Urban Surfing: Composite Image PSD Tips & Tricks
Taking a page from the playbook of world-class photographer Dave Hill, my good friend Justin Bettman and I got together to collaborate on new surreal composite image. Essentially we shot a series of individual elements to combine or “composite” together in Photoshop to create an otherwise impossible image. Here’s a few basic steps/tricks we used.
Step 1 – Scouting A Location: Scouting a new location can be time consuming and difficult if you aren’t familiar with an area, but fortunately, thanks to Google Maps this process is easy to do from home or on the go with a wireless Internet connection. Once you’ve found the general location you want to shoot, zoom in and place the street view icon (little man) on the map and move him around until you find a spot that looks suitable. For this particular shoot, we wanted an off-road feel and found a great spot just north of Sunset Blvd.
Step 2 – Framing the Shot: The next step is to pick a background that defines the overall mood and frames the canvas in which to build the composite. For this project, we wanted to take something traditional (surfing) and put a non-traditional twist on it (urban surfing) by having the subject quite literally surfing on earth as opposed to water. We took a couple test shots to get the angle right and ended up shooting at a low angle to build tension/create a visual flow as if the ground were swelling behind the subject; similar to an ocean wave.
Step 3 – Creating a Realistic Canyon: Ideally we wanted to shoot in a narrow canyon with earth walls on either side to envelop the subject. However, at this particular location, we only had one canyon wall to shoot. The obvious solution would have been to simply mirror image the original shot and flip it to the other side to create the second wall in post-production. The problem with this however, is that the shot looks extremely fake if the content on one side exactly matches the other. Fortunately, there’s an easy remedy using a simple photo trick. Simply shot the background at your original point, walk about 50 yards down and re-shot the same background to vary up the visual content and make it appear as if it was a completely different wall. Then, mirror image the new shot, overlay it on top of the original, and erase away the edge with a soft brush to blend the two together.
Step 4 – Capturing Composite Assets: For the actual composite, we built-up the background up with a wave of flying rocks and debris. In order to do so, we shot each element individually, maintaining the same key light while strategically selecting backdrops and making them easy to cut out as smart objects using the following techniques:
Improvised green-screen: For objects such as the flying rocks, in order to maintain the sharp, crisps edges, you’ll save yourself a lot of time editing in post if the background sharply contrasts the objects edges. If you don’t have a green-screen to shoot against, the natural blue sky is an incredibly effective alternative. To use the sky as a makeshift background, have a friend hold up the object you wish to shoot, set your focus, and have them toss the object into frame. This is also an effective technique with clusters of objects to save time editing interaction shadows in post.
Similar Backgrounds: Green-screening is effective for objects with clearly defined edges, however, when shooting objects such as water splashes, dust, fine debris, etc, it’s best to shoot against a similar background to make it look natural when adding back in to the composite. To create a natural spray, we tossed handfuls of dirt into frame using the road as a backdrop. While the color of the dirt didn’t quite match the road, it was an easy fix in post-production using color correction.
Overlay Elements: To further build the composite, we shot a number of extreme elements and cracks. There was one particular bit of road we found that would have been perfect had it not been for the harsh un-uniform shadows on the asphault. To remedy this, we set the blend mode to Multiply in post and utilized just the dark spots of the cracks.
Step 5 – The Subject: While it’s easiest to shoot the subject on-site, it may not always be possible due to transportation, timing, or equipment constraints. Through compositing, the subject can be shot almost anywhere and still be believable by keeping in mind a few key elements:
Lighting: Make sure the key light hits the subject in the same area as the original shot and composite elements.
Angle: Shoot the subject at the same camera angle as the background.
Background: To eliminate the need for re-creating ground shadows, shoot the subject on a similar surface to the original.
Step 6 – Compositing The Finished Shot: From here it’s all up to your creative mindset. Utilizing color correction adjustments, warp/liquify tools, and various other techniques, we were able to compose the following finished product. Composite progression below: