Photoshop Compositing Tutorial
As a Fine art Photographer situated in Johannesburg, South Africa, I prefer taking advantage of my natural surroundings. All my sessions take place on location. This love for the outdoors is where my love for creating whimsical dream worlds comes from. I specializing in child and pet portraits and am greatly inspired by all of my subjects. I attempt to bring my imagination to life; illustrating something extraordinary and emotive, portraying childhood innocence. When working with imaginative children, I use my creativity and skills in creating composites to bring their imaginings to life too.
I became interested in composite photography primarily because of the creative aspects. However, I also initially embraced it as an aid to overcome some challenges I faced as a natural light photographer such as bad weather and dull locations.
What is a Composite Image in Photoshop?
Compositing is becoming increasingly popular as a way of creating images either real or surreal; your only limitation is your imagination. Now, what is a composite? A composite is a photograph made by combining several distinct photographs or stock images. Whether you are using your own photos or stock purchased online there is absolutely no right or wrong way in doing a composite. To me, Photoshop composites are art and art is subjective!
However, there is a down side to composite photography. Composites generally require much more work at the computer than an ordinary portrait and can be VERY time consuming. When clients request composite photographs, they should be produced at a higher price.
If your intention is not to market or sell composites then I encourage you to make use of this technique on a personal level and enjoy the digital creative experience.
As mentioned before “your only limitation is your imagination”. Composites can be extremely fun and emotionally rewarding; they give you the ability to bring your imagination to life. I would like to encourage you with these words “if you can imagine it, you can create it”.
How to Create a Photoshop Composite?
There are many methods to create a composite photograph. You will find some tutorials are much more in depth and require a great deal of Photoshop skills. This is not one of those tutorials.
In this Photoshop Compositing tutorial, I will be sharing the few easy steps I followed to create the magical and surreal composite I called “Rainy Days” illustrated below:
When I decide to create a new Composite, in preparation, I generally follow a few initial steps.These steps should improve the process of creating a new composite. I will be sharing each of these steps with you in detail.
Step 1: Choose a Concept for Your Composite
Get inspired. Brainstorm ideas. Sketch some designs. Go for the extraordinary, anything is possible. My inspiration for the “Rainy Days” composite was from a quote I found on Pinterest.
The quote said, “I’ll stand with you in the pouring rain, even though I know I could be dry, that’s what happens when you love someone, your happiness just doesn’t mean as much without theirs – JmStorm”
Step 2: Pull the Images Together
This is the fun part. The images needed could come from images you have taken. However, your photography skills need not limit your imagination. If you don't have the images you need to create a surreal composite, then I recommend stock images. There is a wide range of stock available on the net that can be purchased or downloaded for free from amazing stock image galleries/photographers from all over the world.
Step 3: Create Folders for the Composite
In preparation of a new composite I recommend creating a separate folder where the photo and stock images will be stored. In more detail, create the folder with the name of your composite and create sub folders as shown below. This process provides quick and easy access to your photo and stock selections.
For my composite the stock images I selected were a a bear, dark gloomy clouds and a leafless tree.
Step 4: Take a Photo of the Subject/Model
I mostly use models in my composites. Once you decide on your concept and have pulled together the images you need for the final composite image you have in mind, you can dress and pose your model accordingly.
Personally, I prefer to use my own photographs of models to give it my own special touch and also to bring out the magic of childhood. However, the composite world is broad and you definitely do not need a model to proceed. Should you choose not to use a model, you can stitch together a few separate elements and still create magic in your own way.
In this example my subject was posed in a sleeping position.
Once you have your concept, images (stock/photos/backgrounds) and subject in place, you should proceed with the cut out (removing background) or color and exposure adjustments for each image. I usually start with the cut out.
Step 5: Remove the Subject from the Background in Photoshop
This process is only required if you have images where you need to remove any background elements. Some images you can purchase are already PNG files with the background already removed. In the case of my “Rainy Days” example composite, both the bear and child required that I remove them from their backgrounds. The tree and sky were both ready-made PNG files. Both these files only required exposure, saturation and color balance tweaks.
To do this In Photoshop, I opened the sleeping child image, chose the Quick Selection Tool, and made a selection of the child only as illustrated in the below image. This is the only part of the image I need for the composite.
Once I was satisfied with my selection, I want to refine it even more. In older versions of Photoshop, you can right-click on the selection area or press the Refine Edge button on the top tool panel. In newer versions of Photoshop, you can right click on the selection and choose Select and Mask or press the Select and Mask button on the top tool panel.
The options that open up will allow you to refine your selection and make it as accurate as possible. Your selection will hardly ever be 100% perfect and that is okay. My selections in this panel normally look similar to the settings show below. I increase the Radius slider to between 3 and 4. I increase the Smooth slider to 12-14. The Shift Edge slider is generally moved to between 20-30%. You can also use the brush directly on your image to refine your selection even more. As you can see, my selection has included pieces of the background, nothing to be concerned about this early on in the process.
Once I made my adjustments, I hit okay. Now my subject is selected. I then right click again and select “Layer via Cut”.
By selecting this option you will be cutting your selection from the background and your selection will become a new layer on top of your background layer. Usually I delete the original background layer as I will no longer need it. Because the selection has been copied to a new layer you will be able to work on your selection separately.
Now that I have my selection on its own layer, in order to keep track of which layer is which, I rename it accordingly. Next, I will work to clean up my selection even more. To do this, I add a mask to the layer by clicking on the Vector Mask tool at the bottom of the Layers Panel in the Layers window (shown below).
Next I select the brush tool, I then make sure that the foreground is black as I will be masking off the excess selection. Using the brush tool along with fair amount of accuracy I zoom in and gently remove all excess edges clicking and dragging as shown below. If I mask off something that I want back in my image, I change the foreground color to white and paint over that area. Remember: Black will CONCEAL areas I don't want to see and white will REVEAL areas I do want to see.
Once I masked off all extra edges, I save the image as a PSD or PNG file as it will be used at a later stage in the composite.
Because you are combining unrelated images potentially containing many different exposures for both stock images and photos there will be some adjustments required. Once I am satisfied with my cut out image selections and I have saved them in their relative locations, I then shift my focus to the background image for my composite.
Step 6. Preparing the Background Image
My primary background for this composite is the moody clouds stock image. My vision for the “Rainy Days” composite was dark, watery, gloomy and emotional. Because this is only my background and I don’t really require much detail. Using Gaussian blur in Photoshop is a great way to control what level of detail you would like to include in your background.
To do this, first I open the image in Photoshop, then duplicate my layer using Cmd/Ctrl + J. Next go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and apply some blur to the image copy. For this image, I set it at 5.7.
For this particular composite background not much blur was required. It did however require more adjustments to fit in with my vision for the composite. Once I was happy with the outcome, I then merged the layers and duplicated the background again. As for adjustments, I usually play around with curves for a lighter or darker feel, this does change constantly throughout my composite edit. I always start with brightening just to see what I am dealing with. Once done, I merge again.
Now that the background is blurred and adjusted to my liking, the next step will be to prepare it for the flood (water) plug-in. I first need to extend my image. There are many methods available to this; I just normally use the crop tool which is quick and efficient.
I didn’t want to lose any part of the clouds, so I selected my crop tool and only extended the bottom a bit; it did however create a white crop extension but that will eventually disappear when you use the flood plug in. Should you not use the water plug-in on your composite then you can ignore this step.
All of my stock images are now prepared and ready to use, the cut outs are made and saved, the minor adjustments have been made and the background has been prepared for the flood (water) plug in. Initially when combining the images in Photoshop for Step 7 (below) the result will look scrambled and confusing. Do not be alarmed - this is where the fun part starts!
Step 7: Combining the Images into a Rough Composite
I will now combine my cut out images with the background in a rough composite, just like a puzzle. This step is probably the most exciting step. It is when you start seeing your vision come to life!
The sky image which was blurred and extended for the flood (water plug-in) will be the background image in Photoshop. I then place all the cut out images as layers on top of the background in order to move around and adjust as needed.
The tree image was selected as the platform for bear and child to sleep on. I placed the images in a centralized manner on the background. This was done to avoid as much negative space as possible. All of the images are in position. All that is required now is a few final tweaks and adjustments to finalize my composite.
Step 8: Enhancing the Details of the Composite
This can be tricky and will be completely dependent on the images you are working with. Usually my first step after placing all of the images together is to see where the light is positioned. In my example, the light is positioned in the top left corner. Now that I know this, I will start adding some shadows to the image.
There are a few methods for creating shadows. You can use your dodge tool, curves, or levels to achieve shadows. Because composites are a little time consuming, I generally use what I believe to be the quickest possible method to create shadows.
I have all of the layers stacked on top of the Background layer. In this composite, I want to create a shadow for the bear and sleeping child. Starting off with the bear, I hide all my layers except for the bear. I then highlight the bear layer, duplicate the bear layer by pressing Cmd/Ctrl +J, and then rename the new layer "bear shadow".
This will be the start of my shadow for the bear layer. I hide the original bear layer to reduce confusion in my layers panel. I then go to Levels>New Adjustment Layer>Levels to create a levels adjustment layer. In the dialog box that opens, I pull the left slider completely to the right in order to darken the image. The bear is now in a silhouette form. Then I select my levels layer and second bear layer and merge them together by right-clicking on one of the layers and choosing Merge Layers.
To complete the shadow layer I select Filter>Blur>Gaussian blur and adjust it to taste. I used 46.9 for this image. Once I have applied the change I merge the bear shadow layer and the new gaussian blur layer using the same method above.
And there it is, shadow layer created! I then unhide the original bear layer and move it on top of shadow layer - placing the shadow layer behind bear layer. Once I am satisfied with the shadow layer I then select the shadow layer and move it around until I find the best and most natural looking area for placement.
I will then replicate the above steps in order to create and position the shadow layer for the child layer. Once the shadow layers are created for the bear and child, I unhide the tree layer and background to make sure that the shadow placement is as accurate as possible. I then add a layer mask to each shadow layer and brushing off any excess shadows. I also adjust the opacity of the shadow layer for a more realistic effect.
For a more realistic out of focus feel I then blend in and blur specific areas like arms, legs and feet.
Once all of the shadow layers are in place I then merge the original layer and shadow layer together. Next, I select the Blur Tool (this tool looks like a rain drop) and change the Strength or Brush Opacity to 50% (try different percentages to achieve the look you are after). Then I paint blur on the outlined edges of the child and bear layers to blend in and blur these a touch. Once I am satisfied I merge these layers together.
The composite is now ready for the water (flood) plug-in filter. If you do not have this specific filter; you can purchase a flood (water) plug-in filter on the internet. I found one I really like from Flaming Pear. If you do not want to purchase the water (flood) filter you can install the trial version.
Once you make your selection on which flood (water) filter to purchase the installation should be quick and easy. When I purchased Flood from Flaming Pear I received a download folder which included the filter, license key and installation instructions. Once the filter was installed I went to my filter tab and the flood filter was automatically listed under the filters tab. I clicked on the filter and was presented with a welcome screen where I keyed in the licence key to activate.
As shown below, this is what the flood (water) plug-in from Flaming Pear looks like. This plug-in is user friendly, on the left you have sliders that can be adjusted and on the right the filter illustrates what each slider represents. The view section sliders is where you set the horizon, offset, perspective, altitude and spin of the water. The next section is where you set the waviness, complexity, brilliance and blur of the water. Your last section is where you adjust the size, height and undulation of the water ripples.
For this example composite I made minor adjustments to the view and water section sliders. I only required a still, slightly blurred water reflection to the composite. Once the flood (water) filter was applied, I then merged all layers together. The final step in completing the filter is to duplicate the background layer and to blend the horizon with the blur tool.
Step 9: Final Composite Edit and Adding Creative Touches
The final step to this Photoshop composite is adding some creative flare! In each composite creation, when reaching this step I select the curves adjustment layer to brighten or darken tones. I tend to brighten the subject and darken the surroundings because it creates more focus on the subject and gives a semi vignette feel to the composite. I then enhance the light source of the composite, which in this example is the top left corner.
Next, I select the levels adjustment layer where I set output levels to about 10. This will brighten the black tones and create a softer effect to the composite.
With the final edit or retouching step completed I wanted to enhance the composite by adding rain and fog. For this, I used the Fog and Rain Collection from Pretty Actions which I really love. They also have some other really great ones you can use to add to your own composites like beautiful clouds, bubbles, fairy wings, leaves and more!
What is a Photoshop Action? Actions are a series of steps that have been recorded by the creator. When purchasing actions/overlays from Pretty Actions, you will receive a folder containing the actions/overlays and installation instructions.
Photoshop Actions are easy to install. Open Photoshop, then go to the folder, double click on the .ATN file and Photoshop will install automatically. Once done, you can find the actions purchased by selecting Actions in the Windows tab as shown below.
To run the actions I simply opened the actions panel, chose the Rain Applicator action and then clicked the play icon (shown below).
When selecting play, you will be applying the overlay to the image. In the play process a screen will open asking you to find the overlay you want to apply. For my composite, I selected Rain 1. I also ran the Fog and Smoke Applicator action and chose Choppy 8 when asked to place that overlay.
Once the fog and rain overlays are applied to the composite, I select the brush tool and make sure that the foreground color is set to black. I then go to the mask layer next to each action to brush rain and fog off of my subjects. Once done, I merge the layers, save my work, and my Photoshop composite is complete!
Here is the composite image after the rain and then the fog are added:
Here is the final Photoshop Composite image once again!
Do you have any questions or comments about Creating Composite Images in Photoshop? Leave us a comment below - we would love to hear from you! And please share our tutorial using the social sharing buttons - we really appreciate it!
I am a fine art photographer with a great love for children and dogs situated in Boksburg, Gauteng. I offer a heart-warming experience while capturing life’s magical moments. The most important thing, at what I am doing, is the opportunity to link all three of my beloved passions, children, dogs and photography.