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Insights & Thoughts

Composite Photography: Does It Make You Less of A Photographer?

By Sparkle Hill on March 18th 2015

photography-digital art-compositesDay in and day out, I photograph children, families, high school seniors, and couples. I thoroughly enjoy what I do and the variety of genres I photograph. However, several months ago, it hit me. I needed to offer something unique to my area, something I do not see every day on my Facebook newsfeed from the other local photographers. I also felt that my typical sessions were holding back this awesome bottle of creativity buried inside of me just yearning to get out!

My Beginnings in Composite Photography

I began dabbling in composites. I turned to resources such as Phlearn and CreativeLive to soak in as much information as I could on the craft. I looked for inspiration from the some of the “greats” – Adrian Sommeling, Robin Chavez, and Joel Robinson. There was something about taking multiple images and blending them into one creative art piece that really fascinated me!

[REWIND: THE WHIMSICAL WORLD OF A SIX YEAR OLD – PORTRAITS BY ADRIAN SOMMELING]

I began doing research on stock images; where to find them, rights of usage (very important), etc. Some of my favorite sites so far are: DeviantArt, MorgueFile, and Shutterstock.

I needed to test the waters, per se. I began posting the images on my Facebook page around Christmas time to see if local potential clients had the same appreciation for them as I did. The response was wonderful! Comments and messages started pouring in.  Parents were really interested to know how we could make something like this happen for their children! I chose to get more practice in before offering them to clients, but made note of all who were interested so that I could contact them when the time came. 

This particular image is what sparked the interest amongst my Facebook followers:

I also shared the images in several photographer’s groups on Facebook. I quickly realized that some photographers viewed composites as making you less of a photographer, or cheating. I disagree with this opinion, and here is why.

As photographers, whether working with natural light or artificial lighting, we have to know how to see/manipulate the light. We need a deep understanding of depth of field and things like composition. When creating composite photographs, these are a few important things to keep in mind.

What Makes A Composite Believable? .

Perspective:  Whether you are combining two images or ten, the perspective must match throughout the image.

Depth of Field:  Placing just the right amount of blur in just right the right places is crucial to keeping the depth of field accurate when combining multiple stock images.

Lighting and Highlights/Shadows:  The direction of your source light, whether it be the sun, the moon, a lantern, or a combination of light sources, needs to be spot on. It can make or break a composite, and it was something I spent a lot of time trying to master.  Highlights and shadows must also match your light source.

Tones: The tones in a composite should be fluent throughout the image. If the background is warm, your foreground should be as well. I have learned several tips on blending tones that I will share in future articles.

I can honestly say that without my experience as a photographer and an understanding of the basic fundamentals of photography, I would be lost with my composites. Composites are tedious, time consuming, and require skill. Is it digital art? Sure it is. Does that make me less of a photographer? Absolutely not.

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Below is my latest composite. And you best believe I will be doing many more, whether for personal use, or for my clients. 

paper boat-water-composite-kids

Credit: Sparkle Hill Photography, Ocean By Queen, Paper Boat Stock Pack.

I wrote a blog post on the image above to show the set-up and give a general idea of how I came to the end result in post processing. You can find it here!

Please feel free to follow me on Facebook to see more of my composite work, as well as my “photography.” Ahem.. 

About the Guest Contributor

Sparkle Hill is a photographer based out of Canton, Georgia. She specializes in children, high school seniors, couples, and families. In early 2015, she began venturing into more artistic composites.

Sparkle strives every day to find the balance between marriage, three children, her photography career, and reaching out to advise beginning photographers however and whenever she can.

And yes, that is her real name. :)

Website: http://sparklehillphotography.com/

About

Sparkle Hill is a photographer based out of Canton, Georgia. She specializes in children, high school seniors, couples, and families. In early 2015, she began venturing into more artistic composites.

Sparkle strives every day to find the balance between marriage, three children, her photography career, and reaching out to advise beginning photographers however and whenever she can.

And yes, that is her real name. :)

Website: http://sparklehillphotography.com/

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Mark Hopkins

    About a year ago I felt pretty much the same as you did and started making composites to create imagery that was more unique and to tap more into my creative side. I don’t see this as cheating at all. If that were true then illustrators would say photography is cheating. Composite photography is just another variation of visual imagery.

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  2. Leanne M Williams

    What a great article :-) I have just joined this great community because of it, thank you :-)
    What has always amazed me with people’s perception of Composite Images, is, they don’t seem to “get it”. Taking a great photo can be difficult in itself but to then take that and many other photos to create an “artwork” takes a lot of time, energy and skill. “They” only see it as a “nice” picture and really not understanding what is involved. Yes, we do this because we absolutely love it, but I have never really understood why people don’t seem to think it’s as good as a “single photo”? Ha ha does that make sense?

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  3. Marlin Woodruff

    Its just another form of photography, another way to express your vision. period… you know what they say about beauty…

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  4. norman tesch

    i myself dont do composites however i find it just as another form of photography focusing on a target market group. weather you shoot for yourself or someone else you are catering to a market that will make you money. if someone wants elephant with your child in the ocean you cant hand them snapshot of an stuffed animal on your shelf.

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  5. Archie Macintosh

    Digital art is clearly a branch of the visual arts, and can be an expression of great skill and creativity. It is a constructing, synthesising art akin to painting and the other ‘mark-making’ arts. Artists use photographic material to build a picture, whether digitally or by collage or fixing it to a canvas as part of a painting; but the resulting picture is not itself a photograph.

    The two key features of a photograph are indexicality and instantaneity. Composites have neither.

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  6. Mark Connelly

    I think composites are great if the image is great. Art is art. http://www.mypodshots.com .

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  7. Amanda Jehle

    Your composites are beautiful! I love the magical quality of them. My children have the most amazing imaginations & your composites capture what might be in their minds’ eye when they play. I would love to have photos like your examples of my kids; they would love them as well.

    I’ve used composites on newborn photos for poses that make me nervous. Like hammock pics… I really don’t want to dangle a baby from a branch. And I always HOPE that the pics I see on Pinterest of newborns in glass candy jars are composites! So composites are absolutely photography, and art, and very challenging! Beautiful work!

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  8. Steven Mole

    I actually got into photography by messing about in composite imagery first, then learning portrait retouching, then finally picking up a camera and taking photos myself. I actually feel that path of progression has improved my final images – I was able to edit even my ‘beginner’ shots, which in theory should be the worst ones I’ll ever take, to a standard I was reasonably happy with. Composite photography’s brilliant. My best performing pic on 500px was a composite, and nobody knows. :)

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  9. Francisco Hernandez

    Definitely! I am a huge fan of composite photography and am trying to get better at it. Those who say it isn’t are the same people who think Ansel Adams didn’t do anything to his photoshop except click the shutter.

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    • Peter McWade

      “Those who say it isn’t are the same people who think Ansel Adams didn’t do anything to his photoshop except click the shutter.” So true. :)

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    • Ben Perrin

      To be honest though it doesn’t even matter what Ansel Adams would or wouldn’t do. The technology and options out there are far more advanced and accessible than they were for him. Also you are your own person. Go do what you want to do, you don’t need to be the next Ansel Adams just the best version of you that you can be!

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  10. Peter Nord

    I tell my students if it isn’t fun don’t do it.

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  11. Dave Haynie

    I started dabbling in simple composites back in the film era, one of the things that got me to abandon the darkroom for a film scanner and Photoshop 3. Everything I could image doing in the darkroom — but couldn’t figure out how — was now possible. Of course it’s still photography!

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  12. Peter McWade

    Gorgeous! An absolute artist. An illustrator of photographs. You will bring a story book alive with your imagery. Just the little I see here you are on the top of the game. Simply fun

    Of many composite images I have seen I really like yours.

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  13. Ben Perrin

    It takes so much more skill to create composites than sooc images. I love the work of Erik Almas. Such vivid imagination could never be captured in the “traditional” sense. The main issue I have with composites is the poorly done ones. It’s like hdr. We are now starting to see some beautiful natural examples of hdr but when someone doesn’t know what they are doing they ruin the image by going too far.

    Aaron Nace has some good pro tutorials on compositing where he goes in depth about luminance, hue and saturation and the role they play in making a convincing composite. I recommend that people check out those videos.

    I think the issue in this topic is that there are photographers who have a poor knowledge of photoshop that are going to feel more and more out of the loop if they don’t start learning soon. Even if you’re more in the traditional camp it’s better to have that knowledge and not need to use it often than it is to have no idea. Not saying that all photographers need to learn photoshop. Just that they have no right to tear apart others work if they don’t have the skill themselves to do such art.

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    • Sparkle Hill

      Well said.

      And I second Aaron Nace! I have learned a lot from his tutorials. I literally learn something new in Photoshop every day. I think everyone who uses Photoshop will agree with that. It’s a never ending learning process. It’s a beast. :) But I love every minute of seeing just what it is capable of. Fun stuff!

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    • Ben Perrin

      Oh, and I forgot to say beautiful images Sparkle Hill. I love the magical quality they have.

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    • Jim Johnson

      I can’t get behind that thought. I find creating an image through post manipulation far easier to get the results I need. Mainly, it’s because there are fewer time constraints— I can do and redo as many times as like. It takes more time, and perhaps more effort, but I find it “easier” to get to the final image.

      Getting a fantastic image SOOC is incredibly hard. I know people who do it, but man, that’s a skill I haven’t developed yet.

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    • Sparkle Hill

      Jim, I completely agree that getting an image as close to perfect SOOC is crucial, and definitely requires a skill of it’s own.

      Composites, at least for me, are more about creating images with environments and elements that I do not have access to. Also, mine are aimed more towards children so imagination plays a big factor. Children riding lions or leading an elephant to the edge of a cliff.. things I could not possibly create SOOC.

      But for traditiional sessions/photos, it is “easier” to fix things in post. And I feel many use that as a crutch, and as a result, do not take the time to slow down while shooting and get it right in camera.

      My “Bringing Imagination to Life” composite series is more about creating, not about “fixing.”

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  14. Connor Katz

    I think its fair to draw a line in the sand.

    On one side there is “traditional photography” that aims to capture a real, honest living moments, weddings, portraits, journalism… etc being examples of such. I think we would all agree that it is dishonest to present a composited image as a pure “traditional photograph.” Of course there are grey areas like color grading, skin retouching… etc, but I think there is a definitive line where you present an image in the context of “this is real, this actually happened.”

    However, once you openly and honestly cross that line and say “I am creating an image I am not bound to the context of depicting an actual living moment” anything becomes fair game. At that point it truly does not matter if its a “traditional photograph,” hanging on to such stigma is like trying to build a house and saying you can only use a hammer. If you choose to place such limitations on yourself that is fine but the tools you use to craft the image is pretty much irrelevant.

    A digital image is just pixel soup, arranged in a defined pattern. How those pixels are created does not matter in the slightest. Use whatever tools are best suited to create the image. The success of the image at that point lies in the skill of execution to achieve a goal, create an emotion, sell a product, make a social/political statement… whatever.

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  15. Tyler Friesen

    I love the images

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  16. antti kappinen

    Wrote small article about the same thing some time ago. I think it is still photography, for me it is easier to call it Digital art to make a difference and “stand out”. So what ever we call it .. it is still a form of art and there is no right or wrong saying it is photography, or digital art, or what ever. It is all good as long we just create these beautiful things by what ever means.

    http://anttikarppinen.com/2015/02/photography-vs-digital-art/

    Good article! Nice work!

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  17. Dawn Foyles

    Wonderful article Sparkle. I have always been amazed at the composites people put out there. It’s so much work and time consuming. Don’t know how anyone can’t say it’s not part of photography. Very envious here lol

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    • Sparkle Hill

      Thank you, Dawn! I would suggest starting simple. Perhaps just a sky overlay? Then work your way to adding more components. Composites can be as simple or elaborate as you want them to be!

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  18. Ross Thomas

    If people still count using photoshop and lightroom as photography, composites are definitely still photography. It’s just more work. I don’t understand the thought process where people only want to see photographs like they see their real world. Personally, I want an image to take me to a place that I can’t see with my naked eye.

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    • Sparkle Hill

      It is definitely time consuming! I enjoy them because it gives me so much more creative freedom than a regular session.

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  19. fred palagonia

    i agree 100% that composite photography is what it is .Its Photography. back in the film days it was called multiple exposure printing . you took several negatives and used masking techniques to form a single image back in the dark room days .Harry Callahan comes to mind. He was a master of multiple exposure printing.
    He was known to use seven enlargers in his dark room to do multiple exposures. just to achieve one single image . one image comes to mind. it was of a sofa with 7 leaves hanging in mid hair over the sofa for the life of me i can’t remember the name of the image .has far as i know all of his multiple exposure printing were done in b+w. So yes composite photography is photography.

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    • Sparkle Hill

      Absolutely. What some fail to realize is that the same techniques applied in processing a composite come from the same fundamentals of taking a properly exposed/well composed photograph.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      I was showing a coworker, my “New to Me” used Canon F-1N film camera when I heard the shutter fire and motor drive advance. That weekend, I went to the lake to take some photos. The first photo on the film was a double exposure of her superimposed on a lake scene. That was sheer dumb luck!

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