Few photographers start out as still life photographers. Most, from my experience, are initially drawn to portraiture and fashion. In those genres, the technique described within this article is rarely used, and certainly not to the same extent, and as such, it’s inevitable that photographers transitioning over to still life have no idea of this technique. Once you learn the art of the composite, your photos will improve, and you’ll shoot quicker; I promise.
What Is The Art Of The Composite?
Many of you will be familiar with the term “composite” and with the amazing images that talented digital artists can create using the method. Essentially, the process involves taking two images and merging them together to create one image. That could be as elaborate as using multiple images to craft a fantastical landscape with intricate detail, or as simple as making a person appear to be levitating with items surrounding them (you’ll undoubtedly have seen countless tutorials on this subject before). Oddly enough, however, I rarely see this method talked about when it comes to still life photography.
When it comes to still life, the technique is essentially the same, but rather than merging different photos together to create something new, we’re merging photos together to create one item; a watch, item of jewelry, shoe, bag and so on. The process is very easy, but, as with everything, will require some practice. All you’ll be doing is positioning your lights around your product and photographing it section by section. For instance, with a watch you might do a distinct image for the face, the buttons, the straps, and any other relevant details.
The two images you have just seen depict all the different images used to create the final “watch comp”. In total, five different images were comped together to create the final shot which you can see below.
Merging the images is a simple process in Photoshop, involving very simple layer masks. Sometimes you need to be precise with your masks; sometimes you can be a little loose. It’s important that you use a good tripod and do all you can not to touch it, or your product, once you’ve started shooting. If either move, it can become very difficult to blend the images.
One of the only annoying things about this technique is the need to focus-stack each individual shot. If you’re not familiar with focus stacking, check out this article. Briefly, focus stacking is the process of combining multiple images to ensure that your product/landscape/building etc. is sharp from front to back. To do so, I use a program called Helicon Focus, I wrote a review on it and got SLR Lounge readers a 20% discount, click here to check it out.
How Does This Turn 4 Strobes Into 10?
Imagine getting all those different images in one shot. How many lights would you need? If we estimate that each different section requires 2-3 lights, then to do it all together, one would need between 10 and 15 strobes. Let’s run with that for a minute; I know some people love to do everything in camera and have as little Photoshop as possible, but if we go down that route, we need to buy 15 strobes and that’s pretty expensive! Not only that but we need another 15 modifiers; reflectors, scrims, light stands; plug sockets!
As you can see, it’s simply not practical or even possible to create this image even if you had 15 strobes and all the gear you wanted. -Wait, why’s it not possible? Surely, if we had all that gear and a crazy amount of plug sockets we could do it, right? Have you ever tried to place 15 lights next to each other and precisely aim them at a tiny watch? I have (kinda, a few less lights), and it’s a freaking nightmare. Even if you’re using C-Stands and can stack them, it’s still near impossible to have that many lights around one another. If you did manage to place them next to each other, you have to somehow make sure that each light is having its own effect and not just becoming one big, flat, mess of light. Not an easy task with a watch, maybe a car but not something this small.
Pitfalls & How To Approach Your Images In This Way
If you’re compositing multiple shots of the same item, it’s essential that your camera and your product remain locked in place. If either moves a little, it’s not the end of the world, but if you knock them you must take the time to get it lined up with your previous images. If not, you’ll find it, at best difficult, at worst impossible, to blend the images together in Photoshop.
Another pitfall is changing the lighting so drastically that your comp doesn’t work and it seems fake; it’s possible to alter the lighting to such a degree that your elements won’t sit together well, this is especially so if you’re using backgrounds/props. This is easy to do and I have one simple way to resolve it. What I find works very well is to find a good base for your lights and then modify from there. For example, with this watch, I positioned my lights to illuminate the face and get the watch itself looking pretty good. From there, I’d keep my main lights in a similar position and either tweak them/their direction, add an additional scrim, piece of black/white card, or add another light. The key is to keep your lighting consistent-ish between all the elements.
In the past, I too was not aware of this method. As such, I spent hours and hours carefully placing multiple lights, sometimes up to 6 or 8 around one tiny object. From experience, I can testify that working in that way is, putting it politely, annoying. It’s also very very slow. By using this technique, you split your task into sections which makes the whole process far quicker and your results are much better.
On the first few occasions you use this method I advise you to build your composite in Photoshop as you’re working. It can be a challenge to visualize your final image from all these little parts. Once you’re a little more practiced, you’ll find doing it this way less critical. That said, I still often build the composite as I work simply for peace of mind prior to adjusting everything.
If still life isn’t your thing, remember this method can still be applied to other types of photography. For example, you might only have one light but want to illuminate a couple and the beautiful house they’re standing in front of. By shooting with a tripod and lighting each part separately, this technique would work perfectly. That said, working with couples, and people in general, is a totally different ball game. Thankfully SLR Lounge have you covered with some excellent tutorials, click here to check out everything on offer in the SLR Lounge Store.