition by clicking on the image thumbnail (not the mask) in the layer palette on the right. Click on the image and drag and drop to reposition the layer. You will want to do this as you add the layers in to get them where you want them.

Finally make all the layers visible to see the whole composite. You can still select individual layer masks and using the paint brush with black and white foreground colours to fade or repair area on an individual layer. Usually it is not until you put them all together you see where an area needs to be blended a bit more.

Also keep in mind the closer to the top of the layer palette a layer is the closer to the front it will be in the final composite. So, if you want one layer to be behind another drop it down the list until it is under the layer you want in front. 

Once you have your composition as you want it you can crop any un-necessary canvas area or add borders etc to finish off you image.

It is a bit of a whistle stop tour of how I create these composites but hopefully you can follow the basic process. Feel free to comment or ask questions.




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