Category Archives: Photography Tutorial

How to Do Composites in Photoshop CS2

I can never ever get both my children to look at me and make a nice expression in the same shot. So I use an old version of Photoshop to put together two different photos – one for each kid. I use the old version because it’s free to download – Adobe stopped providing support for it,so you use it at your own risk. Newer versions of Photoshop should work in much the same way, however; layers are the basis of all Photoshop work!

1. First, open your photos in Photoshop. You should have 2 files.  I chose one where my son had a striking pose (the left photo) and one where my daughter had a good pose (the right photo).



2. Next, choose the “Move” tool and click on one of your photos and drag it ontop of the other.

Composite_2_Move Tool


3.  I chose to put the right-most photo on top of the left photo. If you look in the bottom-right corner of Photoshop, you’ll see that I now have 2 layers listed (“Background”, and “Layer 1″ on top of that).



4. You’re going to need to line up your layers. When you position one photo on top of the other, you completely cover up the Background, so you’ll need to adjust the opacity of the top-most layer (“Layer 1″) to line up any elements both photos have in common. For my photo, that’s going to be the window and wooden planks of the cabin.Composite_4_LineUp-2Layers5. Adjust the opacity of the top-most layer to line it up. The opacity slider is found right above the Layers list in the bottom-left menu. Adjust it to something like 50% to see your two photos together.



6. They look funny together! Use the move tool to move this layer. Alternately, you can use the arrow buttons to make minute changes.



7. Next you’re going to add a “mask” to your top layer (“Layer 1″). You can manipulate this mask to show (or not) layers beneath it without affecting the layer itself. You add the mask by pushing the button on the bottom-right menu that has the white circle in the grey rectangle. Make sure you have “Layer 1″ chosen to add the mask to the right layer.

Composite_7_Add Layer Mask


8. You should  now have a white box next to your top layer.

Composite_8-5_LayerMaskBoxClick on that white box to make sure you have the Layer Mask chosen, and then navigate over to the left-most toolbar. Choose the “Brush” icon. When you’re working with a Layer Mask (as opposed to an actual layer), you work only with Black and White. If you “paint” in black, you reveal what’s in the layer below the one you’re “painting.” If you “paint” in white, you show the top layer.

Composite_8_Choose Brush-BorWhite


9. Adjust your brush settings from the top menu by pressing the little down arrow next to “Brush” on the top menu. I work with a very large brush (~450) and set the “Hardness” to a very low number. The “Hardness” affects how much of an edge the brush will have. Having a softer brush will allow the tones to blend it better. If I were doing a hard edge, I would choose a much harder brush to get a more defined line.



10. Use your brush to paint over the thing you want to go away from your top layer to reveal the image from the bottom layer. In my case, I paint over my son’s image to reveal the more photogenic pose in the Background layer. In the example below, you see the bottom layer being revealed in the main window while the bottom-right Layer menu shows the black lines to reveal where the Mask is being applied.



11. Paint over the entire section you want to replace. If you paint too much, then toggle the Brush color to white and paint back over the black on the Layer Mask. You can see that my Layer Mask is black to reveal the pose on the Background Layer of my son while the white portion of the Layer Mask leaves the pose of my daughter from Layer 1 intact.



12. Use the top menu to save your file. You’ll need to save as jpg if you want to print or post your photo anywhere, but you should also save as a Photoshop file if you ever think you’ll want to work on your layers again.

This is a very, very basic overview of how to make a composite. Good Photoshop habits would include making a copy of the Background layer as insurance in case you have to work on that layer, re-naming your layers so if you end up with 7 or 8 layers you can easily switch between them, etc. etc. because Photoshop is NOT forgiving if you take a wrong turn during your work. Thankfully Lightroom has rendered almost all of this moot – except for when it comes to photographing two children!





Last Leaf: The Process of Development

Last weekend, I had a spare hour around noon, so the family headed out to Prairie Creek Park in Richardson, Texas. On paper, it looked like a good park. In reality, it was one trail that crisscrossed over a small creek; no matter what direction you looked, you could always see houses. I prefer to get further off the beaten path, but I decided to take what I could get.

Nothing besides the daffodils were blooming, there was a wind advisory in effect, and the cloudless blue sky didn’t bode well, but I was determined to come home with something. When I spotted a branch with a solitary leaf that was catching the light of the sun, I snapped two photos. In both, the wind was blowing, so I just had to fire when the leaf itself came in focus. In the first, the background was far too busy, and I couldn’t see how I could mitigate that while staying in portrait orientation, so I switched to landscape and took one more shot.

Take #1:

Last Leaf: Take #1

Take #2:

Last Leaf: Take #2

I felt like I could work with the second one, so I started the process of developing it in Lightroom. For me, that mostly entails scrolling through the presets I’ve already made and watching the preview screen in the top left. When I see something I like, I apply those settings and use that as a jumping off point.

Many times, I’ll reach a certain point and feel like it might be done, but that I might be able to take it in another direction. In that case, I make a copy of the file and keep working. I still have the other version right next to it to refer to, and sometimes the first version turns out to be the better version. Sometimes the changes are so minute that a week later, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the differences just by looking. Sometimes they’re radical changes. Most often, they’re just the difference between a black-and-white and color version.

In the case of this leaf, I found a color preset I liked, worked on it for a minute or two, and then I immediately decided it would work best as black-and-white. So I used the color version to start a black-and-white process. After I reached a point where I was very happy with the outcome, I had to see what it would look like in color with those same settings. I wish that the process were as easy as just moving the saturation slider from 0, but unfortunately, I usually get a strong black-and-white by adjusting the white balance to a garish blue-tone and then changing the calibration to suit my whims.  The luminance of each color is fine-tuned so that the right colors “pop” (even in black-and-white!), so those all had to be re-adjusted to suit a color version.

I ended up with a few different versions:

Last Leaf: 3 Iterations

Last Leaf: More Iterations

The first you see above is the original. The second is the one with a preset applied, and then some changes to work with this individual photo. The third used the second as a starting point, but with MANY changes to get it to a black-and-white that I liked. I almost stopped there, but then I had to see a color version. The fourth ended up too bright, somehow, so the fifth toned things down but was too dark. The sixth actually hit the mark and ended up as the one I went with (despite that three-star rating!), and the seventh was a black-and-white version that started from a totally different place than all the others.

In the next post, I’ll show the steps that took it from its original form to the finished product.

The Purples: Actually Getting the Shot

I’ve posted this picture before, but I feel it warrants another view. This is how I looked one day after some serious macro shooting:

Macro shooting isn’t easy. Lots of shot require you to get seriously down into the dirt so that you have the most interesting vantage point. Of course, that doesn’t apply if you’re shooting in a controlled environment with subjects you control, but I like to get out into the countryside and shoot things in the “wild.” And I don’t like carrying around a tripod, so usually it’s just me, my camera, and my lens. There’s always the wind to contend with, and sometimes I sit or lie in the most ungraceful and uncomfortable of poses to wait for everything to be still only to have a mosquito start biting me just as I need to take the shot (important note: it’s possible to ignore mosquitoes that are biting your face. Not recommended, but possible). And then once you’re there, all settled in the mud, you still have to find that one angle that works. A half-inch move to the right can make all the difference. I was reminded of that when I was shooting the little purple flowers that I’ve been posting about here.

I started with this, which is a pretty typical shot for me. I was shooting in aperture-priority @ f/2.8 with my 100mm macro lens. With an ISO 200 and shutter speed of 1/200th, I set the EV compensation to -.7  (almost a full stop darker than the camera thought it should be):

I tend to like slightly underexposed macro shots because I can do so much more with them in the post-processing stage, but looking at this one, I thought that there might be a more interesting angle. I tried to get a little lower to get that flower on the left to take a more prominent role in the picture, but that dark spot that you can see in the top of the photo above became even more prominent. Since I personally subscribe to the idea that backgrounds are just as important as subjects, this wasn’t going to work:

So that meant there was only one thing to do: move to the next flowers. The background looked slightly more promising at a group of three flowers that were to the right of these two. So I took a test shot with my camera still in aperture-priority mode. It’s also important to note that I use spot-metering, so the camera chooses its settings based off a relatively small area in the center of the frame rather than try to expose for the entire frame. So with those settings and with my first attempt at framing these artfullly, I got this:

Meh. Not much I can do with that.

I changed my EV compensation to +.3 and moved around the flower so that the highest bloom was even closer to the camera. At 100mm and f/2.8 and ISO 200, I got a shutter speed of 1/400th for this shot:

Better, better, but that bloom in the back was driving me nuts. Time to rotate around even more and see what I could do about getting a composition I liked. Of course, that meant that the background would change too…

…which it definitely did. It’s almost black, and just a bump in contrast would have made it nearly completely so. But this is definitely one of the benefits of spot metering: because the camera didn’t try to expose for the entire dark frame, the flower I wanted to be well-exposed is (well, slightly under-exposed, but I told the camera to do that). That bloom in the back is still making it hard to let that forward bloom really pop out at you, so time to move again, this time an inch or to clockwise.

NOW we’re getting somewhere! I like how the light is filtering in, but I’m a little worried that the bloom is pointing to the left and the light is to the right. When I think about how I want my eyes to rove over the finished picture, I’m a little worried that the two might compete for attention – the bloom will naturally draw the eyes to the left while the bright portion will draw them to the right. So let’s move up an inch or so and try to put that bright portion behind the blooms:

Well, the bright portion is more where I want it, but leaving the camera set to -.3 EV was obviously a mistake. But look at how you can see the curl of that back bloom now! All that’s needed is to change the EV compensation to +.3 to make the scene brighter…

…and the camera responds exactly the way I want it to. Instead of a shutter speed of 1/1000th, I got 1/250th. Compositionally, the bright bit leads up to the top left, just like the flower. So all I have to do is add a little Lightroom magic (take a look at the two previous posts if you have a strong stomach and lots of free time), and voilà!