Each time I am commissioned to create a composite image, I get a little flutter of excitement in my stomach as I know that I am in for an exciting ride! I love the whole process from concept to final image; researching locations for backgrounds, heading out to explore and shoot them, the fun of the green screen shoot in the studio and finally marrying all the elements together to create the final image. Composite photography is addictive!

I do clearly remember a time when I used to think of the world of composite photography as an alien and terrifying place. My first ever paid commission, in 2004, was to produce a comp’ for a piece of theatre and I just wish that there were programs like PhotoKey around back then. I really didn’t have a clue how to go about compositing three separate images together but took the job anyway and spent the next few days cleaning up dodgy lighting, trying to sharpen the eyes and reading through all my back issues of Photoshop magazines to try and figure out how to make a decent cut out. The client went away happy and I became fascinated by the process. I started to play.

My first ever attempt at creating a composite image

My next attempts were made by photographing a single subject several times on location using a tripod and layering up the multiple exposures on Photoshop. I had great fun shooting like this and would still encourage anybody to have a go to see what they can come up with but I still wanted to push further.

Playing with composites

After that, I started to experiment with composite photography using a process that aligns to my current methods.

For my recent commission of building the imagery for PhotoKey 7 Pro I was tasked with the challenge of creating over 100 visually consistent composite images that adopted specifically themed aesthetics from the PhotoKey Template packs. This proved to be one of my most enjoyable commissions to date and was a real creative challenge. Taking me all over the world, I climbed freezing mountains, explored abandoned gold mines, got stranded in deserts and sustained several pretty nasty injuries – all in the name of image making! A less painful result of the project is that it forced me to question (over 100 times) what makes a perfect location for a green screen background. Is it to do with drama and visual impact? Is it rated by how useful and versatile the image is to a commercial photographer or is it more about the creative potential it offers an image maker? Quite honestly, all of the above and lots more have to be factored in when you are thinking about creating a background image.


A background image acts as a foundation upon which to add further elements of your composite and knowing your background ahead of time is crucial to the studio side of the compositing process. It influences the composition, lighting, colour balance and tone of the foreground and ultimately can drive the aesthetic of the whole piece. There are five photographic elements that are key when creating a great background for a composite and I kept them at the forefront of my mind when I was out shooting:

Background checklist in my trusty notebook

  1. Visual impact
  2. Environmental lighting
  3. Position of the foreground subject
  4. Angle
  5. Focal length

I loved working on all of the packs but I found making the images for the ‘Urban Pack’ particularly engaging. I had researched some of the coolest, grittiest locations in London and based myself in the trendy Easterly district of Shoreditch where the graffiti is as abundant as awesome pizza and the pairing of tighter than tight jeans paired with pointy shoes! Lighting, texture, shape; it was all to be found in London and all so visually rich.

Selection of images from the PhotoKey Urban Template Pack

I find that ‘Google street view’ is a fantastic tool when in the initial stages of scouting for locations. I had used it a lot for the project so far, allowing me to ‘visit’ specific streets and interior spaces before I committed them to my shoot schedule. Perfect for when you have to fit a lot into a short space of time and every location counts.

One of my favorite locations to shoot was the Kingsland High street in Dalston, London. I arrived at around 8pm, dropped my bag in my rented apartment and jumped on the underground train to head across town. It was unusually humid for June in the UK and I was already starting to get choked up from the high pollution levels hanging in the air.

I shot a few planned locations en route and then, just as it started to get darker, stumbled across an unexpected visual treat; a section of street that was dimly lit with a range of atmospheric neon signs. I found myself in a trance-like state, unconsciously setting up my camera and tripod, which acted as a good indicator that I could tick off ‘Step 1, visual impact’.


 

So I had a location, how was I going to work it? I pulled my notebook out of my pocket to reference my list:

1. Visual impact

Sorted!

2. Environmental lighting

The neon light balanced against the dark of the evening with twinkling luminance from street lamps and traffic lights would create visual interest and texture within the frame. I knew that it would also present an interesting challenge once I got back into the studio when trying to replicate lighting conditions casting onto the subject. I wanted the environmental lighting in this shot to be a prominent feature of this background and final image.

3. Position of foreground subject

I wanted to ensure that I was not going to obscure any of the really visually rich elements of the image once I composited a foreground image into the photograph. The framing of my image was very much driven by how I envisioned my model to be photographed afterwards in the green screen shoot. In which direction did I want them to be looking? Which tone and mood did I want them to portray? What would they wear? I was thinking all this and more prior to actually pressing the shutter button and creating a photograph. I decided to leave space on the left of the frame for the model to lead the image and draw the eye across to the neon sign.

4. Angle

The angle that you position your frame has to relate to how your model will interact with the background once you’ve composited them together. To what extent of realism depends on your intention for the final photograph but I wanted to make an image that wasn’t too abstracted. I referenced decisions made regarding Step 3 and thought about height, angle of the vertical axis as well as the horizontal. I created the image by lowering the lens to just below where eye level would be and tilting the camera upwards. I wanted to create a sense of drama that I could recreate in the studio by using the same angles.

5. Focal length

I wanted to think about furthering that dramatic effect I was aiming to capture and for this reason chose a wide focal length of 24mm. The level of geometric distortion that comes with this lens would help create a further impression of depth and add to the drama of the final image. Once again, I knew that I would have to shoot the foreground image to compliment this decision by shooting quite wide to match.


 

So, now the image was all framed, angle set, focal length selected and I had thought ahead to how the foreground would work as part of a final image. I press the shutter button and was rewarded with a satisfying click and swoosh. My Raw background image was made.

Neon street; unedited Raw file

Creating the background is a key step when creating composite imagery but is also just the beginning of the process. Watch this space and be sure to check out our PhotoKey Learn page for more hints and tips about all things PhotoKey related and more.

 

Next time: I’m going to share my hints and tips of how to shoot studio based green screen images to match your background.