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Composite Images: What Are They, and How Can You Make Your Own?

Lauren Olson, September 25, 2017

You’re flipping through your Instagram feed, killing time in line at the grocery store, and suddenly you’re doing double takes. Your attention is snagged by a series of incredible - or incredulous - pictures. They’re unbelievable.

...A baby deer standing knock-kneed in the middle of Times Square. 

...Your best friend having dinner with three clones of herself.

...Or a human face melting into a building, and it looks too real.

All of these can be accurately called Composite Images. They’re some of the most compelling visuals you can incorporate into your website and social media accounts, and they’re…

Well, to put it bluntly, they’re fake.

Composite images are made up of two or more photographs, which are combined to create one image. Even if the term is new to you, you’ve absolutely seen composite images every day - in ads, on websites, in the news, even on your friend’s Instagram.

In fact, you probably have already dabbled in CREATING composite images yourself. One of the first (and classic) things most people try when they get their mitts on some design software as a kid is swapping heads on a family portrait, right?

Perhaps not your best work.

Judging a “good” or well done composite image depends on a lot of criteria. In some cases, the best composite images will LOOK real, while others will look intentionally surreal. Consider the difference between adding additional Koi fish to make a pond look more lush and vibrant, vs making a woman’s chestnut hair transform into tree branches above her head.

Digital composite images are like a collage.

A composite combines two (or more) photographs to create one - rather convincing - final image. This is rendered significantly less complicated thanks to the advent of digital photography, digital editing, and an ever expanding set of features and tools available with modern software and apps.

This photographic sorcery didn’t start with the advent of Photoshop - in fact, quite the opposite. Before digital photography was even a twinkle in Steven Sasson’s eye, composite portraiture was already being practiced in the 1880’s when Sir Francis Galton invented a technique to take multiple exposures on the same photographic plate.

In 2017, rather than using multiple exposures on the same piece of film, photographers and designers generally take separate images and blend them seamlessly using layers, masks and blurs.

Why use composite images?

Composite images can be incredibly useful when you’re looking for a way to editorialize your visual content on everything from blog articles to products to art projects. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, composite images tend to be very compelling.

Often, the final composite image juxtaposes objects or living things in unlikely (or impossible) combinations. Sometimes, the scene depicted is plausible, but would be too difficult to capture in a candid moment. Other times, composite images are used to blend several still shots of landscapes and cityscapes to make use of the best lighting, combining them to make a stunning but technically impossible photo.

Composite images can also evoke and imply the passing of time in a clear, quantum physics kind of way that long exposure simply cannot achieve.

Classic Composite Images 

The “Clone Wars” Image

Copy or “clone” yourself to create a time-lapse style image, or to portray the different emotional states or “sides” of yourself. This style of composite image can be funny, dramatic, or subtle, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. 

Set up your camera in one spot. It will be important to take as many different poses within the scene as possible while the lighting is the same. Make sure not to move or disturb main elements in the scene (like the placement of a chair, a vehicle or other large elements).

The “We Were The Only Ones Here” Image

Using a timer on vacation to take shots means everyone can get in the picture - but that doesn’t mean you actually want EVERYONE in the picture. Remove pesky tourists, photobombers and pedestrians from your vacation photographs by creating a composite image. 

Again, set up your camera in a fixed spot. You’ll shoot several takes of say, the World’s Largest Ball of String. When it comes time to grab a shot with you or your loved ones, even if someone else happens to veer into your frame, you can simply remove them using the other shots you took to mask them out of the image.

The “What A Coincidence I Snapped This At The Perfect Time” Image

This will come in handy when you’ve shot several pictures (say, at your kid’s birthday party) but there are “perfect” elements spread across several frames, you can take steps to amalgamate and create that perfect picture.

If your Aunt Rose has her eyes closed in every frame EXCEPT the one where everyone else is poised perfectly for that candid shot you were aiming for, you can replace her with the better version for a perfect image. Just cut her (or her surroundings) out, paste, and blend.

The “Surreal, Magic Is Real” Image

Another type of composite image will inspire imagination.

Combining impossible elements to create dreamscapes, pigs that fly, or outfits that seem to be made of a fabric of a physical landscape are all examples of what you can achieve when you’re mixing different images. These composites will feel surreal, artistic, and maybe even magical.

Tips while you shoot

Related: How To Start A Photography Business

Tips while you edit

Composite images on the move.

The new composite image is the cinemagraph. In order to create this eye catching mix of static and moving visual elements, you’ll be using similar techniques as when you’re building a still composite image.

You start with some high quality footage, and allow certain parts of the video to remain “still”, while other aspects (like say, liquid pouring from a pitcher) will move. It’s a whole new approach to video storytelling, and with apps like Flixel, much easier to achieve than you’d expect!

Let’s talk ethics, because we gotta. 

Professionals and novices alike, I implore you: Never - ever - present a composite image as “real” or as a single exposure photograph.

Counterfeit images are a focal point for rampant disdain from photojournalists, photographers, editors, digital artists and the general public who see this modern brand of crying wolf as inexcusable, and relatively easy to expose.

In 2003, photographer Brian Walski submitted a composite image of a British soldier in Basra, Iraq. It was published on the cover of the Los Angeles Times. Yes, when the editors found out, he lost his job.

It’s all about trial and error.

Composite images can be a powerful way to change the narrative on your website, blog, or social media channels. It can impart a sense of humor, wonder or possibility - and that’s the same mindset you should have when you start making your own.Trial and error is the name of the game here, as you learn new methods to blend images and come up with new creative concepts, your technique and composition will improve along the way.

Feeling inspired?

Add composite images to your own website today.

Written by

Lauren Olson

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