10 Things You Need to Know About Compositing in Photoshop
By Matt Kloskowski
1: Which Comes First, the Background or the Subject?
2: Stock Photography
3: Build a Background Image Library
Once you start shooting backgrounds, make sure you organize them. I’ve created a Backgrounds folder, and in that folder are categorized subfolders. You don’t have to have an official cataloging system—it doesn’t have to be that sophisticated. As your collection grows, though, you may want to consider a program like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (which I use for most of my photography), with all of its keywords and collections, but as you’re starting out, keep it simple.
4: Selections in Photoshop CS5 Rock!
5: Lighting is Everything
Most of the time, I use three lights: one main light up front to fill in the face and clothing, and then two lights on the sides that add a nice edge/accent light on the sides of the person. With two to three lights, you drastically increase your odds of getting a good selection from the background, as well as a head start to making the person fit into just about any other background. As for the back drop, generally the lighter the better.
The Main Light: The main light source here is what fills in the face and front of the subject. The modifier you put on this light pretty much controls the mood of the light on your subject. I typically use one of two modifiers: The first is a beauty dish (as seen here) with diffusion material over it. It gives a slightly more contrasty look to your subject, because it produces harsher shadows on the face. The other is a small-to-medium-sized Rotalux Deep Octa soft box (as seen in the second setup photo), which I tend to use more when photographing families and kids. It tends to give a softer, flatter look vs. the contrasty look the beauty dish gives.
Edge Lights: This is the key to this lighting setup. The edge lights produce a fairly hard light right along the edge of the person. I’ve seen people go from using no lighting modifier at all on these (just the bare bulb) to using large softboxes. For me, the size of the modifier is important here, but not critical. The most critical part is that there is some sort of edge light on the person. Don’t over think this part—just make sure there’s a light. Personally, I like to use a long strip bank softbox to get good coverage, from the subject’s face all the way down the side of their body. But, a small-to-medium-sized softbox, if you don’t have a strip light, can work really well, too. You’ll also notice that I use grids on these edge lights to help control the light and focus it where I want. Remember, we just want a hard edge light along the side of them. We don’t necessarily want that light to wrap around them and mix with the light coming from the front. With a grid, we can direct the light exactly where we want and get more controlled results.
Not every composite is going to start in the studio or be lit using a studio/off-camera lighting setup. Natural-light portraits can work for lots of composites, but you’re limited by that light. If you photograph someone in broad daylight at noon, you’re probably not going to be able to place them in a dark alley, and make it look real. You’ll be able to place them on another background that was shot at noon, but that’s about it.
6: Don't Kill Yourself on a Selection if the Detail Isn't Important
7: Darken the Feet
8: Don't Include the Feet
9: Color Gives Everything a Common Theme
10: The Compositor's Secret Weapon: Plug-ins
Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro Complete
Topaz Adjust by Topaz Labs
Knoll Light Factory for Photoshop by Red Giant Software You’ll notice I use a lot of lighting effects in the book. Lens flares and light streaks come in really handy to bring your composites to that next level of professionalism—things like enhancing the headlights on a car or light on a building, or adding a light source based on the way light is hitting your subject. You can do all of these things with layers, layer styles, and filters in Photoshop (and I did them in Photoshop in the book), but none of them give you the professional quality light effects that Knoll Light Factory does. That said, this one is probably the last one on my must-have list. It’s not cheap, at $149, so you’d have to balance the good parts with how much you’d actually use it.