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Making a Simple Composite

Making a composite, where you take your subject (or part of one image) and put them on an entirely different background is incredibly popular and surprisingly easy. There are a few things you need to watch out for, and there are a couple of little tricks you can do to help make the final composite look realistic, but they really make a big difference. Here, we’re going to create a simple composite where we have Photoshop select our subject for us (with it doing all the work), then we’ll copy-and-paste our subject onto a different background, and then we’ll use a little color trick to bring it all together.

Step One:

Here’s our background image. I like this particular background because we have a foreground area that’s in focus (the light bulbs right up front), and then the background behind them is nice and out of focus, so it’ll make a realistic background for a composite. So, step one is to open a background image (and, of course, I made this image available for you to download on the book’s companion webpage. You can find the download link in the book’s introduction).

Step Two:

Next, let’s open the subject image we want to composite onto the background. In this case, our subject was shot on a gray roll of seamless paper, and Photoshop loves a neutral color like that (or just any solid-colored wall) when you’re trying to remove someone from a background. That’s one reason why I shoot on gray seamless paper so often—it makes removing my subject from the background really easy. In fact, all you need to do is go under the Select menu and choose Subject (as shown here) and Photoshop will use its AI power to recognize that it’s a person in the photo and put a selection around them for you, hair and all, and it does a pretty decent job of it (although, in a later chapter, we’ll go in-depth on taking tricky hair selections up a big notch, but for everyday stuff like this, Select Subject does a decent job).

Step Three:

Now that our subject is selected, press Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J) to put her up on her own separate layer above the Background layer. It’s hard to see that our subject is isolated while the original Background layer is still visible, so go to the Layers panel and click on the eye icon to the left of the Background layer to hide it from view (as seen here). Now we see our subject on a transparent background (that gray-and-white checkerboard she’s on indicates the transparent areas). You’ll notice it did a decent job on her hair here, but in the next step, we’ll do a little trick I’ve been using for years that fills in any gaps, particularly around the edges, and makes the selection that much stronger.

Step Four:

The trick is to duplicate the subject layer twice (so you have three layers in all), so press Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J) twice. This “builds up” any pixels that tend to fall out along the edges of the hair, and it does a great job of just filling things in (as seen here). By the way, at this small size, it might not be as apparent, but when you try it on your own computer, you’ll really see the difference I’m talking about. This is so worth doing. Now that we have this buildup, we want to combine these three subject layers into a single layer, so press-and-hold the Command (PC: Ctrl) key, and then in the Layers panel, click on the other two subject layers (Layer 1 copy, and Layer 1). With all three selected, press Command-E (PC: Ctrl-E) to combine them into a single layer. Now, let’s Copy that subject layer into memory by pressing Command-C (PC: Ctrl-C). Okay, that’s the hard part (I told you this was simple); now onto the fun part.

Step Five:

Now, let’s go back to our background image document and press Command-V (PC: Ctrl-V) to Paste our subject onto that background. Get the Move tool from the top of Toolbox (you can press the V key on your keyboard as a shortcut), and let’s click-and-drag her up a little in the image, so that the top of her hat extends out of the top of the frame (as shown here). In the Layers panel, you’ll see a new layer with her on it. Now, if you look at the right side of the image, you’ll see that the ends of her hair have a bit of a glow or fringe around them, but there are a couple of quick tricks we can do that will generally help in situations like this (again, we’ll cover tricky hair selections later on).

Step Six:

The first thing I would try is a feature that often helps remove that glow or fringe look. So, go under the Layer menu, and at the very bottom, under Matting, choose Defringe. When its dialog appears, enter 3 pixels for starters (as seen in the inset), click OK, and see if that does the trick. If it’s not enough, press Command-Z (PC: Ctrl-Z) to Undo and try it again with a higher number (like 5 pixels or 10 pixels). In this case, while it did help, it didn’t totally fix it, so let’s undo it and try another method. Go under the Layer menu again, under Matting, but this time choose Remove White Matte (as shown here), and it replaces those lighter edge pixels with a darker color. In this case, that worked pretty well, but it just depends on the image (sometimes it’s awesome; sometimes it’s awful. Again, it just depends on the image).

Step Seven:

When I’m toward the end of a composite, I do a little move that unifies the subject with the background, which helps make the subject look more like they’re really in that scene. What I do is, I apply a color toning to the entire image, and it really brings things together. We’ll use the Creative Profiles inside Camera Raw to do this, but first, we need to merge the two layers we have into a single Background layer, so when we apply the effect, it applies it to both at the same time. So, with your subject layer active in the Layers panel, press Command-E (PC: Ctrl-E) to merge it with the Background layer below it. Now, we can go under the Filter menu and choose Camera Raw Filter. When its window appears, in the Edit panel, to the right of the Profile pop-up menu, click on the icon with the four small squares. This brings up the Profile browser (as seen here). There are four sets of Creative Profiles and you can see a live onscreen preview of any one of them by just hovering your cursor over a thumbnail. Here, I went down to the Vintage collection of profiles and the one I liked best was Vintage 04 (as seen above). When you click on it, it applies that color toning to the entire image, which helps to visually unify your subject in the foreground with the background.

Step Eight:

After you’ve applied the profile, click on the Back arrow at the top left of the Profile browser to close it. Then, to finish things up, let’s add a finishing move that I do to nearly every portrait to help focus the attention on the subject. Go down to the Effects panel and drag the Vignetting slider just a bit to the left to subtly darken the outside edges all the way around the image (here, I dragged it to –18). Click OK to close Camera Raw and we’re done with our simple composite.

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