Creating a composite image for Meagan Tubb & Shady People

In this post I'd like to break down how we did a shot last year for the band Meagan Tubb & Shady People. And, if you came here via a link in Matt Kloskowski's new Photoshop compositing book, welcome! We photographed this great band last fall in a park outside of Austin for their new album "Cast Your Shadow". We took several individual and group shots throughout the day, and this composite was one of the last shots.

A lot of times, compositing work is about changing backgrounds and skies, or shooting pieces separately that you can't shoot together for budgetary, time, or creative reasons. In this case, I used it to solve a simple problem. I wanted a group shot of the band, with each person lit nicely from their own light. So - how best to accomplish this? Here are a couple ways:

1. Set up 4 lights. This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that all of the lighting gear would be showing in the frame.

2. Move the 4 lights outside of the frame. This idea wouldn't work either because I would lose the soft qualities of the light as I backed it further away from the subject. I wanted the softness of a light 3-5 feet away, not 15 feet away.

3. Build a composite in Photoshop. This is what I decided to do. It gave me the most flexibility and worked out great.

Next Steps

I discussed the idea with the band. We placed them into position so that they would have an idea what the final shot would be. I was shooting tethered into a laptop as well, which helped out a lot in making exposure and framing adjustments.Once we decided on how to move forward, here are the steps we took to create the image:

1. Use a tripod. This is critical. While some photographers will eyeball it, I try to keep everything in the same position. Even with a tripod, you can have movement in the frame due to wind, etc. Here's a shot of the background:

2. With everyone in position, I pre-focused on a spot that was equal distance from all of them and then I turned the focus switch to Manual. This is important because you don't want your camera hunting around to find something to focus on. You also want the focus to be 'correct' - meaning, you don't want a person tack sharp if the tree they are standing next to is slightly outside the depth of field. So, find a good focus for the entire frame, and then set it and forget it (to use some late night informercial phrase).

3. For the lighting, my assistant Eric (hey, that's a cool name) went from person to person, lighting them with the same softbox at about the same distance. This kept the lighting consistent throughout the scene. Here he is lighting Meagan, the singer, for the first frame:

4. We end up with 4 total frames. The first is Meagan, which is the base frame that all of the other people are layered into. I placed the shot with Meagan at the bottom of the layer stack in Photoshop, and then added each band member's photo above. For each person, I masked their layer in Photoshop so that only they would show up:

The complexity of the foliage helps here. Because there's so much detail in the image, I don't have to have a perfect mask around each subject for it to work.

5. With the rough composite built, I start working on toning, using my Luminosity Mask action set to selectively darken and lighten different parts of the image.

6. I put a black and white layer on top of the whole image at 70% opacity, and then a hue/saturation adjustment layer on top of that, with the saturation at +22. Finally, I cropped it in a little bit to give it more of a pano feel:

Here's how it looked in the cd insert:

Overall, this was a fun shoot that resulted in one of my favorite images. Have you done any Photoshop compositing work like this? If so, leave a note in the comments - I'd love to check it out.