How to Make a Composite Portrait

Editorial Portrait of Maxfield Bala

The more composite style images I do, the more purist about my photography I seem to become. I don't say this because I hate doing composites or anything, quite the contrary! I say that only because I do think that composite photographers tend to have an I'll just fix that in Photoshop mentality on the day of the shoot. With that in mind I wanted to write this article to show new photographers interested in compositing how I was able to put together the image you see above and why I chose to composite the final image.

Why Composite

Whenever I develop an idea for an image, I always think to myself what do I want the final image to look like? If I can achieve the look I want in camera, I will always choose that option 100% of the time over compositing the image together just because I can. Images tend to turn out cleaner and quite frankly it's just faster in the long run to set up an extra strobe or something rather than fixing the issue in post after the fact. For what I envisioned in my mind however, this image clearly needed to be composited to come out to anything close to what I was envisioning.

The Look I Wanted

For this image it was very important to me to have the final picture be sharp from front to back. This image is an environmental portrait I created for artist Maxfield Bala and this image needed to not only show him, but I wanted it to show off his work within the scene as well. This would allow the eye to wander around within the frame and see more of the kind of art Max creates and allow the viewer to learn more about him in the process.

It was also very important to me that everything in the frame have complete detail not only in focus from the foreground to the background of the image, but I also wanted complete detail in most of the dynamic range of the image as well. For those that don't know, dynamic range is the value between the brightest highlight and darkest shadow. 

Knowing that I wanted my portrait of Max to have complete focal depth and detail thoughout the entirety of the dynamic range, it was obvious that I was pushing the physical capabilities of my camera and that I would need to composite the image together to get the look I wanted. To get the sharpest image possible I chose to shoot the elements of the image at f11. Could I have shot the image at f22 and obtained a deeper depth of field? Yes I could have, but I also know that the sharpest point in my lens is somewhere between f7.1 and f11. At f22 we would have had more depth of field at the cost of ton's of refraction and overall not as crisp of a raw capture for the look I wanted. 

To get the dynamic range I wanted I knew I would simply need to capture different elements of the scene with separate exposures so I could blend them together later. 

How I did it

The final image is made up of 4 separate captures.

The Back Plate (background)

There are two captures that make up the background, and another exposure of the desk light. The main base image was the capture in the upper left. I chose this exposure because I wanted the image to have cool shadows. I exposed for this image using ambient window light coming into the room. The capture in the upper right was painted in to bring in the warm light from the desk lamp. Why not capture the desk light and window light together you ask? If I had tried to capture them together I would have severely blown out the desk light or not gotten enough window light to register, so I chose to split the exposures. The focus for both of these images was on the back wall where the paintings were.

The third capture is the desktop light itself. Notice how you loose detail in the light in the upper right hand image. I could have simply used this image and called it a day as is, but I thought it would be cool and add a little extra interest to the image if I bought back a little detail to the light itself. 

The Subject and How I Lit Him.

The final piece of the puzzle was Max himself and this is where things get interesting. I knew I couldn't photograph Max using the desk light as a key light and the window as a fill. Simply put these light sources didn't have enough power. The main base image was exposed for 3.2 seconds so there was no way I was going to get that cool fill light from that window using just ambient light. In addition to that Max's desk light didn't have the power to light him at say f11 especially since I wanted to shoot him at iso 100.

My solution to these problems was to replace the desk light with one of my Einstein strobes and put it in the same position as the desk light would be in. I also gelled the strobe with 1/2 CTO to warm up the light and get it closer to the desktop light temp. This would make the final image look as if Max was being lit by the desk light, even though in reality he really wasn't at all. Very cool! But there was still one issue. If we just lit Max using that one strobe, we would still not have any cool fill coming over his shoulder simulating the window light.

To get the cool fill light I wanted I added a second Einstein strobe and modified it with a large PCB softbox. To make the light cooler than our key light and closer match the color temperature of the cool window light, I added a 1/2 CTB gel to it.

The result of all that lighting leaves us with the image you see in the lower right corner and closely mimics the "ambient light" in what would become our back plate. Also note that Max's pose in relation to these lights is no accident. I wanted the key light to short light him with Rembrandt style lighting and the blue fill to rim him in a very cinematic lighting style. To pull this kind of look off it was very important to me to have the darkest shadows on the part of his face closest to the camera. Hollywood style lighting is very influential in my work, but I digress.

Putting Everything Together

With all of the elements I needed shot cleanly, the rest of the work was done in Photoshop. Since all of the images were captured from a tripod and we were very careful not to move things between shots, blending the images becomes a simple matter of layer masking in all of the elements. Once all of the exposures are blended together I was then able to go though and stylize the image, retouch the skin etc.

Speed Edit

Below is a quick one minute video of the basic steps I took to complete the post production. 

Speed edit of the Maxfield Bala composite portrait


Maxfield Bala

If you like the above image, I strongly encourage you to also check out Max's work on his homepage. The detail Max puts into his work and his imagination are nothing short of incredible.