A digital composite is the result of digitally manipulating and assembling multiple images to create a single integrated final image. One of images in my fine art nude portfolio is an example of a digital composite created in Photoshop from two separate images. It’s not unusual for people to ask me how I got the model to cooperate with shooting on location and they’re surprised to hear that she was actually photographed in the studio. To me, that means I succeeded with what I set out to do: Combine two separate photographs, taken years apart at different locations and under completely different conditions, into one believable final image.
Erin was visiting from Korea, and before she returned home she wanted to do something she said she probably wouldn’t have the courage or opportunity to do in her home country – have an elegant nude portrait taken. There were several shots that we liked from our shoot together, but I wanted to take this particular one a step further and incorporate a bit of our southwestern U.S. landscape into the image to remind her of her visit.
The first step was to settle on a photograph that I could use as the “backdrop”.
I spent some time going through my archive of old photographs, looking for potential candidates and being mindful of lighting conditions that were similar or could pass as similar to the lighting that I had used in the studio. Getting the lighting to match is one of the most important steps in making a believable composite. I settled on a photograph I had taken a couple of years earlier outside of Phoenix during our summer monsoon season. I liked the idea of having her laying down on the roadway, and since the sunlight was diffused by the clouds, I knew that I could fairly easily make the two images work together.
I worked with the roadway photograph in Photoshop and gave it a bit of sepia tone, then dodged and burned the clouds for a more dramatic effect.
Next, I pulled the edited roadway image into the image of Erin, creating a layer above the image of her. I then added a layer mask because I wanted to be able to precisely mask off the area that her body would occupy on the road. Some people have problems understanding layer masks. I start by looking at the color of the mask; if the mask is white, I paint with black. If the mask is black, I paint with white. That doesn’t really explain how they work, but it’s enough to get you going if you can’t remember what to do. In this case, since the mask is white, I paint with black in the mask – not the image itself – to begin exposing her body.
Note: An alternative method would be to fill the layer mask with black, hiding the roadway image completely, then painting in white on the mask to expose the roadway image gradually, working from the outside of the image toward her body.
The beauty of working with masks is you can work back and forth with the black and white brushes, exposing more or less of the underlying image without affecting the pixels directly. This is known as “non-destructive” editing. By contrast, if I erased portions of the roadway image, I would be removing pixels from the image layers and would have to use the history brush to bring them back. And if I saved and closed the image to work on it later, those pixels would no longer be available. With the layer mask method, all of the pixels from both image layers are always there until I decide to flatten the image.
The following images illustrate the sequence (click on any image for a larger view). In the third image, I wanted to add more drama to the clouds, so I copied the roadway layer, then shifted it to the left to show the clouds on the right side of the photograph (see the original, above). Then, I masked off the bottom of the photo, revealing the two bottom layers in the unmasked area.