You’ve planned your final composite image, photographed your background, and now you have to bring it all together by shooting against a green screen. Now in my tenth year as a professional photographer, I feel most at home in a studio and love the challenges that shooting for composites can present.
Of course, you don’t need a fully equipped studio – I’ve created great composite work before using only a single, off camera speedlight and a piece of green fabric hung from a door in my dining room. Simple and still reasonably effective! Wherever you decide to make your foreground images for your composite, there are three steps to consider that can really help you to get the perfect looking image each time.
Reference your background
This may seem obvious but you’d be surprised at how many times I’ve had my concept sketches in place, final image all planned out, lighting set up, only then to take a shot that looks nothing like I had envisioned. You can easily be distracted by any number of elements when shooting: lighting, positioning your model, hyperactive pug dogs stealing your diffusers (true story!), leaving you more likely to fall foul of basic mistakes such as pointing your model in the wrong direction or shooting from the wrong angle. What’s the solution? Simply, keep referring back to the background you’re shooting for.
As it’s not always practical to set up my laptop in a shoot, I usually favour emailing the image to my smart phone which is always conveniently to-hand in my pocket for quick reference. Making a print of your background image is particularly useful for event shoots as you can almost use it as a visual menu for your customers too.
When trying to create a convincing composite, height and angle are the two most important factors for getting your foreground subject and your background image to unite.
Have a look at these composite images:
In this image our subject is not right for this background. The model was photographed in a studio at eye level using a 70mm lens. The background was photographed at ground level using a 24mm lens. The difference in height creates a strange effect and makes it look like our model has fallen through the floor. A variance in focal length creates images that are at two different focal compression levels and makes it look a little odd. A bit like trying to fit a visual square peg into a round hole, the two images just don’t quite fit.
In this composite, the background image was shot using a 70mm lens at eye level which matches the foreground image. The two elements of the composite make more visual sense and sit more comfortably with each other. Same height and same focal range; a more convincing final composite.
Quite simply, if you shoot your background at eye level, always try to shoot your model at eye level. If you shoot your background at a focal length of 105mm, aim to shoot your model at 105mm too.
Consistent lighting conditions across your background and foreground images is an essential part of any composite when trying to achieve a sense of realism. This is about noting the direction, quality and colour of any light cast within the background scene and incorporating it into the foreground image. I love to experiment with different lighting techniques and this part of the process is therefore hugely satisfying. Looking at the image discussed in the last post, Neon street, we can see there is red and teal directional light coming from the neon signage in addition to the strong orange luminance emanating from the shop doorway.
I wanted to reference this in the studio rather than addressing it in post production as the more you can do ‘in-camera’, the quicker, easier and more successful the final image will be. I used gels to add the orange, red and teal colours into my image, which is a cheap, efficient and versatile approach.
I set up one light at a time, getting the positioning and exposure correct before moving onto the next one. This method ensures accuracy and control over each light’s effect on the image. I think about the angle, direction and intensity of the light sources in my background and try and replicate them as closely as possible. If you haven’t got the time or the lighting gear for replicating the exact lighting conditions, don’t worry. Just by capturing a general feel for the ambience will help you achieve great results; does your background image capture the soft glow of sunset or the harsh glare of car headlamps? How would you recreate this in a studio environment?
In the majority of my foreground images, I will add a ‘kicker’ to the subject. A light source aimed at a 45° angle toward the back of the model. This helps add visual impact to the image and also align with the style of contemporary composite photography. It also serves the practical function of making it easier to key the foreground by creating a clearly defined edge. It does all depend on the ambient lighting conditions of the background but I find this lighting will fit most environments.
When it comes to creating studio images for composites, it is really important to work your own style and techniques into the images in order to maintain a sense of personality and aesthetic branding. My tips and tricks are there to offer insight as to how I work and can be applied to any green screen set up regardless of how much physical space and budget you have for your image making.
My career as a photographer started at a leading chain of family portrait studios, delivering one hour photography sessions to members of the public and their families. I did some math and, during my time in the studios, I spent just over 17,000 hours behind a camera. A clever chap by the name of Dr. Anders Ericsson once said that you can become an expert in anything if you practice it for 10,000 hours but I still push myself in the camera room and would find myself getting utterly bored if I wasn’t learning new and exciting techniques all the time.
Visit our PhotoKey 7 Pro learn page for more composite techniques and free resources. Why not share your studio experiences in the comments box below?
Next time: We talk to top-pro composite photographer Andrew Dobell and take a closer look at how he made his amazing Star Wars composite, The Hand’s Arrival.