Okay, first things first, this is not intended to be a how to on composite photography techniques for photographers. Rather, we just want to draw some attention to the time and process involved in creating certain images for clients. In this current era of iPhones that shoot seemingly "studio quality images" (or, so the commercials would have you believe), where images are seemingly retouched automatically, and the built-in HDR features make everything instantly perfect (or, so you would be led to believe), there are a lot of misconceptions about where a professional quality image really comes from, and how it is modified into the final deliverable product for the client.
From the client side of things, most of the time the end user is concerned only with the final image quality, and not the nuances of how many layer masks were created in Photoshop to properly light the fender on a Dodge Viper, or the wireless flash-head used to illuminate the corner of a hotel room behind an armoire. But, as a client, to a certain extent, you should be. If you are paying a premium for photography, it should be because the photographer is showing up with a certain skill-set, if not a large crew of assistants, that translates into nuanced, and meticulously executed work.
On the other hand, professional and enthusiast photographers tend to notice the composite technique immediately. But more often than not, when you post a composite image on social media, you get the typical comment from novices and enthusiasts of, "What camera did you use?!"
It's not the camera, it's the photographer, bro!
Okay, that sounded super cocky and cliche! On one hand, yes, that dumb, over-repeated statement is true. But, more specifically, when your are impressed and curious with what is most likely a composite technique–whether you know it or not; it's not just the photographer, it's the flash... and the tripod, and Adobe Lightroom, and creating Layer masks and transparency overlays in Photoshop.
Once you understand the process, and why it is used, you will start to notice the technique most frequently in architecture, interior, and landscape photography. For example; everyone has taken a snapshot inside of a house, with the windows open, and maybe some lights on. What is exposed, and what is blown out, or indiscernible? Most likely, if you were focusing on the inside of the room, with auto focus and auto exposure engaged on a smart-phone camera, or any typical point-and-shoot, or DSLR, the inside of the room would be reasonably well exposed, but the bright windows, and everything outside would probably be blown out like a whitewash of overpowering light. Of course, it's because the sunlight outside is far brighter than even a decent flash illuminating the scene indoors.
So why do hotel photos look so nice, and even and clean?! Why can I see the beach and palm trees outdoors just as evenly exposed as the desk lamp, and the coffee table in this photo of the living room?!
It's because the beach and palm trees outside the window are a separate photo. And the desk lamp is a different photo. And the couch. And the chair. And the ceiling, and the carpet, and the bowl of fruit on the mantle, and most everything else you see in the photo.
It's a composite image. Not to be confused with an HDR image. HDR–or, high dynamic range–is a method for shooting a relatively evenly exposed image (often with a certain artistic aesthetic) by usually using a tripod to stabilize the camera while shooting a series of photos with natural light, ranging in exposure from; very dark, to very bright. In an HDR image you usually process all of the photos using a photo editing platform or plug-in to blend them into one very high resolution image, evenly exposed throughout the visual range of shadows and highlights. While HDR is a worthwhile method in some instances, and is in itself a method of, or method lent further to composite photography, real composite photography takes it quite a bit further. In more refined, shall we say, "traditional" composite photos, the photographer uses a tripod, a remote trigger, and a remote controlled flash (or flashes) to expose each element of the shot separately, and perfectly. Once complete, he takes all of the images into Photoshop, stacks them on top of each other, creates layer masks, and paints in the properly exposed elements one by one until the image achieves the look he desires. In what many would argue is true composite photography, the photographer actually is shooting multiple images separately from one another and combining them later to create something of a photo illustration. These are pretty simplified explanations, and again, this is not a how to, but I hope it gives you the perspective of where certain images come from, and from where certain photographers are basing their mindset and intended workflow when creating bids for various projects. Also, for sake of this blog post, I am referring mostly to the technique wherein a photographer uses a tripod and remote triggers to meticulously expose individual elements of one scene, in one location.
This is not to frighten anyone off from composite photography. At the highest level, or with challenging settings, it can take many hours, or days to achieve the required look for even one image–let alone many images that are part of the same series. But, on the other hand, you might find a photographer who has created a series of extremely dramatic images, and each one of them might have taken just a few minutes to shoot, and little more to edit. Either way, as a client, you are paying for a very refined and unique skill-set that takes anywhere from months to years to master, given the particular approach.
In the future we will do a video walk-through of an image from beginning to end, hopefully with some behind-the-scenes photos or video b-roll to show the actual process of setting up and lighting a scene. But, for now, enjoy some of these simple before-and-after images to get a little idea of how some of these images start, as opposed to where they end up.
Are you a photographer interested in composite photography techniques? Personally, I highly recommend getting involved in this method for creating images. It is, at it's core, very simple, but with endless levels of nuance, and learning, and room for improving and refining your process. Most importantly, it is extremely satisfying from an artistic perspective, and a valuable skillset to utilize when necessary to achieve certain results for discerning clients, or when shooting in otherwise challenging settings.