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Portrait Photography FuelTip: Three Keys to a Successful Composite Portrait

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In this excerpt from Introduction to Compositing: Creating Your First Composite Portrait, Eric Doggett offers some tips that will give you the best results when creating a composite portrait.

Fuel Books

From the book

In compositing, it’s important to match (as much as possible) all of the camera details related to your background, subject, and other elements. Some items to take note of are:

  • Matching the lens, ISO, and aperture of all the pieces of your image.
  • Matching the lighting of the subject with the lighting of the background.
  • Matching the camera height and angle of the subject with the background.

Now, on complex images, all of this talk of matching, angles, etc. can be quite overwhelming! For the project in this book, we’ll be going for an image that’s simple but realistic. To make the process as easy as possible, I’ve specifically chosen a subject and location that will look convincing with minimal effort. If you follow along with my thinking, your composite can be just as simple yet realistic. Here are some of my key decisions.

Shoot in Open Shade

I looked for a background location that was shaded, and then I photographed the subject in a shaded area. This meant that I didn’t have to worry about what the sun was doing. I didn’t need to match lighting direction or color.

Photograph from the Waist Up

It turns out the feet can tell you a lot about a composite image. Our brains can look at an image—specifically, where the feet touch the ground—and instantly decide whether it looks real or not. Unless you carefully match a subject with a background, all of your work on an image can be wasted if the feet look wrong. That’s why you don’t see the feet in a lot of composite images—it takes lots of thought and planning to get it right. For an example, take a look at the undisputed king of all composite categories, the movie poster. The next time you are at a theater, look at all the composited posters. Count the number of designs that have a full body shot, head to toe, composited into a different background. You won’t find that many, compared to tighter shots where the feet aren’t shown. It simply takes more time to get those feet composites right. It also locks you in to the composition, by which I mean that when you photograph someone (and their feet), and your camera is six feet off the ground, you pretty much need to find a background that you shot six feet off the ground. To make it easy for this project, I’ve photographed the subject from the waist up.

Showing the feet here means that I must photograph the background the same way as the subject.

As an example of where things can go wrong, look what happens when I take one of the kids from the previous image and move him into a background that I photographed randomly (A). Ignore the lighting and color differences—just look at the overall image. At first glance, it might look okay. We might think that we just need to add some shadows under his feet, match the exposure a bit, and we’ll be set. For this background, though, I intentionally shot it at an angle different than how I shot the subject. Let’s zoom in to the foot and see where this is a disaster (B).



Look at the contact area where his left foot hits the ground. We can actually see under the bottom of the shoe in this shot. The only way we would be able to see that in real life is if we were practically at ground level shooting him (which I was). But the background wasn’t shot that way. It was photographed with the camera high and pointed down. No amount of color correction, shadow creation, etc. is going to make this image work. It really cannot be “fixed.” In fact, this image would be easily eligible for! So let’s avoid showing the feet this time around!

Make Room for the Subject

When I photographed the background, I mentally placed the subject in the frame. I imagined her about six feet in front of me when I composed the image. I also made sure that the camera was about as high off the ground as it would be if she was there. Photographers sometimes get hung up on this; they pick a great background but the height isn’t convincing. As a viewer, we look at a waist-up image and mentally walk ourselves down to where the feet would be if they were in the scene. If the image doesn’t look like it would work (perhaps the angle on the background was too high, for example), then we instantly think “fake” and move on. So it’s important to think about this when taking your background picture. In fact, I always shoot several images of the same location at various heights, just to have options later on in post.

As you get further into compositing, you can experiment with matching background lighting with artificial lighting when you photograph your subject. In fact, many photographers will have a computer loaded with the background image handy when they are photographing their subject. That way, they can do an instant composite test to see how things are working out. But for now, we are starting simple: natural light, no feet. Now let’s talk a little bit about the background paper I used when shooting the subject’s portrait.

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