Making composite images with digital photography

As a photographer, what I enjoy most is creating photographs in-camera. Yes, I still have to do some post-processing to the raw digital image captured by the camera sensor to get the final photograph. This isn't very different from the techniques of the analog days.

Digital photography, however, allows me more flexibility. I find it more forgiving than the development and dark-room techniques of analog photography. It also opens up a lot more creative possibilities for me.

I can place my subjects in different backgrounds and create images that couldn't have been photographed in real life. You can argue that similar images were created through multiple exposures and darkroom techniques in analog photography by Jerry Uelsmann and others. But then, not everyone is as skilled in the dark-room as Jerry Uelsmann—least of all me.

Last week, I photographed my friend Jason, an avid mountain biker, with his riding gear and bike in a studio against a white background. I then layered his photo on top of a photo that I took of the Ammonoosuc trail in the White Mountains of NH. It's not a trail that you can mountain bike on. So my goal was to create a believable image, but one that I can't actually photograph in real life (unless Jason and I physically haul the bike up the trail just to make this photograph).

View from Ammonoosuc Trail, White Mountains, NH

To create a believable composite image, I had to match the lighting, perspective, and focal length of the lens in each photo. I had photographed the White Mountains scene with a wide angle lens at about 24mm and at a low angle. So I photographed Jason in the studio with a 24mm lens from a low angle to match the perspective. To match the light of the late morning sun, I used a single Profoto Magnum reflector to provide intense but even light on Jason.

Other factors like white balance, noise, and depth of field also play a role, but to a lesser degree. They can generally be fixed during post processing.

In the studio, it wasn't possible to get a photograph of Jason with both his feet on his bike pedals. So I took two separate photographs: one with his right foot on the pedal while he balanced himself on a milk crate, and then one with his left foot on the pedal.

Jason on his bike in the studio with right foot on pedal

Jason on his bike in the studio with left foot on pedal

I combined the two images in Photoshop to create a single composite image with both of Jason's feet on the pedals. Next came the final stage where I digitally selected and placed Jason and his bike on the background image and masked and blended the two images to look like one.

Composite image of Jason biking the White Mountains, NH

Making this image was a lot of fun and I hope the result looks realistic to you.