Composite Photography Tips [Weekly Duel]

This week’s theme is compositing, a Photoshop technique where you take multiple pictures and combine them together to make a single composition.

We decided to do a composite duel this week our NEW Photoshop 1, Photoshop 2, and Photoshop Elements online classes are starting on Wednesday!  We’ve been working night and day on those classes for weeks now, so it has us thinking about Photoshop a lot :-)

If you’d like to learn some of the tips we use when shooting panoramas, be sure to check out this post.

New to the weekly Improve Photography Duel?  Check out this page, where we explain how it works. We’re asking YOU to vote on the photos below.

Settling the Score

Jim was the winner of last week’s duel, so the current score is Jim: 1, Dustin: 1, and one tie.

Here are the photos for this week’s compositing duel…

Jim Here:  I’ve never been much of a dancer, but dancing makes for a very dramatic pose for shooting couples.  We had a model come in for this shoot and Dustin was happy (very happy) to step in as a model as well.  After all, it got him close to a pretty girl during the shoot instead of moving around light stands for me :-)

Jim’s Process:  I shot the photo of Dustin and the girl in our studio.  I used a three light setup.  I wanted the light to be very dramatic, so I put two strip banks on either side of the models and just a little bit behind them.  The purpose of these lights was to provide some edge lighting.  Then, I used a LARGE octabank on a c-stand above them so that the shadows would come down on them.  I used Einstein studio strobes for this shoot and shot on a black background so that the extraction would be easy since I knew I wanted to put this photo on a dark background.

The background for this shoot was actually taken in the basement of our old studio in Caldwell, Idaho.  The building was an old bank, so you see the two vault doors in this shot.  I used a light painting technique to create unique lighting in the room.  I chose to use this background because I wanted to make the story of the photo be that the couple is totally wrapped up in each other–even while dancing in a spiderweb infested dungeon.

In Photoshop, I brought the two files in as layers and I simply masked the photo of the couple onto the background.  Then, I painted red over the girl’s dress and changed the blending mode to color so that it would be a bit more eye-catching.  You can see the original two photos I used in this composite here.

Jim’s Metadata:

Background shot – Shutter speed: 30 seconds, ISO 100, f/11.  Portrait shot – Shutter speed: 1/200, f/9, ISO 100.

Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8.

Lighting: Einstein studio strobes for the couple and an Inova Bolt flashlight for the lightpainting on the background.



Jim’s photo of the dancing couple – Click to enlarge

Dustin Here: Working on this photo composite really pushed my skill in Photoshop. I spent around 15 hours (I don’t know where I found the time!) of coming up with the idea and allowing it to evolve into what it is now. Coming up with the idea was difficult because I didn’t know what the direction was I wanted to head in with it. So I looked through my photo library and just pulled out a bunch of photos that I thought would work for a composite. As I started putting everything together is when I decided what new photos I would need to make the rest of the composite work.

I know that this composite might be too edgy for some, or completely degrade the moral premise of having a road going under the Golden Gate Bridge, but I ask you to consider and appreciate an artistic difference.

Dustin’s Process: It’s one thing to place images on top of one another – but it’s a whole other challenge to make them work together. There were several things I paid attention to when creating this composite:
1. Adding storm clouds
2. Adding rain to enhance the mood of the scene
3. Making the road look wet with puddles
4. Having the rain be visible in only the lit areas
5. Making sure there were people interacting
6. Contrast in lighting, colors, and mood.

I used basic Photoshop techniques (such as: adjustment layers, masking, selecting, filters, etc). These techniques are taught in the Photoshop 2 class if you’re interested in learning more.

I’m also interested in knowing what you think the story is in this composite.

Images Used

Dustin’s Metadata:
4 Base Images
Image Locations: San Francisco, CA – Rexburg, ID – Boise, ID
You can see the original images I used posted on my blog.

Leaving It Behind – by Dustin Olsen


Let the Voting Begin!

Please note that you do NOT have to share this to your Facebook page or Twitter feed in order to vote.  It just gives you that as an option after you’ve clicked your vote.


  1. Nancy Lones

    Great job, Jim! I believe the ORIGINAL photo of the dancers you posted is not the same as what was used in your final. The model’s left hand and head are in slightly different positions in the original…

  2. gail

    Nice job Dustin, looks like a lot of time/work, smooth.
    In Jim’s shot, to me the outlining/cutting out the dancers, is not very smooth/clean, is noticeable.
    Thanks guys, it’s fun to whatcha!

  3. Carol J. Garvin

    Both are great photos. I don’t have the expert’s eye, but in terms of composition I would vote for Jim’s. Normally I like the less symmetrical, but there seems to be a little too much going on in the bridge photo for me to focus on the action. Thus, the dancers get my vote. A startlingly clear image.

  4. Melody J.

    Both are fun to see, but Jim’s shadows don’t seem to connect to the feet. The dancers feel cut out of the background around the legs and shoes. I vote for Dustin’s.
    Very nice, guys.

  5. Author
    Dustin Olsen

    @carol – Even though you didn’t vote for my photo, at least you voted on how I pose! :)

    Thanks for the comment!

  6. Ali

    I can’t connect on FB…please add my vote for Dustin’s. Thanks! Ali

  7. Agnieszka TN

    I love Jim’s photo today (sorry Dustin 😉 )
    Great job guys! I love how you both challenge each other (and yourself)!

  8. Austin Swenson

    I would have to agree that Jim’s photo looks less busy, but the angle of the dancers (shot from higher off the ground where they are standing straight up) compared to the angle of the basement shot (where it looks like it was taken at a lower angle closer to the ground) put me off a little bit.

    I think that even though Dustin’s shot has a lot going on, it looks more legit, like I might believe that it was just a dramatic HDR shot of some black market Canon dealers exchanging money for a 5D Mark III meeting outside the golden gate bridge or something…

    Just kidding, it was probably for a D800.

  9. Jim Harmer

    @Austin Swenson – Thanks for your feedback. Actually, we shot the portrait shot upstairs in the studio locked on a tripod, and then brought that tripod downstairs at the EXACT same height, same zoom on the camera, same angle, etc.

    I think what you’re seeing is just the room itself. The roof is VERY low in the room, which kind of throws you off.

    But your feedback is very valid.

  10. Kevin Chan

    My vote goes to Dustin, but I like both shots. I do feel that in Jim’s shot, it is a bit unnatural to see shadow cast from a direction where no light source is visible (the female dancer’s high heels), and that the light that significantly brightens up the dancers from the front is not creating visible shadows behind the dancers on the floor.

  11. Jim Harmer

    @Kevin Chan – Good point. I’ve been thinking about using the picture of the dancers and putting it on a night street scene where there are lights coming from street lights, buildings, etc. I think it would be more convincing in that setting.

  12. Bob Lewis

    Love the shots guys – I voted for Jim’s because primarily on composition – but both shots are great :-) Love what y’all are doing with these duels!

  13. Pat Estelle

    One vote for Dustin here. Love the drama, the possible stories, everthing about it. Great job Dustin!

  14. JNE

    Honestly, I’m not a big fan of composite in general. So, I’m looking for something artsy because I think you can usually tell it’s multiple images, it should have some artistic meaning to stick them together. For me, that is better achieved in the bridge photo. The dancers photo is nice, but it looks too overlayed; the light and shadows do not work quite right between the two images for my eyes.

  15. Alex

    Both pictures are very interesting but I find Dustin’s much more interesting, there are so many stories that could be told from it.
    As to the techniques used to do the compositing Dustin wins by a landslide. Searched as I did I could find no evidence that this wasn’t the original photograph. In my opinion to put 4 photos together and make it look so natural is amazing, the detail of adding rain, puddles etc. just puts it over the top. It’s obvious a lot of time and attention to detail was put into Dustin’s composite. Whereas Jim’s editing appears rushed and sloppy.
    In Jim’s photo there is far too much evidence that this was not the original photograph. The hang of Dustin’s pants is very unnatural and appears chopped out of the original. The shoes on both are very choppy as well. Going up the model’s legs there is evidence of rushed editing, as well as the original color of her dress showing through along the hemline. I also found the white streak beside the dancers too distracting, it is in the original photo of the basement, but I would have removed it, it’s just too white against the other tones in the room. I found myself staring at it trying to figure out what it was. I also agree that the dancers picture Jim shows as the original is not the original he actually used. Others have mentioned the lighting and shadows are unnatural, I agree.
    My vote goes to Dustin this week, it is so obvious to me that he had to have spent hours and hours to create his masterpiece, whereas, Jim’s appears too rushed and sloppy for me. Sorry Jim!

  16. Paul

    Great composites! I’d be interested to here from you guys at the end of each week about which photo you choose without bias. What do you think?

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