A Complete Guide to Compositing Basics


The very first step in your composite photoshoot will be conceptualizing what you would like to accomplish. I always recommend talking with your clients before the shoot to get an idea of what they are looking for. Ask them questions, find out what their interest is. What activities do they enjoy as a family, what are their children into…anything of significance to the particular family that you are working with? From here, you can collaborate and really make the family a part of the shoot from the beginning.

Once you have decided on ideas and themes for your shoot, start planning an outfit and prop choices. If you do not provide a wardrobe for clients, send them links to outfits that will best fit the ideas that you have planned. Be sure to give your clients plenty of time in planning and ordering before the shoot takes place.


Next, you'll want to start thinking about locations. If you already know that you would like to use existing scenery and add stock to the image, then choose a location that fits your theme. For example, if you are planning a composite that will involve your model feeding a bear in the woods, then choose a location with pretty nature areas. If you know that you will be extracting your model completely from the image and placing them on a new background, then be sure to choose a location with good lighting and flat surfaces for the model to stand on such as pavement or concrete. This way you will be able to get a clean cut in editing and avoid grass and weeds covering the feet.

If you have chosen the stock that you will be using in your composite already, then really study the lighting in the images and be sure to light your subject similarly so that you will be able to match these up in post-processing. If you plan to choose your stock images after the shoot, try to shoot your subject in soft even lighting. Cloudy days, shaded areas, and near sunrise or sunset work well for lighting. This will give you more options when choosing your stock images later.



After the shoot, you will be ready to begin culling the best images for your composites. Try to choose poses that look the most natural. Find the images that look most like your model is interacting with your scene and chosen stock. I find that typically the first few images shot will look a bit forced as your little model is still feeling you out and possibly a bit self-conscience depending on the age. After a minute or two of shooting, they tend to really start understanding what is going and what they are pretending or acting out. These are the images that capture that natural vibe that you will want for your composite.

To cull my images, I open them in Adobe Bridge and navigate to my external storage device, which is where I save and store my images immediately after each shoot. I will open up the folder containing the images from the shoot that I am working on. Once you find the image that you would like to use for your edit, double click and open it into Adobe Camera Raw.


Adobe Camera raw is where you will make your initial adjustments to bring back more detail into your raw image. You will not be doing dramatic adjustments at this stage, rather little tweaks to give yourself the best base image to work with. I personally like to use ACR to slightly adjust my shadows, highlights, color balance, and brightening the skin.


Alright you guys, I have SOOOO much to say about stock images that I’m dedicating a whole blog to just that, so be on the lookout for that one coming soon!



Once you’ve chosen your stock it is time to start extracting and placing these. I like to make a new blank document first to place everything on. To extract the stock images and model images, I typically like to use the quick selection tool. I will try to a good selection with this tool and then place it on my new document. If I need to clean any areas up, I will add a mask and zoom in close with a hard black brush and brush of any extra areas. Hair and fur will require a soft brush in order for them to blend well. I always like to tell my students that if they have another tool that they like to use such as the pen tool, refine edge, etc. then feel free to use those. There are a million and one ways to get the same outcome in editing, so if your method works for you and you are getting your desired outcome, then feel free to use what you are comfortable with.



Once you have your stock extracted and placed on your documents, you can begin scaling these to the desired size. Always be sure you are keeping things realistic. If you need to use google to find out how tall an 8-year-old child will be next to a lion, then do it! Also, be sure to hold down your shift key while you are resizing the stock because you do not want your images to become stretched out and change dimensions. Once they are scaled, begin making individual adjustments to each piece in order for them to match in color tones, contrast lighting, etc.



After everything is placed and adjusted, you can begin your global edit. This is where everything will really start to blend together and become a cohesive final image. There are several color tone adjustments that I make to all of my images, even non-composite images. When these are applied globally to the entire image, everything blends together and becomes realistic.

The last thing that I like to do is walk away from the image for a while and then come back and peek at my before and compare it to may after. Being able to go back and see where you started next to where you ended up not only provides a major sense of accomplishment but allows you to see with fresh eyes if there are any other minor tweaks to be made.

Many photographers comment on the "Painterly" look my images have. It's a combination of lighting, lens selection, and editing style. You can find the action I use here.

And if you still haven't learned to edit with me, you can sign up here.

Happy Editing,