10-Step GUIDE: Blend Images and Create Composites with Photoshop

Learn how to create composite images and explore photo manipulation in Photoshop by using these 10 steps that will get you on track creating great composites of your own! We will cover lighting, color, shadows, perspective, and much, much more in this Photoshop tutorial.

  1. Find images (with similar light.)
    1. Discuss hard and soft light.
    2. The direction of light considerations.
  2. Cut out the subject.
    1. Photoshop’s AI tools.
    2. Select and Mask.
    3. Manual masking with Pen tool or Brush tool.
    4. All are good techniques and will depend on the image.
  3. Find the direction of light.
    1. Look for the shadows. Hard or soft?
    2. Create a new layer and draw lines along the edges of the shadow and the object casting the shadow to try to hone in on the light source.
    3. When the scene is flooded with soft light, such as an overcast sky or late in the evening, envision a curve across the top of the frame that drops light in from all sides toward the subject. (note: this would wipe out much of the hard-edged shadowing and also reflect back the color of the ground onto the object being added to the image.)
    4. In addition to the curved sky cover, consider any artificial light sources that could be influencing the lighting pattern.
  4. Find the horizon and/or work the perspective.
    1. Depending on the image, finding the horizon can be simple or a bit of an educated guess. If the horizon is seen, create a new layer in both the background and new object images and draw a line over the horizon for alignment later.
    2. If the horizon is not clearly seen (maybe the image is a portrait of somebody in a studio, an object on a desk, etc…) Remember that the horizon line is the level of the eye. It’s the height of the camera or the human eye from your perspective. If you hold a flat ruler out in front of you, when you position it so it appears like a thin line in front of your eyes, that is the horizon line. The horizon separates what you are looking down on, from the things you are looking up toward.
    3. If you do not have a clearly defined horizon line, the steps are to look for shapes with parallel lines. Use these shapes to draw lines toward a vanishing point. Where the lines intersect is the vanishing point. Where the vanishing point appears, that is the point across which the horizon extends.
    4. When you have no parallel lines to use, try to guess the eye height/POV of the camera and use that as the horizon.
  5. Correct the lighting and contrast.
    1. Strip the color from the image to better focus on light and contrast.
    2. TIP: Generally, I find that it’s better to make the new piece of the image a little darker than you initially think is necessary. 
    3. Create a Curves adjustment layer just above the object we’re adding to this image and clip the adjustment layer to the new object. Use this layer to adjust the brightness until it starts looking better.
    4. Get rid of the black and white adjustment layer and move to the next step.
  6. Correct the saturation.
    1. Create a saturation mask with the Selection Color adjustment layer and look for saturation differences.
    2. Darker tones mean less saturation. Lighter tones mean more saturation. Depending on the color of the object you’re masking, this saturation mask will often show the disparity in saturation levels which will make your composites never look right if not corrected.
    3. Long story short, getting the saturation to match naturally makes a massive difference in the finished image.
    4. Create a Hue & Saturation adjustment layer just above the object we’re adding to this image and clip the adjustment layer to the Curves layer we just made to fix the brightness. Make adjustments to the colors that are either too saturated or not saturated enough.
    5. Get rid of the saturation mask Select Color adjustment layer.
  7. Correct the colors.
    1. Next, we look to bring the colors closer together. Color matching is a multi-step process and this is the first part of it.
    2. Create a Color Fill layer and set the fill color to 50% gray. Set that layer to the Luminosity blend mode.
    3. Create a Vibrance adjustment layer and drag it just below this gray layer that we just made. Boost the vibrance or saturation up very high to exaggerate the color differences.
    4. Create another Curves adjustment layer just above the object we’re adding to this image and clip the adjustment layer to the new object. Use the different color channels in the Curves adjustment panel to add or remove the colors needed and in the areas of the images that need adjustments.
    5. Get rid of the gray Color Fill layer and we’re ready to move on to the next step.
  8. Shadows and absorption color.
    1. Thinking back on the direction of light, we want to create shadows and even touch up the highlights to help blend the images together.
    2. Use several Curves adjustment layers set to the Multiply and Screen blend modes and fill the masks with black to hide the brightening and darkening effects.
    3. Grab the Brush tool and set the opacity of the tool to 10%. Use a large, soft-edged brush and paint in shadows and highlights where needed to slowly pull the images together.
    4. Additionally, create a new layer and create a large, soft shadow beneath the object placed. Reduce the opacity to blend this large, soft shadow.
    5. In the video version of this tutorial, you will see me cover copying the shape of the object to add to this shadow effect, adding tighter shadows around the immediate base of the new object, and also determining how soft or hard a shadow should be.
    6. Beyond the shadow work, It’s a good idea to create Color Fill layers of colors that would reflect up from the ground and down from the sky and gently paint some color onto the edges of the image. Think about the colors that will bounce back and be absorbed by the model we’ve added to our image.
  9. Edge lighting and more shadows.
    1. Moving on from absorbed color, there is also light and color that affect the edges of the model we add to the image.
    2. Use either a Hue & Saturation layer or a Color Fill layer set to the Overlay blend mode and carefully paint around the edges of the model and paint highlights on the edges where it is appropriate.
    3. This process of creating the edge lights will usually be multiple layers. It’s a labor of love, but it’s worth it to zoom in and take the time to clean up the edges with color and light.
  10. Light and color adjustments and grain.
    1. Finally, start adding final touches of color and light using adjustment layers, masks, and the brush tool set to 10% to gently and carefully paint in adjustments where we think it is needed to pull the image together.
    2. You can choose to make contrast and lighting adjustments to the entire image at this point. I like to use the Camera RAW editor to adjust the sharpness, grain, and color temperature.
    3. Zoom out, walk away, close the file and look at it tomorrow. Come back with fresh eyes and make the final tweaks and clean up the obvious things that you missed, but you’re not quite sure how.
    4. Enjoy the process and have fun!
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