Hey you fantastic F Stop Loungers! In the first part of this trilogy, we looked at a few creative ways to play with flash. We then covered hard vs soft light, including some examples of both. And now it’s time to put it all together: how to match your lighting when compositing two or more photos together!
So why would we want to composite multiple photos together? Because it gives us practically unlimited possibilities; we can create anything our heart desires! It also means if we have our camera with us and happen to see an awesome background but don’t have an interesting subject, we can still make the photo by taking a shot of the background and then adding in the subject later. Finally, compositing is fairly challenging, and challenges are always fun. Or scary. I can’t remember which.
Now, the aim of this article isn’t to cover every single minutia about compositing multiple photos together. It’s a pretty complex topic and we’d be here for hours! Rather, I’ll give a few examples of what does and doesn’t work with respect to the lighting to hopefully encourage you to give it a crack yourself, because it’s a heck of a lot of fun. So let’s dive right in!
How to Get Started
In order to composite multiple photos together, you’ll need an image-editing program. GIMP is free, but not as comprehensive as Photoshop. Photoshop has a free 30-day trial you can play with, or there’s Photoshop Elements, a cheaper version which does most of what the full version does.
Cutting Your Subject Out
There are a myriad of free tutorials out there to teach you how to cut a subject out of a background. There’s even a few Youtube playlists containing lots more tutorials! If you feel like jumping into more advanced compositing, Phlearn.com has a few (paid) tutorials which go into crazy amounts of depth about compositing – this one is a pretty good introduction. Of course, if you have any questions about cutting subjects out or compositing in general, feel free to shoot me a message and I’ll do my best to help!
Where to Get Backgrounds
The best way to get backgrounds is to start a collection by shooting a lot of photos whenever you’re out and about – beautiful landscapes, pretty street scenes, interesting walls, nice backdrops, etc. You can also grab free stock images from FreeImages.com, among other sites. Just remember to always credit the original photographer if you use free stock images. And in some cases you’ll need to ask the photographer before using his or her images, so always check!
Once we’ve got our background ready to go, we want to shoot our subject, ready to cut them out and put them on the background. (It’s always easier to choose the background first and then shoot your subject in a way that mimics the lighting conditions of the background.) When shooting the subject there’s a few things to keep in mind when lighting, including:
Hard vs Soft Light
If we want to create a believable composite, it helps to match the lighting of our subject to the lighting of the background. If the background was taken on a cloudy day (extremely soft light), it usually looks a little odd if we try to add in a subject who was shot under hard light such as flashes or midday sun. And a subject shot under soft light will look a bit out of place in a hard-lit background scene.
In the first shot on the left, I photographed myself using a flash (a hard light source) directly to the left of me. I clearly don’t fit that well into the background. The second shot was taken inside my apartment with all the lights turned off and no flash, using a long shutter speed. This gives a very soft light so I match the background (also soft light) much better.
Pretty obvious one: If our background was taken with the strongest light source coming in from the left, it looks very strange to have the subject lit from the right. You can always tell the direction the light was coming from by the direction of the shadows.
It’s subtle, but your eye can instinctively tell there’s something wrong with the first photo. The second photo looks a lot more believable as the subject and background are lit from the same direction.
If our background has a yellow/orange tint to it (eg it was taken during sunset/sunrise), we’d be wise to shoot our subject under similarly-coloured lighting conditions. We can change the colour of the lighting by using coloured gels, by changing the white balance setting on the camera or by shooting during different times of day. And don’t be shy about praying to the Sun God Ra for better lighting conditions.
In the first photo above, the subject is clearly too blue and sticks out like a sore thumb. I had taken the background shot of Hosier Lane during late afternoon sun, so there’s a bit of yellow to it. The subject (me) was taken inside my apartment using flashes, which are traditionally a cooler (more blue) light.
The second photo of me is more yellow and matches the background better. I achieved this by adjusting my camera’s white balance settings. I also could have used coloured gels, or changed the colour in Lightroom/Photoshop/Microsoft Paint.
Brightness is a pretty obvious one; if your subject is too brightly or too dimly lit, they won’t fit into the background. This is much harder to get perfect in camera, but luckily it’s not as hard to fix in Photoshop/Lightroom compared to things like hard vs soft light or the direction of the light.
In the first shot, the subject is too bright – especially if you take a look at the feet, which almost look as if they’re glowing. The second photo matches the background much better.
Contrast and Saturation
Contrast and Saturation are affected by everything we’ve mentioned above, as well as your camera settings. If you nail the above factors, your contrast and saturation should be in the right ballpark. If they’re off by a little bit, it’s a fairly easy fix in Lightroom/Photoshop.
So that covers the basics of lighting for a composite! If it seems like a lot, don’t stress – it gets easier to manage these factors the more you practice compositing. It’s all common-sense stuff that becomes second-nature as time goes on. Really, it all boils down to one general idea: shoot your subject in similar lighting conditions to your background.
The effort of compositing is definitely worth it because you can create photos which would have been very difficult or even impossible. Not to mention you get to tell all your friends, family and pets how much of a Photoshop guru you are! A few composite examples (click to enlarge):
So why not go out and give compositing a go yourself? Take a background photo, and then take a separate photo of your subject. Make sure to match your subject’s lighting to your background shot! You can even try lighting your subject a few different ways to get a feel for what works best with different backgrounds. Then have a go at compositing the two photos together in your image editor!
Thanks for reading, feel free to drop a comment below and let me know what you think. Send me a link if you make a composite, I’d love to see the results.
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