If You Don’t Know Photocompositing, You Don’t Know Jack!

If you haven’t been using photocompositing, what cave have you been living in? The latest image editing applications offer a wide variety of powerful tools and effects that require almost no prior experience or photographic training. From the process of selecting the appropriate images to final output, imaging programs take the guesswork of photo-compositing. Many of the latest consumer-oriented applications, such as Adobe PhotoDeluxe and Microsoft Picture It!, include guided tutorials which walk users through the steps involved in integrating text, graphics and images.

You too can create photos this cheesy!

You too can create photos this cheesy!

But it has not always been so simple. Until not too long ago, photo-compositing required professional expertise. It was usually done by service bureaus and photo tabs. it involved expensive equipment and long hours of tedious masking and printing with little guarantee that the finished product would turn out as hoped. Hours of work could go down the drain with one errant spray from the airbrush. Traditional photo-compositing tricks and techniques took years to master.

As little as five years ago, digital-imaging programs that could handle complex photo-compositing were still extremely expensive. All that has changed. Today, even casual photographers who work with their images on computers can get involved in very sophisticated photo-compositing. All it takes is a way of getting images into the computer and an image-editing program. Even a low-end image-editing program will do.

Photo-composites can include calendars, greeting cards, family announcement, flyers and numerous other creative projects. But not all calendars, greeting cards and other projects with several images on them are photo-composites. Photo-composites are not just several photos put together, but rather specific elements from different photos merged seamlessly in the computer, to make the final design. With a little imagination, virtually any graphic and image can be successfully integrated into a composite in the computer.

Photographers interested in trying it can use any one of the newer consumer-oriented image-editing programs on the market. To be considered photo-compositors, digital-imaging photo applications should support image layers, the ability to work with different design elements on different layers of a composition. Layering is very helpful when working with numerous image, graphic and text elements. With it, modifications can be made to the individual elements at any time during the creative process. Layers are stacked one on top of the other. For output, the various layers are merged together.

Many of the consumer-oriented imaging programs support layering and are able to handle photo-compositing. Microsoft’s Picture It!, for example, walks users through the various steps involved in making a photo-composite. It starts out by listing the numerous preconfigured projects, including calendars, greeting cards and the like, it has been designed to create. Once the project type has been selected, it’s possible to select the specific design style from group of predefined templets.

It’s simply a matter of selecting the image to be incorporated into the design. All the guesswork of choosing the right text and placing it in the right position is taken care of by the program. It takes users through the process, step by step, making it possible to add or change text and add additional design elements such as graphics and clip art. This is low-level stuff, but it’s a good introduction to the process.

When more sophisticated compositing is called for, programs like Adobe Photoshop, Live Picture and Ron Scott’s QFX come into play. They provide an extensive selection of tools with which to edit and integrate images and graphics. These applications not only have the basic controls which regulate color balance, brightness and contrast, they include plug-ins that generate texture and special effects of all kinds.

The advanced programs include very sophisticated masking capabilities, making it easier to define the specific elements within an image that will be in incorporated into the composition That makes it much easier to select and match various image elements and combine them into a new cohesive image.

The Lady in the Lake composite image, for example, is made up of elements or layers from two different photographs that were combined with vector-based text. The original photograph is of the model in the sculpture garden setting. It includes the model, the various sculptures, the surrounding grass and background. The other photograph is a colorized, black-and-white image of a small lake in British Columbia. One image was scanned into the computer with a drum scanner, the other was scanned in with a flatbed scanner.

The image’s photographic elements were assembled in Photoshop by first using a combination of the Magic Wand and Lasso masking tools to select and then delete the areas of the photograph that were not to be used in the final composition. Once these extraneous elements had been removed, all that was left of the original image was the model and foreground sculpture, and several large transparent sections.

The photograph of the Canadian lake was subsequently loaded into Photoshop as a separate image and saved in its entirety to the clipboard. Once in the clipboard, the lake image was pasted under the original layer. Finally the two layers were merged and cleaned up. Vector-based text was added in Ulead’s PhotoImpact as a third layer.

Besides offering simple layering schemes, Photoshop and the Mac-based Live Picture also include transform layers that affect whatever is beneath them without actually changing the underlying data. These sophisticated layers are used, among other things, to warp, change contrast and adjust color. They’re also especially useful during the creation of many-layered images.

Photo-compositing, whether it’s done with an entry level program or a high-end package, is a lot of fun. It can be as much fun as photo composition in a camera’s viewfinder, and the results can certainly be a lot more bizarre.

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2 Responses to “If You Don’t Know Photocompositing, You Don’t Know Jack!”

  1. Fiona Travis says:

    Great article. I’m stunned how little there is on the web about photocompositing, particularly considering how important that skill can be to a fledgling graphic artist. It’s kind of appalling, actually. How are we supposed to learn if no one says anything.

    I appreciate the article. More, please!

    • Ully says:

      I appreciate the comment, Fiona. I will agree that this aspect of photo editing is not really spoken about very often. I’m glad I could help you out by posting this article!

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