June 22, 2012

A Complete Photoshop Composite Tutorial from start to finish in CS5

Jacinta Rockich Female Assasin

This post is an in-depth look at how I created  this awesome photoshop composite of Jacinta Rockich above. I’m going to walk you through the entire image from taking the photo to the finishing touches. Now I couldn’t elaborate on all parts of the post or we’d be here forever, and a basic understanding and a bit of experience using photoshop in general is expected for some parts.

I know I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog the last couple months or so, in fact on all forms of social media too. So I thought I’d better hit back with something special and here it is, a nice piece of work and a complete tutorial to go with it. I hope you like it and I hope it’s helpful for you.

Lets get started! Read on for a lengthy look behind the image…

Without a doubt Jacinta would have been keen to climb up on a rooftop at night and shoot this picture for real, but it wasn’t really possible. It’s extremely difficult to find many rooftops in my city let alone ones that are visually appealing. So the photo of Jacinta was taken inside a Mixed Martial Arts training gym (Thanks Evolution MMA)  in front of a grey background.

The photo was taken on my Canon 5DMKII with a 70-200 2.8 IS L lens and the Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS was out in force in the lighting department. It’s pretty much my go-to piece of lighting gear.  I setup a 53″ (135cm) Elinchrom Rotalux Octabox and placed it on my main light (the A channel from the Ranger pack) and then setup the 100cm Elicnrom Rotalux Deep Octa and placed that on the head plugged into the B channel of the Ranger pack. Just one more light was used, which was a Canon 580EX II Speedlight setup with a shoot-through white umbrella. I would have preferred a strip box with a grid but unfortunately didn’t have it handy.

Here’s the setup so you can see…


Jacintas Photoshop Composite Lighting Setup

RAW Image from CameraAll images I take go through Lightroom, even my iphone photos now. So once my image was imported into Lightroom and backed up and all that nonsense, I chose my winning image and then applied a few small basic adjustments to things like the exposure, shadows and highlights just to make sure the image was prepped and ready. In this case I just bumped up the detail in the shadows a fraction, and gave a little bit more exposure to the shot.

NOTE: Usually for all images I will calibrate the image using the Colorchecker Passport to make sure my colours are accurate but in this case, I know the image is going to be used creatively in a composite, and I’m going to playing around with the colours so I won’t be needing them to be perfectly accurate at the start. This image with the correct white balance shot in camera is sufficient. Since my whole image was lit using flash, I would have likely been on a flash white balance setting.

As you can see in this image Jacinta is in front of a grey background but not entirely covered by the background due to the low camera angle I chose.

Thanks to the new tools in Photoshop these days extracting someone from a background is a much simpler task than it used to be. The grey backdrop was only placed there to simplify this process, so a little bit missing at the top is not a big worry.

Now that we have our image, it’s time to open it in Photoshop. I can do that direct from Lightroom by right clicking the image -> Edit In -> Edit in Adobe Photoshop CS5 (see screenshot below). By doing it this way, when you save your Photoshop file, Lightroom will automatically import it for you into your catalog. Very handy! Now if you’re a smart object nut like I am, you may want to pay attention to the second option I have highlighted below. You can open your image as a smart object in Photoshop, and the best part is it retains any changes Lightroom has applied! So if you bump the exposure up 2 stops in Lightroom, then open Adobe Camera Raw within Photoshop, it will have the 2 stop increase there! Excellent! (If you don’t know what Smart objects are, google them now!). I won’t go into any more detail on smart objects in this post.

Open image in photoshop from Lightroom


Just before we extract the model from the original backdrop, I’m going to apply a few finishing touches. I’m going to clean up her skin properly, perform a very subtle nip and tuck, a bit of dodge and burning and bring out her eyes the smallest amount. Retouching a person to me is all about the subtle changes. I like my subjects to look more on the realistic side. I won’t be going into this in detail because this is another tutorial in itself and it also involves a few tricks I don’t want to give away just yet! 😛  This could just as easily be done after she is extracted too, I just choose to do it first.

Obviously now we need to get rid of this horrid crinkled grey background from our picture so we can place our beautiful international model sensation Jacinta onto a much more interesting background.
Now lucky for me, I’ve already created two individual extraction video tutorials. One is directed at Pre-CS5 users and one for the lucky CS5 and CS6 users.

Photoshop Friday: Creating Selections to Extract a Model Prior to CS5

Photoshop Friday: Creating Selections to Extract a Model in CS5

So if you are unsure how to successfully extract a subject from its background then have a look at these tutorials above.

If you are a CS5 user and you are using the Refine Radius tool (in Refine Mask dialog – see video tutorial above) to extract those fine hairs but but you are  getting a lot of grey area left around the outside as shown in the image below, then check out this tip.

Refine Radius tool leaving grey areas

If you are getting this “grey matter” problem, then click OK in the Refine Mask dialog, and return to your Layers window. On the layer you’re working on, Hold ALT and click the Mask (not the layer). Now your image should appear as a black and white mask and you will see those “grey matter” areas.

Now here’s the trick, hit CMD – L (CTRL – L on PC) to open the Levels dialog. By manipulating the sliders to increase the contrast you can make the grey areas disappear and fine tune your mask even more! See the before and after image below and look at the values!

Fine tune a mask using levels



As much as I’d love to take credit for it, I did not shoot this awesome dramatic background image. Like a lot of other designers and photoshop users out there I’ve learned to source goodies from micro stock websites. It saves a whole lot of time and gives you access to images you would never have the opportunity to shoot.

This ones comes courtesy of the Shutterstock.com website. I’ve actually been saving it for a while. You can check out the original yourself on the shutterstock website here: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-71496892/stock-photo-dark-clouds-over-urban-background.html?src=lb-9134725

The most important thing you need to consider when sourcing an image from somewhere else, is how your subject is going to fit into this new scene. Factors such as the focal length(perspective), camera angle, and camera height from the ground are all very important things to ensure both your images are a made match. If these factors differ too greatly between the images, then I promise you the image will look awkward and it will ruin the visual appeal of the composite.

NOTE: When we talk about focal lengths, its not the actual focal length that changes the perspective. It’s the camera to subject distance and that’s an important distinction. The two are often used interchangeably because with a longer lens(longer focal length) you tend to move away from your subject, and with a wider lens (shorter focal length) you tend to move closer to your subject, but it’s not the focal length making the difference, its you moving!


For this background I didn’t retouch it very much as it looked pretty good as it is. What I did do, was enhance the details in the clouds by using a Hi Pass filter ( Filter -> Other -> Hi Pass… ) with a low radius setting so only the edges were affected. Then I adjusted the opacity of the layer to get the desired affect. I always prefer subtlety.


So now we have our background image we want to use, and we have our subject extracted, so it’s time to merge the two together! With both images open in Photoshop, I literally just dragged my extracted subject to the tab of my background image document (hover over the tab for a few seconds and it will become the active document).

Now the first thing I usually do is blend the colour of my subject with the colour of my background. My model needs to look like she blends in and fits her surroundings to sell the fake as much as we can.  To me this is one of the most important parts of a successful composition, and from what I’ve seen it’s probably the most overlooked step in photoshop compositions. So often I see a subject pasted onto a background without any colour treatment and it is so clearly obvious the model/subject was photographed in a different environment and it really devalues the image.

Blend Colours in Photoshop from two layersSo here’s how I do it. First lets assume you have two layers in your photoshop document. One layer representing your background, and one layer above it with your subject/model.

Select your top “subject” layer, in my case the layer with Jacinta. Then go to Image -> Adjustments -> Match Colour.  Once the dialog pops up as shown to the left, you can select the source document as the document you’re currently working with, and then select the actual source layer which is going to be your background layer! In my case its just called “Background” as highlighted in the screenshot above.

Then you can play with the Luminance, Color Intensity and Fade sliders (highlighted above) in the Image Options section to adjust how much it affects your image. Have a play with it to see what looks best then click OK. That’s pretty much it.  It’s so simple, but very very effective and I don’t think I have ever done a composite without using it.

[TRICK] The trick I use to allow quick adjustments of this change, is I often create a duplicate layer of my subject/model and I blend the colours a bit more than I’d expect to use. Then I use the opacity control of that Layer as a real quick and easy way to control how much blend in the colours I want.


photoshop tutorialThis is another little trick I learned quite some time ago which works really well to help blend the background and subject layers. I can’t really explain why but it just does and I haven’t found a better name for it yet. To the left is a before and after version of this effect.

On a New blank Layer, between my background and my subject layers, I use a very soft, large brush in white and I paint a circular area behind the subject. How big and what shape all depends on the image and the type of subject and once you have a play with this you will work it out for yourself.

I then lower the opacity of this layer so it becomes a lot more translucent.  I find when I add more contrast to my images later on, it weakens this layer so I tend to have a slightly higher opacity. In this case I was at 65% opacity.

White doesn’t always work, much like in this photo. I really needed more of a blue tone to it so it fitted the scene. So I simply right clicked on the layer and clicked Blending Options… In the dialog that pops up, on the left hand side I selected the Color Overlay feature, chose an appropriate colour, and all done!

Not pictured above, I actually added in a second horizontal brush stroke across the horizon of the background. This was to make the horizon pop just a little bit more. It’s also a good tip if you want to cover up the horizon when adding in a different sky from another image!


The bleach bypass is a very popular effect in Photoshop and lightroom circles these days, probably one that gets abused a lot too but it’s nothing new in photography. The effect comes from a particular way of processing colour film back in the day, and a simple explanation is that it works to desaturate and increase contrast in an image. I love it, and I especially love NIK Softwares version of it in Color Efex Pro. That’s what I used for this next step.  The plugin allows you to control the saturation, the brightness, the global contrast and the local contrast. It can get you some amazing results and its so easy to use.

Don’t panic if you can’t afford the plugin, there are plenty of solutions out there on the web to get very similar effects, just search through google.



This is my favourite part, and a really good trick I’ve used for years. I have my friend Calvin Hollywood from Germany to thank for this one. Calvin has made this Freaky Amazing Details effect world famous and I had the pleasure of spending a week with Calvin in Las Vegas a couple years ago where I learned this (and much more) from the master.  This technique is a sharpening technique designed to really bring out the details in an image and help it pop without getting horrible halos and other weird artefacts like the Hi Pass filter creates. I won’t go into this technique here but you can watch it on this old episode of Photoshop User TV 255.

You can check out Calvin Hollywoods german website regularly updated or check out his english version. Both with amazing work!


The guns still looked a little bit plastic, so I brought in the Dodge & Burn tools to help add a little more contrast and more of a metallic look to the gun. I was basically making the darker bits darker, and the lighter bits brighter. There’s a plethora of tutorials and information on the dodge and burn tools out there for you to find.

I like to use a different technique a lot of the time. I will create a new layer filled with 50% grey and set the blending mode to Overlay.  To create this layer, from the Layer menu, select New Layer… then set the options as shown below.

Dodge and Burn technique

Then instead of using the dodge and burn tools, I simply use the brush (b) tool on a low opacity(5-10%) and paint with a white or black colour selected. Painting with white will dodge (brighten) the image and painting with black will burn (darken) the image.



Vignette in lightroom

Vignette tool in Lightroom

Once I finished my work in Photoshop and I saved my image, I returned to Lightroom. If you remember, I actually opened this image from within Lightroom, so when I return the saved Photoshop file will actually be in my lightroom catalog. So now without any additional effort I can add some finishing touches if need be and then export the image.

When I returned from Photoshop with this image, I wanted to add a subtle vignette because Lightroom has a great feature to do this quickly and easily in the Develop module (shown left). A little bit of extra contrast, a little bit of noise reduction and possibly a small amount of sharpening and that’s about it. If I’m going to do anything more than that I usually perform the changes in Photoshop itself.



Well that’s about it from me. This is probably the largest post I’ve written and certainly the most revealing tutorial I have ever written. I hope this helps you in someway and please please please drop me a comment with some feedback or questions!

Here’s the final image once more! Click for a larger version!

Jacinta Rockich Female Assasin







  • undella June 22, 2012

    thanks you man.. nice one duplicating the layer and blending the colors.

  • Svein June 25, 2012

    Great tutorial!
    Using the Levels adjustment to adjust the mask, gooood one 🙂

    Keep posting things like this.

  • Analia July 19, 2012

    Fab tutorial! Thanks for sharing, great to see an Aussie doing this so well 🙂 I am about to start playing with composites having watched both Joel Grimes and Calvin Hollywood’s videos on composites and wasn’t sure whether to go for a cotton muslin grey background or paper. What would you recommend? Is there a great deal of difference? Will the muslin be problematic later with post? Thanks again, cheers

    • Brodie July 19, 2012

      Thanks Analia.

      You’re choice of background isn’t going to affect your results. If you’re trying to do composites it isn’t really going to matter at all, as long as you have a nice plain background. It comes down to what you can afford. I’m a fan of muslin but it is expensive. Paper just annoys me.
      Joel & Calvin are two of my biggest influences as well so I look forward to what you produce!


      • Analia July 19, 2012

        Gee that was fast! Thanks so much for the tip Brodie, much appreciated. Have been going over your website, love it! All the behind the scenes shots and videos are so helpful and insightful. Look forward to more of your blogs and once I manage to pull together a composite that I’m not ashamed of lol 😉 I would definitely appreciate your advice. Cheers!

  • Thanks Brodie for another great tutorial, great work. I checked out Calvin Hollywood`s site and bought his course. Unfortunately, the tutorials are older so some actions do not apply with the latest PS CS6. Can you recommend any courses for professional glamor retouching and composites for CS6?
    Again, great work Brodie.