Take your designs and photography to a new level with insights on creating realistic (or super surreal) composite images.
Composite photography is a creative medium in which two or more separate and unique photographs are combined to create a new image.
Artists often use this medium to create fantastical pieces—think people with fishbowls for heads or robots being carried through the sky by a gaggle of geese. However it can also be a strong way to improve a more natural composition, such as replacing a disappointing sky in an otherwise perfect shot.
To that end, this is a medium with broad application—in everything from album covers to surrealist art—and allows for an abundance of creativity, making it a firm favorite with designers.
History of Composite Images
As a child, I had countless wild ideas. Being a designer allows me to realize those ideas in adulthood and incorporate them to my work. Many of these ideas involve dreaming up implausible worlds filled with far-fetched characters, and composites are a superb way of bringing them to life.
I’m hardly the first person to have this idea. Think of any ancient Egyptian frieze, filled with hieroglyphs, animals with human heads, and people twisted into odd forms. You’ve just experienced one of the earliest examples of composite imagery.
Before photography was invented, artists such as Salvador Dalí were dreaming up surrealist landscapes filled with oddities and idiosyncrasies. They composed worlds that could never have existed, through the mediums of ink and paint.
In the Victorian era, artists such as William Notham and Henry Peach Robinson, along with their staffs of up to 30 assistants and colorists, would begin combining actual photographs. They used rudimentary techniques to recolor their artwork to create an altogether different feel to the originals. The outcome was labor-intensive, expensive, and at the time, only for the wealthy.
Composite imagery can also take on animated forms. The work of Hayao Miyazaki, in films such as Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away, owe their otherworldly nature in large part to the anachronistic placement of real-world objects in unexpected environments.
Nowadays, photo editing software has brought a whole new dimension to composite photography. In addition to combining photos, we can also incorporate other elements and techniques, such as masking, layering, retouching, and coloring, to yet further improve our compositions. This non-destructive approach—in which we can try out multiple ideas and concepts without any danger of messing up—is now the gold-standard of composite creation.
Examples of the Medium
Composite images are used extensively in film marketing. You know the ones: those posters that contain a pyramid of its major characters, all stacked on top of each other, often in different sizes and perspectives. Notable examples include every Star Wars movie poster ever made. Or the iconic artwork for Silence of the Lambs, with Clarice’s face cast in blue, her pupils scarlet red, and that moth covering her mouth.
Music albums have plenty of examples too. Think Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, or Aladdin Sane by David Bowie.
Or think of advertising: there was that entire 10 year stretch in the early Naughties where it felt like almost every product that came in a can, a bottle, or a spray was either being dunked in chocolate or wrapped in a typhoon of citrus spray.
How Create a Composite Image
Creating a composite image isn’t difficult, however finessing it into a convincing final piece can take some practice. As with any design, the best compositions aren’t necessarily about your technical skills, but more about how strong your concept is to begin with.
Your concept will make or break your piece. Whether starting out creating composites for the first time or not, it’s usually best to keep things as simple as possible. Even composites that look technical, complex and involved are typically made up of only a handful of base images.
When deciding on a concept, something with a surreal or anachronistic component is a great start. It will force you to think about elements that wouldn’t normally be seen together, and therefore make for a stronger composite overall.
However, this isn’t always required. Many effective composite images simply replace a weak element of a photograph with another element to build a better image overall.
Do be careful with this latter approach. It’s generally not a good idea to pass off a composite image as a single exposure photograph. Many photographers and designers have found themselves in hot water by doing just that!
Choosing Your Photographs
One of the cornerstones of composite imagery is being able to confidently combine original images in a way that is believable. Much of this will come down to how the source images were shot. Composite photography is no different: the rules of photography still apply. If you use images in which the sun or a light source is casting shadows in polar opposite directions, for example, it’s going to be harder to combine those without either editing them extensively or mutating them in some way.
To that end, think ahead of time about the images you’d like to combine. If possible, shoot some original images along with any stock photography. That way you can ensure all the elements that make up the shot align in a pleasing—and convincing—manner.
So, you’ve got your principle ingredients. Now comes the fun bit: editing! We’ll cover the typical process of staging, subject, finessing, and cohesiveness.
First, let’s stage the piece. Here, we want to consider the environment, backdrop, or platform for the subject. It’s important to set the scene first. Your scene will frame the composition, and provide the context for how the overall piece looks in the end.
I’ve started with this fairly generic image of a road disappearing off into the distance, with a mountain range in the background, as my stage. The image is simple, and given its symmetrical nature, lends itself to applying a subject directly to the center of the image.
I’m not going to do much with this right now, as I want to get my subject in place before I start altering things. Given the perspective is central to the image, I think a subject that follows a similar perspective is likely going to create the best illusion.
Once staging is complete, think about your subject. Placement, scale, rotation, and location are all important factors. You’ve likely defined a lot of that while dreaming up your piece, but you may find as you start to compose that things don’t quite work out the way you’d pictured them in your head. It’s easy to think this will never work and trash the whole thing, but don’t!
Keep the faith. A lot of what makes a composite image work comes together towards the end of the process, so hang in there!
I’ve decided to go with a more surreal composite. I wanted to think about a subject that feels entirely incongruous to its staging, but also fits within the environment. I’ve decided to go with this person canoeing through the swamp. It could act as a fun subject to drop into a desert road scene!
Given the layout and perspective of both images match, it’s easy to bring the two images together. This may not be the case with your stage and subject, and that can actually work in your favor. Don’t be afraid to mix and match perspectives and sizing!
When adding your subject, blend modes and layer masks are your friends. Here I’m isolating the subject with a layer mask and layering it over the stage, as if the canoeist is paddling down the road. I realize that this may look even more surreal with some of the water included in the final composite, as if the road is acting as a waterway for the canoeist.
To achieve this, I select the Brush tool, ensure I’m using pure black, and paint back in the water over the road. Of course, you can no longer see the road, so the next stage is to use a blend mode to combine the two images. Using a simple Multiply blend, I can create the feeling that the road and the water are one and the same.
Things are starting to come together!
After primary concerns are complete, it’s worth reassessing your piece. Are there any additional elements you could bring in that would enhance the experience for the viewer, further build emotional connection, or help the piece to hang together better?
In this piece, I think setting the scene at night would make for a much more evocative image. The sky is pretty washed out in the staging image, and it’s probably the least interesting element overall.
Using Sky Replacement, I can choose from predefined skies, or, I can choose a night scene of my own. This new sky is bursting with stars, which provides our natural lighting for the piece.
The piece could really benefit from a secondary point of interest. I add a light source to the stage to provide the notion that there is a civilization perhaps atop the mountain range, or just behind it, which also acts as a reason for the canoeist heading this way.
Add some textural elements to the water to give the scene a more realistic feel, as if there is vegetation just below the water. To achieve this, I’ve used a simple light trail image and blended it using Lighten.
When all your major elements are fixed in position, then it’s time to tackle color and composition. Here, we’re fixing to build that cohesive composite, which will ramp up realism and believability for the viewer.
Finally, to color. Until this point, the image is looking good, but it still feels like many images collaged together. There is nothing wrong with that aesthetic, but in this piece I’m aiming for a hyperrealistic style, so I need to use blend modes to bring everything together.
As red dominates the subject, both in the person’s hat and the canoe, I add a gradient map that enhances that color profile across the entire image. At this point, things are going to look a little funky, but don’t fret, we’ll sort that in the next step!
By using Exclusion blend mode, we can flatten out the color adjustment so that it highlights the elements more naturally. Finally, I adjust the brightness and contrast, and the offset, to bring shadows and highlights closer together, which will act as a cohesive bond between all the original images. I prefer my compositions to favor less contrast, so I apply a slight fade via the Curves panel to finish the aesthetic.
Composite images are everywhere. Some are obviously made of separate images collaged together, often used to bake in a surrealist twist. However, composite images are also used less evidently, perhaps to swap out a background, improve an overall composition, or make additions or subtractions to a shot that wasn’t quite right at the time of creation.
From ads to album covers, composite photos have become commonplace as a way to engage, excite, and enthrall. And, once you get the hang of the technicalities of the process, composites are wildly satisfying for designers to create!
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