One of the most common questions I get about compositing storytelling imagery is:
HOW DO I GET MY SUBJECT TO BLEND INTO THE BACKGROUND?
Shooting a subject in studio, cutting them out and placing them into a different scene is one of the holy grails of Photoshop skill and expertise. Students of the digital age strive for this because it gives you a competitive advantage. It’s something your customers cannot do. It elevates your creative expression and allows you take your art to a place otherwise not possible.
But it’s not as simple as Select, Cmd C, Cmd V. It’s the furthest thing from that!
I learned most of my skills from master compositor, Richard Sturdevant. He truly is a magnificent artist and has a knack for training people how to do what he does.
“The biggest mistake beginners make when first starting to composite is not taking the time to truly learn the process and tools needed. We live in a world where people want it right now or they loose interest. This is an art form and it takes time to be great at it. We have to fail so we can be great…so embrace the failures with this process and you will soon reap the rewards,” says Sturdevant.
It’s about learning to “see.” And that means evaluating five key components of ANY image and asking yourself if those qualities seamlessly work together to “sell the fake.” That’s where the C.L.A.S.P acronym comes in. I first learned about a shortened version of it from Ben Shirk, another MASTER compositor and someone I admire greatly. He teaches AMAZING workshops on Photoshop. I HIGHLY recommend! I added one more component of the acronym when I began compositing— the P for perspective.
Color has to do with the color temperature of your subject vs. your background. Do they match? Is it a warm scene? Cool scene? Red? In most set-up, contrived lighting situations, you will shoot your subject in a studio setting with strobes or continuous lights—- light that has a very daylight balanced, cool tone to it. If your background is a warm sunset scene, you will need to adjust the color tone of your subject.
Lighting direction is key and one of the BIGGEST mistakes beginning compositors make. If the light in your background is coming from a certain direction, you need to make sure it’s the same case with your subject. Not only that, but ask yourself if the light softness correlates between subject and background. If it’s soft, overcast conditions in your background, strong, hard kicker lighting is not going to look appropriate to the scene. Also, remember that light travels in a VERY straight line. It CANNOT bend. So evaluate where your highlights and shadows are. Is the light traveling appropriately in your scene? If the light is entering your scene from the upper right corner of the frame, then the shadows will all fall in the direction towards the lower left side of your screen. Make sense? It helps to study light and shadow in your daily place-to-place travels. Next time you are sitting in a coffee shop, study the way light highlights AND creates a shadow and how it travels in a straight line.
Almost every work of 2-dimensional art has a foreground, middle ground and background. The reason for this is it creates a sense of depth and dimension when looking at a flat surface. It makes you want to jump inside it. It suspends your belief in reality. Movies do this too. You are staring at a huge flat screen, but you feel like you are right there. Atmosphere helps to create that sense of distance and depth. Have you ever been in a beautiful scenic mountain town on a clear, beautiful day only to be disappointed that the mountains in the distance are half-concealed by a dusty haze in the sky? That’s “atmosphere.” You know they are far away because the light passing through the dust and debris in the sky scatters the light particles and creates the haze. It is a rare day, often a mildly breezy one (when the dust and smog lifts) when you can see crystal clearly in the distance. Atmosphere can also be portrayed in your images with fog, smoke and dust in and around your subject. It’s a great for beginners to help “blend” their subject with their surroundings.
How big should the subject be in relation to the background? This is a tough one and where a lot of beginners have trouble. It takes some time to learn to “see” it right. It depends HIGHLY on where the subject is placed (foreground, middle ground, background), and it can help to size them in relation to another common object they are near. For example, if you place a subject near a standard size door (which is 7-8 feet tall), make sure your subject is not to big or too small to go through the door. If they are forward (towards the foreground), then they would be a little bigger to make up for the closer distance to the camera, right?
This example here, the children on the bench are sized appropriately, however, if you look at mom standing next to the desk inside the window, she’s not quite right. A little better sizing would have made the perspective correct.
And perspective is perhaps one of the HARDEST components of compositing to see. It includes assessing size, as WELL as camera angle. You cannot shoot a subject with a wide angle lens and place them into a background that was shot with an 50mm normal lens. HOWEVER, if the subject will be the EXTREME foreground of the image, then you NEED to widen the angle of perspective on them.
As a subject moves further away from the lens, the compression of their view changes.
Lets look at like this. Imagine shooting a little kid in a field with a wide angle (30mm) lens. You are close to the child and LOW to the ground. He is the foreground. The edges of the frame will be distorted slightly from the center, right? The child himself will have some clear distortion as well. What about the center of the frame in the distance? It will look more normal. If someone was standing there and you cropped into the frame, it would almost appear as if you shot it with a 50mm lens, right?
Compositing like a pro means learning to see how physics dictates what will happen with light, size, perspective, camera angle and atmosphere. It’s not enough to just place the subject in the scene and match the color balance. Learn to see how mother nature would see it, and you will become a powerful artist who can easily “sell the fake.”